My own German grandmother made split-pea soup a lot; it was one of those hearty dishes that could stretch a penny to feed a family. She always put summer savory in hers, but not to worry, I’m flexible. Mama Schilo’s recipe, thick and earthy-green, accordingly provided a bit of comfort when I first arrived in San Antonio. Occasionally I’d add in the franks or knockwurst, but equally often they seemed beside the point. A bowl of the soup alone, served with dark rye bread and butter, costs $2.30 today and makes for the kind of humble and satisfying lunch it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of when sitting down to a plate of lush and luxurious crab cakes decorated with a roasted-red-pepper sauce. There, that’s my lecture for today.
424 E. Commerce
Price Range: $3.00-$8.95
Hot or cold plates with an included side (those deviled eggs are irresistible, but so is the hot German potato salad) include a world tour of wursts, ham hocks, and even beef tongue. And naturally, as befits an establishment with deli derivations, there are sandwiches, such as the classic Reuben (corned beef, sauerkraut, and swiss cheese on grilled rye), the Papa Fritz (ham, turkey, Swiss and American cheeses on rye with potato salad and a cup of soup — a deal at $5.95), and numerous more pristine possibilities such as a straight hard salami or timeless egg salad. (The one overt menu change from founding times is apparent here, by the way; it’s a vegetarian croissant sandwich that even includes sprouts. Papa Fritz must be spinning.) Evening menu specialties, which I haven’t tried recently, include German-Austrian standards such as wienerschnitzel and Vienna paprika chicken, but if I were to pick one, it would be the sauerbraten with its sweet-sour gravy. In a perfect world, the beef shoulder or chuck this is made from would have been marinated for up to four days in a vinegar mixture with bay leaves, peppercorns and onions, and I can’t claim that Schilo’s takes it this far — but I’m willing to give the dish a chance regardless.
Sauerbraten was not a part of my grandmother’s repertoire, though her homemade sauerkraut, concocted in a crock on the back porch, is something I remember fondly to this day. But she was a pancake person. Stacks and stacks of lacy-edged cakes were our breakfast lot during visits to her quirky Victorian house with its intriguing back stairs and endlessly fascinating attic. Though she probably made them, I don’t remember potato pancakes, however; for that, Schilo’s is now the source. Three of them, the taste of shredded spud still faintly apparent, are served with syrup and a side of chunky-sweet applesauce liberally sprinkled with cinnamon, all of which makes more of a breakfast than I normally care to eat. But nostalgia drives me to it from time to time, just as nostalgia most likely makes me appreciate the time-capsule setting — the multi-colored mosaic-tile floor, the festering finish of the varnished paneling flanking booths under an array of national flags, the dark wood tables and chairs under a squadron of ceiling fans … And, if you’re susceptible to such things, the pendulum clock on the wall marks the passing of time more forcefully than any digital device ever could. Consider it the essence if this institution and appreciate both accordingly.