Wedging four people into a tiny booth at Golden Europe was no easy task: accommodating the lefties in the group, making sure I had room to take photos of my food, sitting comfortably without becoming entangled in the lace curtains above the table. It was a tight fit, and made me wonder why people built so big -- the Czech owner and his son were both a good head taller than me -- would put such tiny booths in their restaurant. That is, until one of my dinner companions mentioned that the restaurant had once been a Pizza Hut (or some similar corporate food entity). That made a little more sense, but it didn't make things any easier once the platters of food began to arrive, contending for space with half-liters of beer, bottles of Gewurztraminer, side dishes and gravy boats, while the four of us attempted to pass bites around and grapple enormous portions without spilling anything.
The Palla family has been serving Czech, German and Polish cuisine in this homey location in Arvada for close to twenty years. The exterior of the building has been transformed into a quaint cottage, while the interior boasts a blond wood and dusty rose scheme reminiscent of a grandmother's kitchen, with the addition of Slavic and Teutonic decorative flourishes and rough-hewn ceiling beams. The menu is extensive and intriguing (if you like big cuts of meat and sausage bolstered by creamy sauces), but I flipped directly to the schnitzel page. Yes, Golden Europe's menu has an entire page of schnitzel options, with three meats -- chicken, pork and veal -- and a number of preparations, based mostly on the sauce ladled over the breaded cutlets. The pork version comes plain or as jager schnitzel (smothered in mushroom gravy and onions), svickova schnitzel (with a sour cream sauce) or Dijon mustard schnitzel. There's a fancy version of the chicken, too, called Vienna schnitzel -- not to be confused with wiener schnitzel -- that's loaded with Swiss cheese and mushroom gravy. The menu lists two sides for each schnitzel. My jager schnitzel came with a mound of sauerkraut flecked with caraway seed and a pile of plain spaetzle, the fat little noodles trying hard to be dumplings. But before the platter of food even arrives, there's soup or salad included in the cost of each entree. Golden Europe's sausage and lentil soup is rich and filling enough to stand on its own, much less as the starter for a heavy meal.
The schnitzel itself was cut thick but offered little resistance to knife and fork. The fine-crumbed breading was light and crisp but held up well to the glossy mushroom gravy. A pile of sauteed onions all but obscured the cutlet, despite its size. Pan-fried spaetzle with butter-crisped edges are a thing of beauty, but Golden Europe's are simply boiled and buttered -- hearty country fare, but lacking in flavor or texture. Keep reading for more on Golden Europe.
There was plenty of jockeying and passing of dishes as we sampled each other's choices, despite the tight quarters. Starting with thick, crusty potato pancakes, we worked our way through soups (our server was a trooper, as we made her repeat the soup options four times) to our entrees; three of the four were schnitzel variations. Remarkably, the glassware all remained upright and not a drop of gravy was spilled. In the end, the food won, pinning us down on our benches with the full force of gravity on its side. Food like this is addictive. A bit of sauerkraut or sweet-and-sour red cabbage brightens the palate a little, but mostly it's just deep, savory flavors of pork, mushrooms, wheat and potatoes, with subtle herbal notes or slow-cooked onion and garlic that add to the rustic quality. Some crunch from the breading counteracts the softness of everything else. Before you know it, you're full to the point of discomfort. But that's what digestifs are for; a few sips of the fiery plum spirit called slivovitz works its way through the fat and cream to jolt a fading brain back to life.
An evening at Golden Europe starts with tables packed with jovial guests and ends suddenly and quietly. It's a family-run place that clears out quickly and closes early -- only 9 p.m. on weekends and even earlier the rest of the week. It's probably a good thing; you want to get home and spend some quality time on a comfortable couch before going horizontal after a meal like that.
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For more from our tour of Denver's cultural, regional and international restaurant scene, check out our entire Ethniche archive.