"Are you a G.I.?" asks the woman behind the counter after an order is put in for Rhine River's currywurst. Currywurst is knackwurst with a mild curry-ketchup sauce slobbered over it. It's impossible to take this description too literally. After depositing a knackwurst on the plate dusted with dried parsley, she moves to a shelf off to the side and picks up a large plastic bottle of Heinz, squeezing out a generous bead over the link. She then dusts the log with pale yellow powder from a shaker.
She returns with the gussied link. "When the G.I.s came to Germany, they couldn't get enough currywurst," she says. "That and the schnitzel sandwich."
At the cash register, Michael Derfler, a fit blond with the gently menacing face of a 007 villain, glances to his left and snickers. "Ka-nackwurst," he says, nodding to a diner in the lunch line who had just ordered. "Knackwurst. Ka-nackwurst? I speak Spanish. I speak German. I speak Russian. I speak it all. But I'm still trying to learn this Texan."
Rhine River Grille
Chicken schnitzel $6.95
Polish sausage $6.95
Chicken breast $6.29
Apple strudel $2.95
Later Derfler, the owner of this subterranean German fast-casual spot under One Main Place, admits the correct pronunciation of the German sausage is two-syllable "knock" with a hard "k" in front. Derfler doesn't come to this badger hole from a solid line of culinary missions. Sure, he grunted through German cooking school at 14 years of age at the urging of his mother. He's operated restaurants in Germany and elsewhere. But his expertise is in the media, he says. Derfler served as operations manager of a German TV station, and he claims he invented the autobahn version of airborne reality TV, where cameras mounted on choppers hover and zoom to document freeway chases and minivan wipeouts. His television work brought him to Dallas, which strangely left him smitten. "I said, 'Wow, Dallas, it looks just like Frankfurt,'" Derfler recalls. But unlike Frankfurt, Dallas had no German restaurants nesting in or around its skyscrapers. "That's when my interest became a market survey," he says.
It's also when he traded in his camera for schnitzel.
German food is to haute cuisine what double-wides are to architecture--a fist of function browbeating form. "While Italian and French chefs sometimes make light of German cuisine as lacking subtlety, they grant a noteworthy exception to German sausages," writes cookbook author Marianna Olszewska Heberle in German Cooking. But even these robust meat-filled gut sleeves--Frankfurter, Thuringer, Fleischwurstring, Sulzwurst--weren't originally wrought by German mitts. Sausage was invented by the Romans, who jammed smoked and salted meat into gut casings to preserve rations while their legions squatted on German soil.
Currywurst is a German twist on this, as the Romans hadn't yet invented ketchup (it had its roots in China before New Englanders got a hold of it). It's amazing what a shake of curry can do for a smear of ketchup on a squeaky link.
Chicken schnitzel doesn't squeak. It's a long, thin patch of shriveled breast, the edges curving up slightly. It's coated with a fine bread-crumb veneer raced with spice pinches well punched with salt and pepper. Gripped with tongs and pulled from a cafeteria-line pan, the breast is ladled with brown gravy--the topper, as Derfler calls it. The chicken was slightly dry and cool, as was the brown gravy, smooth and viscous though it was. But the gravy was drawn from the cafe line late in Rhine River's service window, that is, after 1:30 when the heat might have turned it into something that had to be peeled off and applied to the schnitzel with finger pressure instead of poured over it properly. These are the compromises of the cafeteria line for which German food shows uncommon durability. It is, after all, extremely difficult to damage a sausage.
But German food can damage you if it's handled carelessly. The delicious sweet-sour red cabbage avoids turning a pansy pink shade by being sautéed in hot oil before it's simmered, to lock in that deep cabbage crimson. On the plate it bleeds a heinous purple jus that blots crisp shirts with evil polka dots in random patterns if some of the shreds slip off the fork and splatter.
Sauerkraut Bavarian style is much safer. This kraut is pebbled with juniper berries, and that's all you need to know. Or is it? Like kimchi, sauerkraut is a sublime substance made from cabbage leaves that are shredded and fermented with spices until they reach a color of old linoleum. Properly prepared, it is racy, juicy and hearty, forming a lovable bed for wrapping around pork, sausages or wild game; its warm curls of steam flick with acrid licks at the nostril. Like seamless kimchi, good sauerkraut comes as close to culinary ecstasy as you can get without a prescription. Here, those juniper berries behave like Altoids, tempering the breathy sauerkraut bite with a clove-like incense, broadening the flavors.
But it isn't only the German treatment of cabbage and gut casings that creates interest. There's also a German pasta called spätzle, a homemade egg noodle shaped like little cupped curls that look like they're carpeted in peach fuzz. "I've had people mistake it for what you guys call hominy or something," says Derfler, trying to get a handle on his Texan. And it's easy to see how that mistake can happen--visually at least. Those chewy little cups stick together, though the fuzzy part is an optical illusion. Derfler insists there is no coating; that the impression is created by food coloring, which gives the pasta its rich golden hue.
But what that color does is reinforce the obvious: German food is an Atkins nightmare, what with all of its potatoes, schnitzel this and spätzle that. So shrewd business demands a low-carb something or other. (Our sister paper in Denver reports that a hardware store in that metropolis advertises low-carb paint.) "No flour, no sugar, no preservatives," blurts the menu entry for the sautéed chicken breast topped with Marsala sauce. The thin breast is dry and chewy, though the seasoning keeps it from sinking irretrievably into a pool of bland while the thick, grayish Marsala helps ease it down.
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Rye bread is another source of German carbo-terror, and here it appears on the Reuben with thin corned beef slices. Like the schnitzel, the meat is curled slightly around the edges. It's draped in a "special sauce" that tastes suspiciously like the special stuff lubricating Big Macs. Still, it's delicious.
The Polish sausage is served as a lone link with some fried potatoes. It's thick and juicy with flecks of fat dotting its ruddy core. And what self-respecting German restaurant would skip strudel? Rhine River takes this self-reverence to extremes, claiming to have produced Texas' longest apple strudel, measuring in at 32 feet. It seems Derfler speaks fluent Texas after all.
Fast-casual German is a novel way to break the lunch headlock imposed by swift-serve burgers, clubs, tacos and endless salad variations. Rhine River is good not so much for the food, which is just OK, but for its unexpected enthusiasm and the strange ways it forces you to string consonants together just to blunt hunger pangs. So go ahead, grab a currywurst. You just may enlist.
1201 Main St., Suite P300, 214-744-4774. Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday. $-$$