My happiest years were spent in Madison, Wis., the Paris--uh, make that the Munich--of the Midwest.
The student union on the University of Wisconsin campus is renowned for its giant rathskeller; "the Rat," as students call it. The Rat is a cavernous Bavarian-style beer hall where German proverbs stare down at you from arching brown plaster walls while you sit at oak tables that haven't been refinished since the school sent a team to the Rose Bowl.
Every day, like their elders before them, large numbers of young people pass the time at those tables, halfheartedly attempting to study. Tradition. I cut many a class there myself.
No wonder I felt a twinge of sentiment when I visited Fullerton Hofbrau for the first time. Like my beloved rathskeller, Fullerton Hofbrau is a cavernous, wood-beamed room with collegiate servers (from nearby Cal State Fullerton) and walls full of German proverbs such as Hopfen und Malz, Gott erhalt's (hops and malt, praise the Lord). What's more, the room is alive with a young crowd, a crowd on hand to quaff drafts of ice-cold beer and down hearty portions of bratwurst and German potato salad. If only I were 21 again.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 30, 1990 Orange County Edition OC Live! Page 26 OC Live Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Hofbrau brew--The Fullerton Hofbrau (reviewed in the Aug. 16th edition of OC Live!) is not currently brewing its own beer. The restaurant's beer is being brewed privately for them by Alpine Village of Torrance. Fullerton Hofbrau expects to be brewing its own beer by the end of this year.
Despite the Rombergian appeal, Fullerton Hofbrau is really more of a grown-up restaurant than the one I'm all misty over. For one thing, it brews its own beer, in five vast copper vats that come upon you suddenly as you enter. (The restaurant is in limited partnership with a place called Hofbrauhaus in Traunstein, Germany, meaning that the beers you drink here are brewed in accordance with traditional Bavarian recipes.)
And for another, the foods cooked up by young American chef Dan Thomas are a far cry from the wieners and potato chips on which we subsisted in student days. This is food for sophisticates . . . beer-drinking ones, that is.
First, about those beers. There are four to sample here: King's Lager, Prince's Pilsener, Duke's Bock and Knight's Light. The lager is too thin for any monarch, but I liked its mild, malty aftertaste. The pilsener is indeed princely, a slightly bitter brew with a wicked bite that doesn't taste a thing like American beer. The bock is ducal, too, I suppose; dark, potent and sweet. The light was unavailable during my visits.
As you might expect, this menu is loaded with appetizers designed to complement the frothy house brews. Wild game "speedies"--marinated game on wooden skewers--are a lot like the snacks you find in small Bavarian bierstuben. If you're lucky, a lean venison version will be available, charbroiled and nearly fork-tender. Other days you'll have to settle for lamb. It's a good cut, but it lacks the gamy taste of the venison.
The specialty sausage sampler should really make you thirsty. It's a plateful of bratwurst, beer-spiced sausage and Cajun-style sausage, cut up into bite-sized rounds and served with a sweet Bavarian-style mustard sauce. The beer-spiced is the best of them, a crumbly textured sausage with an intense flavor. The bratwurst, a soft, white veal sausage with a hint of nutmeg, isn't bad, either. Forget the tough, oily Cajun sausage, though (hey, how'd that get in here, anyway?).
One appetizer that goes well with the pilsener is beer-steamed clams: a full pound of clams, simmered in lager beer and swimming in onion, garlic and butter. Another is fried tomatoes. Fried tomatoes? Yes, beer-battered tomato slices topped with mozzarella. They fall apart when you put a fork to them and they taste great. One to miss, however, is "curly Q fries." These lightly battered potato squiggles taste like onion rings and are so greasy you can't pick them up.
The large dinner menu is basically German with some continental specialties thrown in for good measure. Rouladen is about the best dish Thomas makes, and bearing in mind that he is new at German cuisine, I'd call it a remarkable effort. He stuffs round steak with sweet onions, bacon and a flour-based roux , then rolls it up and smothers it with a delicious dark gravy. He serves it with homemade spaetzle : buttery little flour dumplings that soak up gravy like sponges. This is heavy fare, the antithesis of California cuisine.
I didn't much care for his Wienerschnitzel , though. This is supposed to be a delicate dish of veal pounded thin and sauteed crisp, but Thomas' version is rather heavy, a thick slab of veal in a crunchy coating. His smoked pork chops work like a charm, though, accompanied by a creditable sauerkraut. And they go well with almost any beer you choose.
If German dishes aren't your thing, you can sink your teeth into pastas, burgers, stuffed crab, sauteed duckling, even items from the salad bar.
This salad bar is generous, like the chef's portions, and good things like German potato salad, a rich chicken salad, fresh fruit and the fresh salad trimmings make it a cut above the usual.
Desserts are just what you would expect in this type of establishment: Black Forest cake, apple strudel, and one or two more other Teutonic masterpieces that change daily. If they don't suit you, there is an excellent German bakery, Demes Gourmet, just next door.
Fullerton, the Munich of Orange County. Has a nice ring, doesn't it?
Fullerton Hofbrau is inexpensive to moderately priced. Beers are $1.75 to $4, pitchers are $6.25 to $9. Appetizers are $1.50 to $7.95. German specialties are $7.95 to $8.95. Entrees are $5.95 to $12.95.
323 State College Boulevard, Fullerton.
Open Mondays through Saturdays 11 a.m. to midnight, lunch served until 4 p.m., dinner served until 10 p.m.
All major cards accepted.