Did I love it? Not as much as The Rheinlander next door.
There are two reasons to go to The Rheinlander: fondue and Victor Meindl. Gustav’s, the adjoining cuckoo clock-free bar-centric offshoot (now a chain), only has the melted cheese in its favor.
Victor Meindl was the gangly Christopher Kimball-looking gentleman in lederhosen and a jaunty Tyrolean cap that roved around the restaurant playing accordion on our almost annual Christmas visits in the ‘80s. He was still there when I celebrated high school graduation at The Rheinlander. And he was still there when I was in my mid-20s and I thought I was too cool for him when he asked if had any requests. I brushed him off with a “No, thank you” then irrationally changed my answer to “Do you still play that Consider Yourself at Home song?” (Oliver—and Victorian England in general—always gave me the creeps) While being serenaded the confusion between kitsch and genuine love overwhelmed me and my nervous laughing turned to tears. That was over a decade ago, and the last time I saw him.
The Rheinlander wasn’t always the source of joy. In college my sister and I came along with my dad and his new family for dinner. The rotund druggie (I’m not svelte but I’ve also never been a meth addict and assumed the two went together) step-sister who wore Tasmanian Devil t-shirts down to her knees, demanded extra mushrooms in brown sauce and they actually brought her more in a little dish and her uncle got rowdy and angry when the waitress wasn’t familiar with a whiskey/beer drink he’d had in Germany while in the service. I wasn’t 21 yet and couldn’t drown my sorrows publicly but you’d better believe that when we had to spend Christmas with these folks my sister and I pillaged their well-stocked liquor cabinet (at the prompting of our step-sister who showed us where her wealthy grandparents—millionaires from the garbage business, trash genuinely—kept the booze).
Why didn’t I check in on Victor on my no-longer-recent Labor Day weekend visit? I think I was scared that he wouldn’t be there. But I also didn’t have the time to commit to a full-blown German meal. I was meeting one of my oldest friends before flying back to NYC in a few hours and The Rheinlander is only five miles from the airport. I thought I’d give Gustav’s a go once I saw online that you can simply order the fondue and that it would be happy hour.
Ah, the fondue, simple, sharp, creamy and served with a mix of pumpernickel and paler bread, none of that healthy vegetables and apples nonsense. If I’m correct this was the $4.99 version from the happy hour menu. There is a mini pot for $2.99 and you can also order add ons like sausage an pesto. As an old-timer pesto is just wrong. I’m torn on the new-to-me Dungeness crab and roasted red pepper version because that could be good if done right.
Imade fondue twice in the past two weeks and went totally classic: Emmental, gruyere, kirsch (ok, no Chasselas—I can’t even pretend to be highbrow now that you know I used Charles Shaw Sauvignon Blanc) and obviously good enough to prepare for two different sets of people. The Rheinlander’s version contains only Swiss cheese and no cherry brandy, and it doesn’t even matter. You’ll eat it and you’ll like it. This is Portland not Geneva. Wow, it’s all coming back to me; chef Horst Mager, used to (and still does for all I know) regularly appear in cooking segments on local morning news shows. It looks like he even has a self-published (Portland, always with the diy spirit) cookbook on Amazon.
The fondue is all you need to know about the food at The Rheinlander. The rest is just not that remarkable. However, I still went wild with a pre-flight repast ordering up a slew of bar snacks that I don’t recall from the original stodgier menu. Things like schnitzel fingers with honey-mustard, ketchup and thousand island. Both the fries and cutlet could’ve been crisper.
The potato pancakes with smoked salmon, chopped hard-boiled eggs and capers and sour cream were pretty good. I got these to share but no one seemed interested in them.
James picked a sausage trio (brautrust, weisswurst and smoked bier sausage) with potatoes and two types of cabbage.
What I learned from Lema, the only person I’ve known for over 25 years that isn’t family: the last time she was in the Philippines she and her mom visited a mystic four hours from Manila whom they call Angie. She made them turnaround and drive back to the city for a belt to use in a spell. Details are blurred but I think it was her dad’s belt and he stopped cheating after the ritual was performed so it was well worth it. Also, her 80-something grandfather has a 30-year-old girlfriend, which no one questions. Supposedly, she wooed him with her cooking, though I imagine his US citizenship has something to do with it. Her aunt, who had been trying to come to America since the ‘80s, was finally granted permission, got here, hated it and promptly returned to the Philippines.
Meanwhile, I’m toying with idea of going to Manila in February. Years ago Lema told me that she knew someone who had his hand outside the window of a car and a passerby chopped it off to get his expensive watch (she also has an unbelievable tale about a prostitute and a randy tapeworm). I don’t wear a watch.
The tenuous Filipino/German connection: When I ate German food in Hong Kong I ordered the monstrous pork shank like the Filipinos at the table next to me (not like the Filipinas on stage singing “We Are Family”). They stared at me in a possessive way that questioned, “That American likes lechon?” But see, it wasn’t lechon because it was German food in Hong Kong. Neither of us owned it.
Gustav’s Pub & Grill * 5035 NE Sandy Blvd., Portland, OR