Helga's German Restaurant and Deli hides midway between a Holiday Inn Express and a JCPenney (both high on the list of depressing businesses), in a warren of seemingly permanent road construction and suburban mall sprawl. There's also a U.S. Army recruiting office and a Chuck E. Cheese's nearby, just to give an idea of the hipness factor of the neighborhood. But bright, cheery exterior murals of Bavarian castle scenes greet guests at Helga's, with some slightly distorted (maybe even Cubist) Teutonic youths in dirndls and lederhosen beckoning you to drop by for a liter or two of lager.
Inside, a deli to the left and a bar straight ahead set the tone with Old World decor, drinks and an array of meats, cheeses, breads and prepared foods from the homeland. Stuffed animals and Haribo candies share shelf space with German-language magazines, jars of pickles and an assortment of tchotchkes.
We've stopped in for lunch, when the dining room is minimally occupied and quiet enough that the oompah music on the stereo dominates. Once we're seated, our server informs us that Helga's opened in 1989, but that he's only been in Colorado for a year. He also lets us know that he'll tell the kitchen to make our potato pancake appetizer "for rock stars."
And they're good potato pancakes, if perhaps not quite good enough for rock stars. Oval like over-sized McDonald's hash browns only softer in the center, the pancakes come with a ramekin of apple sauce dusted with cinnamon. The waiter also informs us that the bar serves beer in two-liter glass boots, but I opt for a more manageable half-liter of Hoffbrau Dark -- a toasty, malty beer that goes well with the potato pancakes.
Thumbing through the menu, I notice a Warsteiner ad promising that the beer is "unschlagbar gut," which Google Translate renders as "beat well." A second translation from another website reveals a better answer: "Unbeatably good." I'm not sure that Warsteiner "alkoholfrei" would have stood up to the thick and crunchy potato pancakes, so I'm glad I opted for a Bavarian classic.
The lunchtime sampler platter at Helga's allows a choice of two "center plate" items and two sides. Each entree has recommended sides, but you can forge your own route if those don't appeal to you. I select schnitzel and knackwurst, with spaetzle and roasted tomatoes -- the recommended sides for the sampler platter. Our server points out the strangeness of a menu that recommends sides for a sampler platter, since there's no way the kitchen could know what two entree options I would choose, but I tell him I'm fine with the prognosticating prowess of the cooks. The irony hangs heavy in the air before he departs to place our order.
Once our food arrives, the tomatoes turn out to be broiled with cheese on top and the spaetzle are simply boiled and topped with a nondescript brown sauce. (I missed the part of the menu that says you can order your spaetzle sauteed in butter and herbs.) The schnitzel itself isn't worth further discussion, but the knackwurst -- served with the Helga's brand brown mustard -- is a meaty slab of cured German goodness. Sausage in general is probably the way to go at Helga's; Amy's currywurst also nailed the street-food specialty with a slathering of house-made curry ketchup.
During my month of schnitzel, Helga's was the only purely German restaurant I visited; the others were Czech or Polish with only touches of Austrian and German. My Ukrainian roots must push me toward Slavic cooking, because my favorite schnitzel came from the Polish menu at Polished.
Helga's offers a more traditional German restaurant experience, with cuckoo clocks, nutcracker soldiers and ornamental steins decorating the walls. At the right time of night and with a boisterous group, the bar -- which hosts live music on weekends -- would be a fun place to hoist beers and sample sausage, with only a small amount of hipster irony needed to appreciate the kitschy surroundings.
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For more from our tour of Denver's cultural, regional and international restaurant scene, check out our entire Ethniche archive.