Where wurst is best.
There was no mistaking it; caraway buried in Brauhaus Schmitz’s bratwurst like little savory anise landmines. Ginger, mace and clove also pervaded the pork sausage, but the caraway dominated, sure and confident as hell. The spice is traditional, and tradition is the unbendable backbone of this Prussian-blue beer hall.
Brauhaus is the brainchild of German-born, Upper Darby-bred Doug Hager and Jersey girl Kelly Schmitz, who met in 2002 while Hager was waiting tables at Ludwig’s. After marrying and moving to Cologne for two years, the couple returned to Philly and transformed a dilapidated furniture store—the mezzanine sold them on the offbeat property and South Street location—into a grand Teutonic taproom replete with salvaged church pew booths, soaring ceilings and cedar arches.
From waitresses’ dirndl costumes to the continent-sized schnitzels, Brauhaus Schmitz is an authentic recreation, but for executive chef Jeremy Nolen, late of Coquette, being beholden to tradition is both a blessing and curse.
The ridiculous portions exemplify the latter. You know the brontosaurus rack they prop on Fred’s driver-side window in the Flintstone’s intro? That was the schweinshaxe, a mustard-rubbed rotisserie Berkshire pork shank. Crispy schnitzel extended over my plate like an awning, shading errant crumbs on the handsome tables Hager built with his brother and designer Brian Leahy. “It’s German,” seems to be the default explanation for the monstrous portions. So is Heidi Klum, and she’s looking pretty trim.
I’m sure certain customers appreciate the largesse. My grandparents, for instance, would pop their stents for portions this big. But the value is an illusion, because even with two sides, $20 is a lot to spend for what is essentially pounded pork and breadcrumbs. Give me half the portion, at half the price.
I probably only ate $8 worth of the jägerschnitzel, the “hunter’s-style” cutlet smothered in wild mushroom and onion sauce. This was partly because of size, partly because of the nasty gravy. Loose, lumpy and tobacco-brown, it tasted burned and looked better suited to a restaurant called Brauhaus Shits. But my server was so nervously nice, I doggy-bagged the remainder out of politeness. Fortunately, a bum who looked like Rickety Cricket took it off my hands. Thanks, South Street.
Blandness is another German cuisine stereotype Brauhaus Schmitz enforced on occasion. The pork shank, schnitzel and dense potato dumpling all so severely lacked salt, I found it hard to reconcile them with Nolen’s other, wonderfully flavored items like the extraordinary bratwurst and sweet-and-sour cabbage that got its dynamic twang (and vivid magenta hue) from red wine vinegar and red currant preserves. A slice of brat, cabbage draped about it like garish pink garland, a smack of the hot German mustard from the quaint ceramic pots on each table … I don’t know a more perfect bite. Nolen knows his way around these classics, having cooked at Reading’s utmost private German clubs.
With the exception of the bratwurst, Nolen imports all the sausages from Reiker’s Meats, a German butcher in Fox Chase. I would encourage him to make more in-house if Reiker’s weren’t so good. Their delicate, ivory veal-and-pork weisswurst offered hints of mace, parsley and lemon zest, a bright equalizer for the springy, nutmeg-dusted spaetzle tossed in melted butter. I washed it down with Leipziger Gose, an exhilarating, unfiltered, hazy yellow chameleon with pilsner crispness, witbier effervescence and the lip-puckering finish of a great Belgian Geuze. “We are the first in Philadelphia to offer this beer on draught,” touts Brauhaus’ menu, and for that I am grateful.
Hager has assembled 19 other draughts—80 bottles too—on three systems, including one tower whose blue-and-white calico, Slovenian porcelain base had been collecting dust in Schmitz’s father’s attic for years. Despite Pennsylvania’s German heritage, many of the beers at Brauhaus are uncommon in these parts, so drink up.
To complement, there’s a menu of cheap bar snacks. The excellent salt-crusted Bavarian pretzel, baked by Nolen’s wife Jessica, was one such treat, exhaling yeasty steam as I pulled the warm twist apart. She also does desserts, including fine sachertorte. The dark chocolate puck laced with apricot jam is—gasp!—actually Austrian in origin. Maybe that German backbone isn’t so unbendable after all. ■
Hours: Sun.-Thurs., 11:30am-10:30pm; Fri.-Sat., 5pm-11pm. Late-night menu till midnight. Bar till 2am.
Atmosphere: Sky-blue walls and sky-high ceilings framing a bierhall furnished with warm wood, exposed brick and thirsty patrons.
Service: Friendly, if a bit unsteady.
Food: Transportingly delicious, or enormous and underseasoned.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014