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German fare (not) like Nana used to make

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SYRACUSE — There’s a German restaurant in Syracuse that I’ve heard about for years but for some reason I’ve never been to.

Danzer’s is in an industrial park on the south side of Syracuse, just a few minutes from Interstate 81 near Onondaga Hill. It has been at the unlikely location since 1946, serving up German as well as American cuisine.

Patti greeted us at the door with “Happy Friday.” She was about as non-German as can be, but full of energy and enthusiasm for her job as server and greeter. She did speak with a bit of a foreign tongue, throwing in words like “yiz” and “youse.”

Actually, it was Thursday (which she realized after I said “Is it Friday already?”) just before lunch hour, so we had our choice of seating. It’s a huge place! A big, long bar takes up a good deal of the center of the sprawling building. There are two private dining rooms on the left side of the restaurant and a variety of tables to the right side of the bar for open seating.

The walls are plastered with German bric a brac: steins, mugs, beer posters, travel posters ... that type of thing. Even a working cuckoo clock.

We chose a table by the front window with a great view of Case Kitchen Supply’s warehouse across the street. We had Patti’s full and undivided attention prior to the lunch crowd making its appearance.

We began with coffee, described by Patti as “hot and fresh, just like you.” Hmm. This was going to be a long lunch, I had the feeling.

The menu looked good. Lots of German food that I remember from my childhood. Sauerbraten. Schnitzel. Bratwurst and knackwurst. Liverwurst. Limburger and onions. Well maybe not that one.

Homemade German potato pancakes. German potato salad. Sauerkraut. Red cabbage. Potato dumplings.

Equal time (and maybe a little more) is given to all-American food: Hot sandwiches. Cold sandwiches. Grilled sandwiches. Burgers. Soups. Salads.

Things like BLTs, ham or turkey, grilled cheese, tuna melt, roast beef and hot pastrami. Chicken wings, mozzarella sticks, french fries, onion rings and chicken fingers, too.

While it was five o’clock somewhere, it was just a little before noon at Danzer’s. A little too early to partake in one of the beers offered on the table tent. One side listed all the popular domestics and a couple of area craft brews; the other side offered five German beers along with popular imports like Stella Artois, Guinness Draught and Labatt Blue.

For food, we pretty much stuck to the German fare. Danzer’s touts its potato pancakes, so we started there.

You get four of them for $6.95 or six for $8.95. We went with the small portion, which was not exactly small.

They’re described simply as “Fresh grated potatoes with just a touch of onion, pan-fried to crisp perfection with applesauce or sour cream.”

I was brought up in a German household. Nana Mayer came right off the boat. She and my mom used to grate potatoes and onion by hand on a box grater, put them in an old kitchen towel and squeeze out the moisture, add an egg yolk to hold it together and season them with salt and pepper.

The little blobs of grated potato mixture went into a frying pan sizzling with hot oil, got smushed down with a metal spatula, flipped over till golden brown on both sides, then drained on an old Gristedes brown paper shopping bag. (Gristedes was the popular supermarket back then, when I was growing up in the Bronx. It is still in business with a 100-plus-year history.)

Honestly … Nana Mayer’s were better. These were big, flat, eggy and underseasoned pucks of grated potato. More egg taste than potato. Not crisp by any stretch of the imagination. And they really needed some salt and pepper.

You’d think after 60-some-odd years of making potato pancakes they’d have it down.

Chicken schnitzel on a toasted roll ($9.75) wasn’t a whole lot different. It was a boneless breast of chicken dipped in egg and breadcrumbs, pan-fried and served on a roll with lettuce and mayo. The chicken was very tender, but the breading needed more seasoning … or something. And it really wasn’t very crisp.

The oversized portion of fries that came standard with it were crisp and tasty, however.

Bratwurst sandwich ($9) comes on your choice of hard roll or rye bread. Patti must have made the decision, because the spicy grilled pork sausage came open faced on a piece of rye that could have passed for pumpernickel.

The brat was good, with a nice snap. For 75 cents we took the sauerkraut upgrade. Good sauerkraut. And instead of fries that come with it, we substituted their homemade German potato salad, made with potatoes, bacon and vinegar and served warm.

The lunch portion of sauerbraten ($10.75) would have been OK, if you’d never had sauerbraten before. It consisted of four slices of eye of round over egg noodles with gravy.

The gravy was good, but more like basic pork gravy with some additional spices. The meat was tough as could be. Cutting it with a standard dinner knife felt like you were cutting it with a plastic knife. The noodles were fine, definitely not made in-house.

The meat used for sauerbraten is usually marinated with vegetables, peppercorns, cloves, bay leaves, vinegar and wine for several days. This tenderizes the meat as well as flavors it. The cooked-down marinade, with the addition of gingersnaps, becomes the foundation for the gravy.

Danzer’s sauerbraten was a poor rendition of the German mainstay. What should have been an intensely flavored traditional dish was akin to getting bland Mexican food at a Taco Bell.

Their Reuben sandwiches are a big deal, it seems. They devote an entire menu page to them, and there are just two versions, the “Big Reuben” and the “Big Red Reuben,” the only difference being that the Red Reuben is made with red cabbage rather than sauerkraut. Both are $10.95 apiece.

Both are made with the traditional corned beef, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing on toasted rye bread, but the sandwich is presented open faced, which is not traditional.

We got the one with the sauerkraut. The rye bread appeared to be untoasted. The corned beef was on one slice of bread, sauerkraut and melted Swiss on the other.

Not exactly “piled high” as you would expect from an open-faced sandwich, but fresh and tasty nonetheless.

Dessert, their homemade apple strudel ($5.75), was wonderful. The pastry was flaky, the apples were firm, the spices were right and it was served nicely warmed.

Lunch for four came to $60.64 before tip.

Patti was full of energy, knowledge and witty comments. A little gruff at times, but she always made sure we had everything we needed and took a genuine interest in us. She’s a six-year veteran of Danzer’s and has spent nearly 40 years in the food service industry.

By the time we left, Danzer’s had a pretty good lunch crowd. It was obvious that many were return customers; several were greeted by name as they came through the door.

If you plan to visit, you’d better fire up your GPS. And unfortunately you can’t check out their menu in advance because they don’t have a website or a presence on Facebook.

Walter Siebel has been part of the Northern New York restaurant scene for more than three decades, cooking in restaurants from casual Adirondack eateries to fine-dining establishments, and lending his culinary talents to numerous charity events. You can contact him at wsiebel@wdt.net.

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Danzer’s Restaurant

153 Ainsley Dr.

Syracuse, N.Y.

422-0089

Danzer’s has been in Syracuse since 1946, serving up German as well as American cuisine.

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday

11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday

11 a.m. 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Noon to 9 p.m. Sunday

OUR PICKS: Bratwurst on rye, apple strudel. Be sure to try their sauerkraut. And you may enjoy their German potato salad.

RATING: 2½ forks

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