Haunted Haus

Next, I beelined for the German Sampler ($13.95), which features the Hoff's plump bratwurst and smoky landjäger (a pink beef-and-pork sausage) along with a vast pile of supple, rich sauerkraut, a little ramekin of red cabbage, some sweet, rich German potato salad, and--the pièce de résistance--the "famous" ribs. Usually things described as famous aren't very, but I'll tell you, I'll never forget these ribs. They're meaty pork basted with the Kaiserhoff's "Old World Recipe" barbecue sauce, and they're just too weird--the pale pink sauce is closely related to Russian dressing, and when heated on the grill it turns a disconcerting orange color, sort of like 1960s coral lipstick, so the ribs become striated orange and black and look like something you'd snorkel through. Not like food.

Which is unfair of me, because they don't taste bad, and they're so exceedingly moist they slip off the bone like a popsicle losing its stick. But it's that thing about knowing what you're eating--some people could eat a grackle only if they thought it was chicken, whereas I could handle the grackle straight up, but ribs made with Russian dressing just creep me out. The Schnitzel Vienna Style ($10.95) was disappointing--a once-frozen cutlet paired with wet, unattractive spaetzle and supposedly home-made gravy that tasted distinctly mix-like. The apple strudel ($2.25) is supposed to be the Hoff's signature dish, but it was merely okay. The "fruits of the forest" pie (apple, strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, and rhubarb, $2.25) revealed a nice crust, but the filling was killed by too much corn starch. It was nearly enough to send me back to Lyle's--except that there are bigger fish to fry in New Ulm.

The Schell's Brewery, for one. It easily qualifies as one of my favorite places in Minnesota with its smell of roasting malt, the peacocks wandering the expansive grounds, the marigolds sprouting in the shabby imperial gardens, and the troop of garden gnomes partying under the cupola near the small deer park. Never mind that garden gnomes are a favorite subject of German pornography; that peering in at the fenced-in deer are scads of regular Minnesota pest-deer; that not a single person who goes to New Ulm to enjoy the sights gives a fig for the eeriness of it all. The beautiful mansion with the closed curtains under the soaring trees and the crisp air suggests a world in which a denatured German culture can be as cute and meaningless as leprechaun hats and green beer, and you just think: how utterly appealing, how thoroughly horrifying, how already present.

And then the sun begins to set and it's back to the Cities--this time the efficient way, north on Highway 169--till the next time that weird yearning for great pie, tasty beer, and echoing dissonance makes itself known.

For tons of literature on New Ulm, call or visit the terribly helpful Chamber of Commerce, 888-4-NEW-ULM; 1 N. Minnesota St., New Ulm; www.ic.mankato.mn.us/reg9/nul/chamber/
chamber.html
. This weekend, October 8-10, is New Ulm's Oktoberfest, complete with lots of brewery tours; otherwise, check with Schell's for schedules or gather 20 people for a private tour. Or hold out for Fasching, the German Mardi Gras, which next year falls on March 4. Brewery tours generally cost $2 and include lots of beer (children 12 and under are free). Fasching tickets are $5 and include lots of food, too. New Ulm is about 90 miles from the Twin Cities.

 

TABLEHOPPING

HAPPY CHILI CRABBY: Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, will require an iron stomach and a hint of madness--or actually, a lot of madness. You'll start this Saturday, October 9, at noon in the parking lot behind Uptown's Bar Abilene (1300 Lagoon Ave., Mpls.; (612) 825-2525), where a half-dozen local restaurants--good restaurants--will prepare chili for the First Annual Pepsi ChiliFest. There will be margaritas, beer, Pepsi products (natch) and live music, including Trailer Trash. If it doesn't rain, this should be fantastic. Then, when it ends at 5 o'clock, you go home, throw some Rolaids down your gullet, and head out for "Happy Crabby Malaysia Night" at Singapore Chinese Cuisine (1715-A Beam Ave., Maplewood), where genius chef Kin Lee will "zestfully prepare and serve these crustaceans in as many ways as he can think of." A mere $29.95 per person gets you all the happy crabs you can handle; for reservations, call (651) 777-7999 right this very minute. For advice on whether the double-header is medically advisable, consult your health care practitioner.

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