It was once perfectly acceptable to have a three-martini lunch in this country, but that practice has gone the way of fax machines and napping under your desk after a long, liquid lunch. Not every culture is so prudish, though: The Italians and French still like wine at their mid-day meal, and the Germans drink beer like water. And at the very German Karl's Deli, you're absolutely encouraged to enjoy pilsner with your lunch.
But then, Karl's isn't open for dinner: That's pretty much the way it's been since German immigrants opened the place in 1981. Last November, Austrian-born Christoph Zierhut took over Karl's, and while he vowed to keep the same spirit, he's made a few changes. For example, he added Austrian and Hungarian specials, many of them available just one day a week. And he also implemented a beer special to lure in a younger crowd: free refills of Paulaner on Saturday and Friday, when Karl's stays open until 8 p.m. in the summer and features live music on the deck.
This deck may well have been Denver's original beer garden. Although the young, trendy set has yet to discover it, suburban neighbors and nearby office workers pack the place on sunny days, sitting at picnic tables corralled by the kind of wooden rails you might see in Bavaria, right down to the heart-shaped cut-outs, with a lovely view of a parking lot. The crowd may not be raucous, but it's usually lively.
The first time I stopped by Karl's, the wintry weather ruled out a seat in the beer garden. Instead, I nabbed one of the tables inside, where the ambience consists of blue-checked tablecloths, fluorescent lights, linoleum floors, German accordion music playing over the speakers, Bavarian kitsch on the walls and a counter where you put in your order. Standing there, I perused the menu, surprising (and grossing out) the sandwich-maker when I asked about items like head cheese and beef tongue instead of turkey breast or tuna. After I finally settled on the head cheese, he got to work on my lunch while I approached the cash register, where an attendant waved me off and told me to pay when I was done with my meal, since I'd already announced that I was contemplating a strudel for dessert. So while I waited, I perused the market in the back corner, where shelves are stocked with imported candies, jellies, cookies and other sundries I hadn't seen since a trip to Germany almost ten years ago.
Slide show: In the kitchen at Karl's Deli
Soon the sandwich-maker called me back up to the counter to retrieve my sandwich. Good, seed-flecked rye was piled high with head cheese, a fatty, gelatinous cold cut made from various parts of a pig's head (not the brains or eyeballs, though) and aspic. Ribboned with grainy mustard, it was even better when I added the side of crisp, tart sauerkraut I'd ordered. Freshly made, pepper-dusted, creamy potato salad was the perfect complement to the sandwich; I could have eaten an entire pint. Instead, I went for that home-baked strudel, forgoing the blueberry and cherry versions in favor of apple. Flaky but firm pastry encased the sweet, gummy fruit, which was redolent of cinnamon; I blew a bit of powdered sugar and a couple of slices of almond onto the table with each bite.
As I paid my check, I learned about the free Paulaner refills on Friday and Saturday, and vowed to return as soon as possible. In the meantime, I bought a side of potato salad to take home — and wound up eating it for breakfast the next day with a fried egg on the side.
I finally returned to Karl's one recent Friday, and brought along a friend who was up for daytime drinking. We stopped by the counter to order lunch — Karl's specials this time, Hungarian goulash (offered Fridays) and a wurst platter that changes daily — and then headed to the beer garden with our tall glasses of crisp, cold beer. We were not alone: There were a few red-faced men speaking loudly in German, a woman in a corner howling with laughter over her companion's chatter, and groups of office workers — probably none of them a boss, since everyone had their hands wrapped around half-full glasses of straw-colored beer.
We were only a couple of sips into our own when a woman delivered our lunches. The goulash, which was a vivid dark-rust color, came on top of a bed of spiral spaetzle and sided by a slice of buttered sourdough and pumpernickel bread. While the dish wasn't much to look at, it was delicious. The stew tasted mostly of tomato and paprika, with chunks of braised beef that practically melted apart on the tongue. I added a little salt to bring out the depth, and thought about what a soul-warming lunch this would make on a cold day.
My friend's wurst platter was even better. The fat, fennel-infused pork sausage exploded out of its casing when cut, oozing juices into a bed of sauerkraut. Although the wurst needed nothing to dress it up, the cabbage added a nice, palate-cleansing hit of acidity; a pool of spicy mustard gave it punch and heat. A mound of potato salad also came on the plate, and it was just as addictive as it had been the first time around.
Plates cleaned, we took turns choosing treats for dessert from the market inside. We also picked up another savory item: a giant pretzel. Karl's doesn't make these in-house, but they come from a good source; the pretzel was nothing like the stale twist of starch covered with molten fake cheese that you get at sporting events. Instead, this rich, chewy snack was slightly bitter with the taste of rye and speckled with salt. We asked for a side of mustard to use as a dip, creating a combination that demanded more beer.
Not that we needed an excuse. As long as the tap was flowing that sunny afternoon, there was no chance that we were heading back to work. Karl's may not be the trendiest beer garden in town, but is it the most authentic? You're darn Teuton!
Slide show: In the kitchen at Karl's Deli