Eichenkranz Serves Up the Best and the Wurst
I gotta say it: This place had me from the start and got me again at the finish. Shortly after C.C. and I were seated in the large, admittedly drab dining room of Eichenkranz Restaurant (611 S. Fagley St.,  563-7577), a young mother walked in with a boy who looked to be about 4 and was wearing a baseball cap. "Take your hat off," she told him, and he did, and I thought, It's been 15 years since I've heard anyone say that to a young man. And here it was, right on the border between Canton and Highlandtown--manners, the lost art.
Later, as we were contemplating our half-eaten dessert, I flagged our speedy server--who had been handling half the crowded room. "I'd like another cup of coffee, a box for the strudel, and the check." I was expecting a "Huh?" or maybe a "What?" That's the sort of response I usually get when I speak in complete sentences these days. But our server smiled, said, "You certainly may," and promptly provided all three. Service and manners. I could have wept.
Eichenkranz, named for an old German singing society, won't win any awards for ambiance, but it's been around, under one owner or another, since 1934. The current owner seems focused on good food and low prices. And the friendly neighborhood folks who kept arriving on this warm Monday night are prone to chatting with newcomers (and will happily recommend their personal favorite dishes). Our server told us a lot of the Haussner's regulars are turning up these days in search of schnitzel, hasenpfeffer (rabbit stew), and German-style sausages. But as C.C. and I discovered, the discerning diner will find a whole lot more.
Our journey down the Rhine began with a pair of unlikely appetizers, tiny cheese and spinach pies ($3.50) and zucchini-strips tempura ($2.75). It takes guts for a German eatery to serve spanakopita a stone's throw from Greektown, but our four little triangles had several unorthodox twists. The filling mixed cream cheese and feta, the pies were pan-fried rather than baked, and they were topped with a mildly sweet marinara sauce that played up the bright spinach flavor. The zucchini strips were a revelation: long strips of fresh vegetable encased in a tempura batter light and greaseless and tasty enough to shame many a Japanese restaurant. They didn't need the tangy honey mustard served with them--they were superb, all by themselves.
Our main courses were similarly simple and good. C.C.'s Wurst Platte ($11.75) included three hearty exemplars of the form, her favorite being the juicy, subtly seasoned baurenwurst, a veal sausage. I preferred the wrinkled bratwurst, wonderfully dense and smoky. We agreed that the knockwurst was mundane. The side of sauerkraut and an accompanying jar of gutsy mustard provided lively counterpoints to the meat. Less lively but equally good was the side of homemade mashed potatoes C.C. ordered (as did I)--they were a comfort, as good mashed spuds should be, and a welcome relief from the garlic- and other-flavored mashed potatoes in vogue.
Eager for schnitzel (veal cutlet), I followed the server's suggestion and chose, from among several varieties available, Schnitzel Eichenkranz ($12.75), which the menu described as a "German-style veal cordon bleu." What I got was a lightly breaded, crisply fried piece of veal that covered the plate, topped with a large slice of smoked ham and melted Swiss cheese. Like the zucchini strips, the cutlet was wonderful on its own, tender and delicately flavored, but the trio of delicate veal, salty ham, and creamy cheese made the dish special. (At first I thought it might just be me, but then C.C. took a few bites, and I watched her eyes glaze over with pleasure.) The side of fresh German-style green beans was cooked to softness with vinegar, onion, and bacon. Most unusual--rich without being greasy.
All desserts except for cheesecake and ice cream are made on the premises. The woman at the next table steered us to the apple strudel ($2.50), a large slice served warm and topped with a tempting vanilla cream sauce. The thin, phyllolike pastry dough enclosed a filling of cinnamon-scented apples and raisins. Not too sweet, it made a surprisingly light ending to a hearty meal.
Our new friend at the next table had come for Steak Night (Mondays and Tuesdays), when an unbelievable $7.50 gets you a 16-ounce T-bone or a 12-ounce New York strip with fresh baked rolls, a baked potato, and a salad. The T-bones are mighty, we were told by more than one regular. And that isn't the only remarkable bargain. How about a crab-cake dinner for $6.99? Or sour beef and dumplings (no veggies) for $5.49? Or fried chicken with two sides for $4.49? Add to the low prices a large and varied menu, and that the Eichenkranz serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner 365 days a year (!), and you've got one of Baltimore's best-kept culinary secrets.
Open 8:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 8:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday.