There is little in this world that reminds me of Germany more acutely than the smell of cooked red cabbage. It is a singular sensory stimulus, rife with vinegary gemütlichkeit — and more often than not, I tear up with the olfactory introspection it inspires in both my memory and my abdomen. I get sentimental at the mere smell of it, and the only thing to do is reduce that bowl of shredded roughage to a shallow puddle of purple juice.
I don't have to go far in San Antonio to get my fix. Basically, I have two options: I can either wait for a periodic brouhaha at the King William biergarten of the Beethoven Männerchor, or head to Schilo's Delicatessen. While I much prefer the former for pure beer-swilling, chicken-dancing, oompa-oompa madness, the latter is perfect for a filling lunch at one of the finest German eateries in the Lone Star state (and with a quick glance at my name, you can assume I know a thing or two about the matter).
Since the Schilo family landed in San Antonio in 1914, the name has become an institution synonymous with cheap eats and tasty treats. And not for nothing. The deli — in decor, price, and fare — is a throwback to the golden days of pioneer sensibilities and pure Deutsche grit. The immigrant roots are evident in three flags (German, Polish, and American) hanging side-by-side on the high walls of the main parlour. Sturdy, worn, high-backed wooden booths with individual hat and coat racks harken back to the age of fedora'd gentility and down-in-the-mouth panhandlers, all unified by the sustenance of Mama Schilo's hearty split-pea soup (2¢ a cup during the Depression, 95¢ as a side now).
But the bargains don't stop there. A beef knockwurst plate (two girthy wieners trimmed out with sinus-clearing hot mustard, a side order — red cabbage is de rigeur, but the hot dill potato salad is a nice alternative — and two slices of warm rye bread) is just under five dollars. The mouth-watering Reuben (thick-sliced corn beef and tons of kraut on grilled rye) is just over six bucks, with soup. Teutonic cuisine wouldn't be the same without dark brews, and draughts of Spaten bockbier (a steal at $3.25) and homemade root beer (read: some of the best around and just a buck, including refill) are served up cold in frosty mugs by real German waitresses in frilled blouses and heavy black skirts. Throw in a hamhock ($4.95), and it's just like sitting under a beer tent at Oktoberfest — but without the crappy music and pukey drunks. (Not that they don't have their place in German history.)
Though the menu claims to serve it only for breakfast, I always seem to sneak in an order of kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes), served in true fashion with fresh, chunky applesauce. For early risers who don't care to join the power lunch rush (noontime at Schilo's is often overflowing with lawyers, politicians, and cubicle types), the Papa Fritz Breakfast ($5.65) is a good, hard kick in the pants. Two eggs, bratwurst, hashbrowns (or grits), biscuits (or muffins), and hot coffee ... tastier than a dawn shot of Schnapps, and besser for you, too. And then there's the dessert counter, a veritable backalley haunt for sweet-toothed junkies of sugar and flour. Homemade cheesecakes, cobblers, pies, streussels, and brownies are laid out like hookers on the Reperbahn, tempting tarts with dangerous propositions.
Shall I continue? I think not. But suffice it to say that nothing on the menu exceeds nine dollars (even the infamous sauerbraten — a labor-intensive sirloin often marinated for two days before being slow-roasted and topped with brown gravy). Though the Schilo family is long-gone from the restaurant, the place has kept its roots intact, and the aging German remnants of a once-vibrant community can be found migrating between the lunch counter at Schilo's and the beer counter at the Beethoven. The German contributions to Texan culture are hard to overstate, but like so many ethnic traditions, have largely gone the way of the Reinheitsgebot of 1512. That obscure regulatory document that governs German beer-brewing has not survived in this country — but as the peculiarly American appeal of such monstrosities as peach microbrew can attest, some Old World traditions are worth saving. Schilo's is one that should outlive us all.•