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Open Haus 

You won't find a chain restaurant as homey and authentic as Das Schnitzel Haus.

The Deutsche sampler will stick to your ribs. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • The Deutsche sampler will stick to your ribs.
The conversation had turned to casual eats -- the kind of pit stops reserved for weeknights when the home cook feels duller than a butter knife or Saturday evenings when the wallet is growing thin.

"Those are the nights when you need to have a favorite chain restaurant tucked in your back pocket," declared a colleague. "You know, the kind of place where you can just drop in and chow down on homey, inexpensive food, and it's not a big deal."

We've all been there, of course: too tired to cook, too scattered to make a reservation, and too apathetic to pull on anything fancier than a pair of broken-in bootcuts. On such nights, heading out to the local outpost of some faux "neighborhood" chain does indeed seem like a no-brainer.

But wait. For foodies reluctant to completely sacrifice a sense of place for predictability or charm for convenience, there are alternatives. And judging by the size of the Saturday-night crowd at Parma's Das Schnitzel Haus, we're not the only ones who know this.

Even by chain-restaurant standards, this little family-owned eatery (located in space occupied, until recently, by Malloy's Brick Oven) is a laid-back spot, just right for families with wiggly kids or manly men in muddy work boots. Service is friendly and casual, with even the youngest waitresses acting like they're your mom. The food comes out of the kitchen at a no-nonsense pace; and the surroundings, though somewhat dated, are reasonably tidy.

Of course, when a family of four can dine for $35 (assuming at least two of them order off the children's menu), one doesn't expect white linens and candlelight. So it's no surprise that the napkins are paper, the flatware is mismatched, and the tables are sheathed in tight-fitting burgundy oilcloths. Still, the lights are kept low enough to make the lounge and two dining rooms (one nonsmoking) seem noninstitutional. And rather than the ubiquitous pop tunes, the background music is a spirited mix of eastern European marches and dance-hall polkas, somehow imbued with a scratchy quality that makes them sound weirdly like vintage 78s.

If there's not something to set your mouth to watering on chef-owner Monika Leszkowicz's big all-day menu, you may be overdoing it on the TrimSpa. From sauerkraut balls to sautéed mussels and from fried bologna sandwiches to seafood Alfredo, the options are wide open. Still, for most visitors, it's the eastern European specialties -- veal schnitzel, roast duck, and the like -- that prove particularly enticing.

Like all good cooks, Leszkowicz isn't afraid to put her own twist on the classic German recipes she learned in her mother's kitchen. Take those breaded sauerkraut balls, for example, made from coarsely shredded cabbage and bits of ham, and fried to a golden brown. For diners primarily familiar with the smaller, softer Akron version, these crisp oversized nuggets are likely to prompt a double take. But while some may miss the tangy tartness of the Akron-style balls, we found Leszkowicz's mildly flavored rendering to be a tasty change of pace.

We are also inordinately partial to the kitchen's treatment of slowly simmered red cabbage. No strong odors, tough textures, or bitter flavors here. Instead, the satiny cabbage nearly dissolves on the tongue; and the "secret" blend of seasonings (sugar and allspice, perhaps?) makes it nearly as sweet and aromatic as Christmas cookies. Red cabbage shows up again in a rustic Saturday-night soup, where it is seasoned with plenty of black pepper, and in freshly made German-style coleslaw, where it is shredded and tossed with a rousing sweet-and-sour dressing.

On the other hand, the chef's version of sauerkraut is apparently an acquired taste. No one at our table was able to tolerate more than a forkful of this painfully sour and highly odoriferous dish. And taking home the leftovers was out of the question: Unless I was willing to roll down all the car windows, my companions refused to sit anywhere near it!

Meatloaf, liver and onions, and pork chops (smoked or grilled) are among the 14 homey entrées, all full-meal deals with bread, salad, and sides, priced at $8 to $17. Big eaters will be predictably drawn to the Deutsche sampler, with bratwurst, crisply breaded veal schnitzel, long-simmered beef goulash, and homemade spaetzle with a cheerfully buttery, bouncy mouth feel. Knockwurst and bratwurst fans will probably head for the sausage platter with a side of fluffy mashed potatoes or warm German potato salad, bound with a piquant hot-bacon dressing.

That German potato salad made a fine foil, too, for a roasted half duck, its rich meat infused with the fragrance of rosemary. Priced at a mere $12.95, this obviously isn't a pampered boutique quacker, but it was meaty, flavorful, and a good value.

In all cases, though, the generous portions of comforting foods are more than adequate as an occasional stand-in for a dinner 'round the kitchen table -- a fact driven home to us by a Saturday-night special of roasted pork, stuffed with a zesty blend of feta cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and canned mushrooms, garnished with a bouquet of slightly overcooked broccoli and draped in a mild cheese sauce. "Is it weird, or is it good?" asked a younger member of our party. "Well . . . sort of both," was the honest reply. "Think of it this way: It's like something your Grandma might come up with, after poring over the recipes in Better Homes & Gardens."

To drink with all this hearty food, the full bar offers Warsteiner and Beck's on tap, as well as a small collection of imported and domestic bottled beers. Alternatively, the short wine list is made up of inexpensive German and domestic products, heavily slanted toward light, sweet whites.

Among desserts, the non-homemade choices include cheesecake, tall tortes, and strudel. One night's slab of Black Forest torte tasted fresh enough, although the thick layers of greasy frosting were too sweet for our taste. On the next visit, we stuck to the above-average cherry and apple strudels -- flaky, not too sugary, and served up warm. Sided by a mug of freshly brewed coffee, it sent us home with a good taste in our mouths.

Beyond lunch and dinner, Das Schnitzel Haus also serves Friday-night fish fries and serious Sunday-brunch buffets, from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., where guests can choose from an assortment of international dishes, such as pork roast, Swedish meatballs, schnitzel, pasta, kielbasa, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, eggs Benedict, French toast, sausage gravy, and more, for only $11.95 -- and even less for children under 12.

So, with all due respect for my colleague -- as well as anyone else who may equate casual, inexpensive meals with chain eateries -- we trust this proves our point: Utility is not incompatible with appeal, and value doesn't necessarily rule out authenticity. At least consider taking some of those chain restaurants out of your back pocket, please, and squeeze in a few real neighborhood joints, like Das Schnitzel Haus, instead. You won't regret it.

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