Achtung, baby

Old Heidelberg may not be the place to start a love affair with Rhineland cuisine

Old Heidelberg Restaurant
6714 San Pedro
11am-2:30pm & 5-9:30pm Tue-Sat; 5-9pm Sun
Credit cards
Price range: $9.50-12.95
Bathrooms not accessible
San Antonio’s German heritage is tangible in the 19th-century architecture that gives the city much of its historic character. German food, on the other hand, survives largely in outlying towns and annual wurst-blasts. If you didn’t grow up on sauerkraut or develop a taste for schnitzel while serving in the armed forces, chances are you rarely think of going out for a stein and sauerbraten.

Regular readers now expect the “but you are hereby counseled to mend your wicked ways” pitch. Not this time. At least not regarding Old Heidelberg as a springboard to new taste sensations. Its brand of German cooking might be called comforting by some, but it is unlikely to make converts of the heathen — not even those in search of an evening of cultural kitsch. Though it does sport some wagon-wheel light fixtures and a few steins and ceramic figurines, the place is lacking in gemütlichkeit — day and night — plastic posies abound, the carpet has seen better days, and noontime service is brusque at best.

And not even stereotypically efficient. The pedestrian potato salad, lacking any of the charm of the warm, bacon-studded classic, came on the wrong plate at lunch — which matters only because the other choice, fried potatoes, is at least clearly house-made. Both come sprinkled with the same dry, chopped parsley that seems to adorn every dish. The main event, in both cases, was pork, and if you have an aversion to schweinefleisch, you’re almost out of luck at lunch: the pig is predominant. Breaded pig at that — but in the kitchen’s defense, practice has apparently made nearly perfect. The Cordon Bleu model, stuffed with ham and cheese, was a competent rendition of a classic normally prepared with chicken; the breading was light, the pork tender, and the stuffing asserted itself appropriately. Despite an equally accomplished hand with the breading and frying of the pork cutlet in the zigeunerschnitzel, the total package bombed. Blame it on the gravy, a salty, food-service sort of preparation that might have been saved with an exuberant, gypsy-like excess of tomatoes, bell peppers, and onion, but wasn’t.

The sense that many things at Heidelberg come out of cans (whether they do or not) is reinforced by such offerings as the daily soup — cabbage, on both of my visits. The broth tasted totally tinned, an impression that bobbing morsels of cabbage, carrot, and potato — and a liberal lacing of black pepper — did nothing to dispel. (If cabbage continues as the tagessuppe, the house salat might be a better choice; the greens are fresh and though the vinaigrette is sweet, it does boast a few herbs other than parsley.)

Veal, chicken, and beef are added to the evening menu, and it’s easier to escape breading and frying. Glutton for punishment that I am, the schnitzelholstein nevertheless beckoned. Tell me you could resist a breaded veal cutlet topped with a fried egg and anchovies, all in a sauce with pickle and capers. Now, I don’t ever have to have this dish again, but I’m not altogether sorry I did; it’s a trenchant reminder of a cuisine fast fading from the scene, at least in most parts of the world. And if impeccably prepared and served in appropriate surroundings, it would still have a degree of anachronistic charm. But despite there being two eggs on top in lieu of the expected one, charm wouldn’t be my first thought: The gravy was short on pickle, and bereft, it seemed, of capers; the cutlet had been over-browned; the boiled potatoes were plain but for the now-expected sprinkle of parsley; and a side dish of mixed vegetables sorely needed the Land O’ Lakes Fresh Buttery Taste Spread that had accompanied the sliced, dark rye.

Rindsroulade to the rescue? Not really. Deconstruction of this rolled beef dish, which harbored a huge hunk of onion and a spear of pickle, confirmed that the bacon had been omitted, at least in any easily detectable form. There did seem to be, perhaps, a little paprika, but all considered, there was little here to get excited about. A red-cabbage side, aggressively sweet and sour, was appreciated in the context of more boiled potato (with more parsley flakes.)

Saved, then, by strudel? Sorry. None of the desserts are made in-house, and apple strudel was actually the only one available. (The German beer selection had been severely depleted, too.) A flaky pastry encasing apples that still exhibited some snap would have been appreciated at this point, but springtime for strudel was not to be. A dusting of powdered sugar (at least it wasn’t parsley) only underlined the sweetness of the filling and the limp quality of the pastry. I exited an empty dining room to the strains of “Amazing Grace” sung in German — perhaps a hopeful sign of future redemption? Or not.