It might have taken awhile for the critic to get to Brauhaus Schmitz. Now the only question is how we’re going to get him to leave. Trey Popp revisits Brauhaus Schmitz.
The first time I went to Brauhaus Schmitz was for lunch with my wife. We had curry fries and nothing else memorable while sitting in church pews at a table that seemed broad enough for a ping-pong match.
The second time, seeking 30 centiliters of smoked beer and rollmops on rye, I found an unexpected opportunity to chat with a freelance theologian (now there’s a business card I wish I’d requested) about the Gospel of Thomas. It is a fascinating document. “If a blind person leads a blind person,” Jesus says in it, “both of them will fall into a hole.” The Gnostic scripture contains 113 other “secret” sayings, introduced with the promise that “Whoever discovers the meanings of these sayings will not taste death.”
There is no indication that its author intended that challenge as a drinking game, but one could profitably be made out of it. “Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human,” Jesus says elsewhere in it. “And foul is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human.”
Later Jesus asks his disciples to describe him. “Teacher,” Thomas replies after Peter and Matthew take a shot at it, “my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like.”
Time to pound the rest of your dopplebock.
Such craps-roll encounters are the whole point of bellying up to any bar, and the rollmops were pretty good, too—if perhaps under-pickled and over-sour-creamed, so the Brauhaus was batting one-for-two at this point. That, of course, spelled a clear need for a tie-breaker, over a fizzy zwickelbier. (The keg of this unpasteurized beauty will no doubt have run dry by now, but pony up for a pint of the next one and you won’t be sorry. Once warm weather hits, I’d follow a blind man through a hole field if he promised a regular ration.)
So it was that the third time I went to Brauhaus Schmitz, something beyond beer and conversation finally grabbed me by the proverbial lapels. Specifically, a pork knuckle.
With its protruding bones and its amber sheath of pig skin—as brittle as pine bark and nearly as thick—the shank looked like an artist’s conception of something brandished by a Hun. Flesh the color of dusk-hour shadows peeled away in tender strands to reveal bone-abutting bands of still darker meat. Both were shot through with mustard-tinged moistness, the succulent opposite of those lacquered cracklings—whose undertooth crunch rivaled the sound effects in a Doritos commercial. Against long odds, it was as compelling to the tongue as it was to the eye.
The only bad thing about it? It was sitting on a companion’s plate.
So I piled smoked, beet-jus-stained mackerel—impeccably fresh—on a share plate in a bid for barter. Two bites of this salty schweinshaxen landed beside it: one for me, and one for our party’s third. I snaked them both. It wasn’t enough. How about a bit of that darker meat? My fork wandered. That thing is just huge, so… It sallied forth again.
At some point I stopped asking. Better to cover my tracks on the back end. Dude, you demolished that schweinshaxen! I’m impressed!
Blessed are my friends and dinner companions. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas: “Congratulations to those who go hungry, so the stomach of the one in want may be filled.” And that’s me, of course. The one perpetually in want.
There are other impressive things about Brauhaus Schmitz, beyond the decibel level on a Saturday night—when those acre-wide tables begin to look piddly beneath one-liter beer steins and giant glass boots.
Its German beer program is peerless. From dunkel to weizen-eisbock, and kolsch to Leipziger gose, Brauhaus showcases a terrific variety of styles. Not all of them adhere to the Reinheitsgebot—the German Beer Purity law of 1516, which prohibited the production of beer from anything besides water, hops, and barley. (Yeast, though of course crucial, was unknown in those days.) But in keeping with the gigantic, illuminated copy that hangs like a shibboleth on one wall, many of the 20 tap offerings do abide by it. Given that contemporary craft brewing on both sides of the Atlantic has increasingly become dominated by proud Reinheitsgebot apostates (don’t even get Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione started), Brauhaus’s tap lineup is a welcome breather from chili pepper ales and oatmeal stout flavored with civet droppings. The fact is that there’s a lot of diversity to be explored within traditional styles. And if you want to depart from them—and Germany in general—the Brauhaus’s 70-some bottle menu is both eclectic and international.
But you can’t duck Germany for long here. The Brauhaus prices homemade bratwurst by the meter, screens handball matches on the one TV not usually devoted to soccer, and outfits its waitresses in dirndls. At first those costumes made me squirm. Nothing triggers my fear of impromptu public singing like being surrounded by a passel of von Trapps. But as our barmaid led us through the stations of supper—shepherding us from molten sauerkraut fritters straight through to a digestive tipple of caraway schnapps—her knowledge and enthusiasm invested the theme-restaurant trappings with a deeper personality.
Nothing else from the menu beat that slow-roasted ham hock. And everything, perhaps befitting a beer hall, was pretty salty. But dinner somehow added up to more than the sum of its parts. Those sauerkraut fritters were a dynamite bar snack, with just the right tang to cut through the deep-fryer treatment. A cast-iron skillet bearing a bone-in- pork chop atop a mountain of kale was the sort of thing you can get anywhere (including home) but it was moist and cooked just right. This is no place to dicker around with a salad. Lettuce and roasted squash dressed with a juniper vinaigrette sounded great on paper, but it was all second fiddle to blue cheese on the plate. But now that I think of it, the cucumber and red onion side salad was surprisingly tasty. And who can argue with competently made potato latkes? Or sinfully made pierogis? Or the sweet and spicy mustards that kept that marjoram-scented bratwurst interesting past the first salty quarter-meter? Least of all would I argue with another chance to end a heavy, meaty meal here with another one of the Bruahaus’s admirable library of brandies and schnapps.
I’m not sure why it took me so long to make it to Brauhaus Schmitz, which has now gathered enough momentum to attempt both an expansion into the property next door and a foray into the Reading Terminal Market with a sausage stand. But I found plenty of reasons to come back. One of which, not incidentally, concerns those dirndls.
When asked whether they rubbed her the wrong way, our bartending waitress and law-student-to-be allowed that the get-up is “pretty cheesy.” But she was quick to say that it’s also comfortable. “The restaurant gives everybody one of them, but I went ahead and bought two for myself,” she confessed. “They’re really not so bad.”
Brauhaus Schmitz [Official Site]
Photo by Ryan Lavine