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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Accent on the Heavy : Hoppe's Old Heidelberg in Van Nuys serves up classic, meaty dishes with decidedly Teutonic twists.

October 21, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson review restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

VAN NUYS — Hoppe's Old Heidelberg is a venerable local institution. The menu boasts that it serves the finest German cuisine in Los Angeles, and I'd say the claim is reasonable. The quality of the cooking partly explains how Hoppe's has lasted 36 years in a market where peasant-type, filling German food--just about the polar opposite of California cuisine--has never been an easy sell.

October is an appropriate time to come here, because it's the month of the German carnival known as Oktoberfest. Look for the restaurant to be in festive garb all month, with balloons and streamers hung from the ceiling, party-style. Last week, I saw a happy crowd staging their own bash at Hoppe's, downing steins of imported beers like Berliner Weisse and Clausthaler and digging into rustic German stuff like the two-pound pork shank.

Hoppe's specializes in that sort of meaty, heavy dish, punctuated by the scent of pickles and sauerkraut, stuffed down with quantities of dark bread and potatoes. It works for me, as long as there's a nip in the air. Sauerbraten and potato pancakes can be an ordeal on a hot day.

Even in summer, though, you don't have to be reminded of the outside world very much; faux stained glass windows filter out direct sunlight. Inside its massive doors, Hoppe's is cool, dark and clubby. The best tables, by the way, are at the red leather booths.

The style, needless to say, is emphatically German. One of the paneled walls is dominated by a corny animated cutout figure of a jagermeister (huntsman) complete with lederhosen. More Teutonic stuff shows up shortly after you sit down. The waitresses wear dirndls, just as they might in a Munich beer hall.

The bar menu has schnapps, such as caraway-flavored kummel , and German brandy to complement a fine beer list, but German table wines, just coming into their own on the world market, are unreasonably neglected. Wine drinkers should consider bringing their own. The house wines are white zinfandel, Liebfraumilch and Chablis, all dreadful.

At dinner, the first course is a Lazy Susan appetizer tray of the sort most L.A. restaurants used to have 40 years ago. The appetizers are practically a meal in themselves: dill pickles, vinegary marinated kidney beans, red and white sauerkraut, sliced beets and, in the center, a scoop of rich liver paste, ready to be spread on brown bread.

No matter how hungry you are, you shouldn't eat here without trying the kartoffelpfannkuchen , the San Fernando Valley's best potato pancakes, with crisp edges (accounting for about 85% of each pancake) and a center of soft, fluffy shredded potato. They come four to an order, served with applesauce and sour cream.

The speisekarte (menu) reads like a short list of classic German dishes. Hasenpfeffer --marinated rabbit baked in a delicious wine sauce--is very tender. The combination plate includes pork, sauerbraten, red cabbage, tiny spaetzle dumplings and sauerkraut. Order the farmer's plate and you'll feast on a hunk of smoked pork loin ( kasseler rippchen ) and two sausages, puffy knockwurst and a link of off-white, mildly smoked bratwurst. With sausages, by the way, you'll get three types of pungent imported mustard, which almost make up for the blandness of the meat.

The Germans have adopted a few dishes from Hungary, and Hungarian goulash and chicken paprika might just be the best dishes here. The goulash is certainly the restaurant's best beef dish--the sauerbraten isn't actually sour, and its beef flavor is masked by a thick, floury gravy. The goulash, by comparison, is just about perfect: soft chunks of beef, heady with the flavors of paprika and onion.

The chicken paprika is great too, the paprika sauce on the stewed chicken enriched with lots of sour cream. Both these dishes are particularly suited to mopping up with the kitchen's fine spaetzle--golden brown squiggles of fried dough--at least until you run out of steam. If you're like most people, you won't be able to finish either the goulash or the chicken, not if you've polished off the tossed salad and some of the soup, which are thrown in with each entree.

The soups, like the thick potato or the pudding-like cream of celery, are especially filling. Calculate in the occasional side dishes, such as German fried potatoes or potato dumplings, and at the end of the meal you may seriously not have room for any of the pastries. But at least I'll tell you what they are: a tasty but slightly flaccid apple strudel, a rich butter cream mocha torte and fluffy macaroons, which you can purchase at the cashier's counter for 55 cents apiece.

The macaroons are the star dessert. I ate three on my way home, so I guess I've got the Oktoberfest spirit. Better make those lederhosen extra large, Fraulein.

Where and When

What: Hoppe's Old Heidelberg, 13726 Oxnard St., Van Nuys.

Suggested dishes: kartoffelpfannkuchen , $4.95; hasenpfeffer , $12.95; chicken paprika, $12.95; Hungarian goulash, $11.95; macaroons, $0.55.

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday.

Price: Dinner for two, $28 to $42. Full bar. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

Call: (818) 781-9396.

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