Haunted Haus

Lyle's Café
102 E. Fourth St., Winthrop; (507) 647-9949
Hours: Monday-Friday 6:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m.; Saturday 7:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.; Sunday 10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.

Veigel's Kaiserhoff
221 N. Minnesota St.; (507) 359-2071
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m. daily

August Schell Brewing Co.
Schell Road, New Ulm; (507) 354-5528;
www.schellsbrewery.com

Every year I must go to New Ulm on an autumn day. I lure friends with promises of heaven: It's a beautiful drive, I tell them. We'll head west on Highway 212 through rolling, golden fields separated by ribbons of bright fall foliage. We'll turn south on Highway 15, which will lead us to Winthrop, where the Pie Lady bakes fabulous pies from scratch each and every day. And once we get to New Ulm, well, it's the promised land. There's beer. Rivers of it. Waterfalls and lakes of it. Peacocks strut through the beer gardens--oh, you've simply got to see it.

I never let on the other reason I like to go, which is that if New Ulm isn't the strangest place in the world, it's a place of such sustained dissonance that it bears careful, repeated examination. Only New Ulm suggests that German history can be defanged so that it exists only in a pre-1914 time warp, only New Ulm imagines a German cultural funzone à la St. Patrick's Day, only New Ulm serves barbecued ribs topped with Russian dressing as a German spezialität. But more on that later.

For now all you need to know is that the Pie Lady, Karen Melius, should be given some kind of Congressional Medal for Excellence in the Field of Pies, Fluffy Meringues, and Crumble Toppings. Melius has been working her magic for some 40 years at Lyle's Café, an apple-plain lunch counter on the corner of Fourth and Broadway in Winthrop--a town that isn't merely the grackle capital of central Minnesota, or even North America, it is in fact the "Grackle Capital of the World." Just read the sign. (Sadly, truthfully, I didn't see a single grackle. Not that I would necessarily recognize one, unless it was on a menu: grackle rôti aux fines herbes. Mmmm.)

Anyhoo, on my last visit to Lyle's Café I had a slice of rhubarb meringue pie that had me grackling from the lampposts: It was made from yellow rhubarb, held together in a tender, small-crumbed crust, and topped with a high, fluffy cloud of sweet, supple meringue. It was a perfect contrast of sweet and sour, and it boasted three different textures, all for $1.75 per giant slice.

All the Pie Lady's pies cost $1.75 a slice, or $9.50 for the whole pie. I also recommend the Dutch apple, brown-sugar-dotted slices of fresh, springy apples topped with delicious butter-crumble topping and nestled in a tender, brown, buttery crust. The pecan pie is a touch smoky and molasses-laced, the coconut cream is sweet and milky and comes in a pale, flaky crust that stands crisply on its own. Big spenders can splurge on a full lunch; on my visit a grilled cheese sandwich with a cup of cream of potato soup ran $2.75.

It's 20 miles from Winthrop to New Ulm, and you know you're there when you see Hermann. According to the New Ulm visitors' guide, Hermann (popularly known as Herman the German) was the liberator of Germany and the father of Germanic independence. According to the history books, he was a Roman citizen turned tribal warlord who gave the Roman army a run for its money in A.D. 9. Either way, you'll find him atop a columned, porticoed Beaux Arts structure where he is perennially preparing to conquer the Minnesota Valley. Hermann, darling, enough with the warlike vigor, stop and smell the roses!

Or the Hauses. Antique Haus. Country Loft & Doll Haus. GutenTag Haus (visit their Christkindlmarkt!) and, of course, the Copy Haus. Not to mention der Mietwaschsalon--the Maytag Coin Laundry, with its big Willkommen sign in ornate Gothic script. And the Marktplatz Mall. It's as if the whole town had contrived to turn itself into a Teutonic theme park, oompah music playing faintly in the background.

Wait, you say. What's so weird about that? The whole Mall of America is a theme park, and that's not at all remarkable. I couldn't agree with you more--except that in New Ulm, the theme is an actual culture with actual problems, making its parkification far, far weirder.

Take the Kaiserhoff, a main-street restaurant with the cutest 1950s German-theme details. Like the Drunken Beer Cellar mural in the front lounge, the candy case full of lucky-pig figurines, the rustic lanterns dangling from the ceiling beams. You can get a booth with a tabletop Seeburg jukebox, and for 50 cents you get three songs from polka to the Backstreet Boys.

Personally, I ordered an appetizer of the Kaiserhoff's "Famous Sauerkraut Balls" ($4.75), programmed in Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" and Frizz Fritsche's "Bullfrog in St. Paul Waltz" and let the dissonance fly. The sauerkraut balls weren't bad--they're golf ball-sized globes of ham, sauerkraut, onions, and flour, breaded and deep fried--but they're mostly good for working into conversations. Would you please pass the sauerkraut balls? Honey, are those your sauerkraut balls? The most peculiar thing happened the other day whilst I was supping upon my sauerkraut balls...

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