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But while some ethnic restaurants are warmed and softened by their hodgepodge collections of cultural artifacts, by their loving clutter of touchstones, Westfalen Hof is not. Here, there's a palpable sense of dislocation — of isolation, cabin fever and chilly severance. This isn't a charming little piece of Westphalia plunked down in the Colorado mountains. This is Westphalia, misplaced and longing to rejoin the fatherland.
The crowds are not crowds. They are hardy and loyal individuals — singles and deuces, mostly old, mostly regulars, people who've obviously gone out of their way to come here for the bratwurst and cabbage rolls. The dining room is quiet — the clink of silverware like ellipses on conversations long abandoned — and orderly, with white tablecloths and liner plates, coasters and serving ware. The decorum borders on oppressive. Patricia Gumieniak, who lives here with her family, does most of the serving, and I have never seen her smile. The only break in this quiet and cold, steely comfort comes from the Gumieniaks' four-year-old daughter, who pretty much has the run of the place — crawling under tables, showing off her toys, staring down strangers who refuse to play with her during lunch — and the moments when you glance through the big picture windows overlooking the Colorado Rockies and remember why they named this area Wonderview in the first place. All the suffocating decor, Teutonic strangeness and silence aside, the view on foggy afternoons or at sunset is absolutely breathtaking.
Golden, CO 80403
Region: West Denver Suburbs
And then there's the food. On my most recent visit, stepping outside for a fresh breath of Colorado as a tonic against smothering, Germanic navel-gazing, I watched a full brigade of cooks — white-jacketed and aproned, bound up in full chefly regalia for a service that encompassed maybe a half-dozen tables — going in and out the kitchen door, dodging the violent affections of a beagle tied up on the sidewalk. They were carrying cases of meat, of produce, discussing (near as I could tell) prep schedules and the disposition of stock, chattering away in German, Russian — something guttural and Slavic, something with too many consonants by half.
Although there was a Help Wanted sign pinned to the restaurant's billboard out front, there were already as many cooks as there were customers. And beyond my usual urge to pitch in and help (an instinct that hasn't faded even after years away from the galley), I felt a weird kind of affection for these guys. Here they were, on top of a mountain in Colorado, stationed in one of those real, lost-outpost kinds of situations and obviously far from wherever they called home, going one-for-one with a virtually empty floor — yet cooking food that was uncompromisingly good, unstintingly traditional, as rich and laden with butter, flour, fat and cream as it was larded with history.
I went back inside, where my second hit of koeniginpastetchen — the dish whose memory I'd carried with me to the ballroom of that Manhattan hotel — was waiting. And it was as good, if not better, than I'd remembered: flaky pastry shells filled with a ragout of veal and earthy mushrooms in a Riesling sauce thickened with flour, jacked with veal-bone demi. To follow, there was a salad of pickled cabbage and carrots, kernels of corn in a cold cream sauce and a brilliant tomato soup, laced with sour cream and deep with a dozen competing yet complementary spices that made it taste like a smoky peat fire in a magical tomato forest.
We ate boiled pierogi that were ugly as sin but tasty as hell, their chewy skins giving way to onion-shot mashed potatoes within, and stroganoff that was decent — rich and thick and creamy, socked in with tender chunks of veal — but had been better the first time around, two years and hundreds of meals ago. My mother, craving a bit of history from the German side of the family, had gone straight for the sauerbraten (once horsemeat back in the Old Country, now top round, sliced and marinated for days in vinegar, juniper and clove, then braised, sweetened slightly with raisins or cookies or beet sugar) with cabbage and spaetzle. I'd opted for the tafelspitz — a special of boiled beef in gravy, comfort cuisine from an ox-eating people.
But the room was getting to me. The clouds had rolled in to choke off the view, and I felt trapped by someone else's memories, someone else's longing for home. I'd hoped that good food and a couple of long beers would cosh the rumblings of alien claustrophobia this place engendered, but nothing worked. I needed a cigarette, a change of scenery, an escape.
Asking to have the leftovers boxed up, we made a break for the door — Laura and I, with my mom in tow, trailed by the little girl who wanted to show us her doll, her new dress, whatever. We piled into the car and began making our way down the mountain. With every mile we covered, I felt better. More Coloradan. More grounded in my actual place rather than someone's glossy recollections of theirs. After a few miles, I started feeling hungry. And by the time we'd dropped a thousand feet in elevation, I was at the to-go boxes, eating with my fingers, wiping my chin on my sleeve — once more in love with a restaurant that I never really wanted to go back to.
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