If it’s October, a fest must be close by. And there is, if you’re in Oak Park, where Oakhaus – a hofbrau-inspired establishment opened in June by brothers Tom and Dave Schnetz, also of La Venadita – is entering high season.
I felt like celebrating too when a trend toward beer-hall style and Germanic flavors rose in Sacramento, kicked off by Lowbrau’s launch in 2013. The Teutonic vibe was a welcome change from endless modern-California or Cal-Ital openings. Now, however, beer and giant pretzels seem ubiquitous and as deliberately kitschy as Oakhaus’ décor, with its polka records, a mounted Grinch head and vintage butchery posters – never mind that one represents cuts of lamb (which Oakhaus doesn’t serve) and another is from a French boucherie.
Like that Grinch and those posters, the concept and cuisine at Oakhaus can feel like a mishmash. Menu offerings include echt Deutsch (juicy, golden fried pork schnitzel), classic Americana comfort (slabs of ketchup-topped meatloaf) and newfangled (grilled corn with garlic butter). This incoherence is heightened by a sense that Oakhaus is out of place in its Oak Park location.
Both this new joint and sister restaurant La Venadita have faced criticism as part of the accelerating gentrification of this historically black neighborhood. Food and restaurants might seem apolitical, but they’re inseparable from their context. Germanic food, as one longtime Oak Park resident pointed out, has no cultural connection with the neighborhood’s roots. Let’s face it: Beer and brats are a major bro magnet.
Oakhaus occupies a marquee location in north Oak Park, with a sprawling, pleasant patio (complete with cornhole sets – I told you it was a bro magnet) facing Broadway in what marketers have dubbed “the Triangle District.” For Oktoberfest, Oakhaus’ bartenders will pour enough liter (!) beers to meet your every autumnal desire: The restaurant’s draft list (with three German beers and 11 rotating craft beers) offers malty dunkel, lighter pilsner, Belgian sours and more. The bottle and can lineup is more than 50 strong; beer lovers can drink well here.
But how will they eat?
The Schnetzes took inspiration for Oakhaus from venerable Sam’s Hof Brau on Watt, though it lacks the quaint cafeteria service and trays of steamy, fragrant old-fashioned food. I liked executive chef Matthew Ridgeway’s dishes best when they weren’t straining to deliver on the restaurant’s Germanic theme. The coarse-hewn beef and pork meatloaf, at $12.95, was big enough to give me leftovers for a fantastic DIY sandwich the next day. (Oddly, pork schnitzel, though a dollar pricier, offered less than half the amount of food.) The confit turkey leg looked majestic but tasted dry; the spit-roasted half chicken had more juice. Chicken, peas and noodles in savory gravy was deeply comforting, like a deconstructed nursery version of chicken pot pie, though the noodles were just a touch overcooked.
Sides are Oakhaus’ surprise stars. The potato salad – a Schnetz family recipe – is a winner, dense with just-right red-skinned potatoes, light on mayo and tangy with red-wine vinegar. I’d go back just for another family tradition, “Grandma’s stuffing” with gravy, with its big crunchy and pillowy cubes of white bread contrasting with savory mushrooms. (The dressing-versus-stuffing debate divides us all: I was raised on the white-bread-stuffing side, and there I stay.)
Brussels sprouts with pancetta aren’t remotely German (though I guess if you drew a horizontal line from Brussels and a vertical one from the Italian home of pancetta, they would intersect somewhere in Germany), but their sweet-salty glaze, their porky chew and the faint crunch of the tender sprouts’ edges could convert many a dedicated sprouts-hater. A bit less successful was the red cabbage, gritty and overdosed with allspice.
A snack list bridges the gap between lunch (served until 3 p.m.) and dinner (starting at 5:30). No surprise: The snacks go well with beer, from the housemade pickle (subtly tangy but a tad limp) to the pretzel, which had an unusual light, croissant-like texture that paired well with swipes of dense, spicy cheese dip. “Kraut balls,” a sort of veggie and cabbage hushpuppy, were leaden, and their curry-scented base clashed with the funk of sauerkraut. Deviled eggs are also on offer, but I skipped them in light of my documented anti-deviled egg bias. It’s not them, it’s me.
If you’re in at snack hours but want a meal, your best bet is sausage on a roll, served with a scoop of potato salad. The menu promises a choice of bratwurst, Polish sausage or tofu bratwurst. On my first visit, I was served a disappointingly mushy bratwurst (sausages come from the usually strong Morant’s Sausage Kitchen), laden with mayo I’d asked the kitchen to leave off.
Service isn’t really the point at an order-at-the-counter place like this, but staff missteps marred more than one of our visits. Slowness and confusion reigned among folks working the registers. One evening, the sour ale I ordered (Hermitage Blackberry) wasn’t available – no big deal. But instead of explaining they had run out and giving me a choice, the server bluntly handed me a different already-poured beer, an Upland Hopsynth Barrel-Aged Sour. The beer had a pleasant, yeasty tang, but the substitution was clumsily handled. The same server was unfamiliar with the menu, telling me that the vegetarian sandwich listed on the dinner menu was a lunch item only.
The lunch crowd was light on our visits, a pity: The sandwiches on the lunch menu really show off the kitchen’s house-made rolls. Reminiscent of Kaiser rolls, the white-bread base of sandwiches such as the excellent, beefy French dip boast a gently crisp crust and yeasty, fluffy interior. Those rolls must turn stale fast, though, because the roll that held my bratwurst on a dinner visit was crumbly and flavorless. (Leftover bread forms the base of the stuffing and the breading for the kraut balls.) Baking is a strength: Pastry chef Lyndsay Wolf also is turning out baked-in-house desserts like puffy, chewy snickerdoodles and impeccable German chocolate cupcakes.
Also among the sandwiches is a tuna melt, an American classic that here is subtly dressed up with cilantro, ginger and soy. However, its topping of provolone cheese was so bland as to be almost undetectable. Vegetarians at carnivorous Oakhaus will find their best options on the sandwich list, which offers a Greek sandwich with tomato and feta as well as a savory, satisfying open-faced veggie melange with a creamy sauté of mushrooms, zucchini and corn with goat cheese and gypsy peppers. (There are also salads, but none are meal-sized.)
On the day I was there, the lunch patrons rather charmingly included several elderly couples, all of whom looked like they would have been right at home at Sam’s Hof Brau. They looked flummoxed by the hipster version found at Oakhaus, but dug into their sandwiches nonetheless. I felt similarly on my three visits.
I left Oakhaus feeling that I’d eaten several good dishes, but that the concept never quite cohered into a satisfying restaurant. Somehow, I doubt such misgivings will dissuade Oktoberfest celebrants hoisting beer by the liter.
Email Kate Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @washingtonkate
3413 Broadway, Sacramento; 916-376-7694; www.oakhaussac.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday; noon-10 p.m. Saturday; noon- 9 p.m. Sunday
Beverage options: Beer and wine, with a heavy emphasis on beer. Limited selection of red, rosé and white wine by the glass and bottle. Expansive list of draft and more than 50 bottled beers.
Vegetarian friendly: The focus is meat, but vegetarian and vegan options are available at both lunch and dinner.
Gluten-free options: Yes.
Noise levels: Moderate to loud, depending on the size of the crowd.
Ambiance: Casual and deliberately kitschy, with Deutschcore (polka albums, cuckoo clocks) contrasting with sleek bench-lined big tables – the better for raising a beer stein – and an expansive, appealing patio.
Long on tongue-in-cheek kitsch and short on coherence, this modern beer hall never quite comes together as a harmonious restaurant experience, despite a number of successful dishes and plenty of good intentions. Sample enough of the lavish beer list, though, and it won’t much matter.
Simpler, traditional-style dishes and sides (meatloaf, stuffing, potato salad) tend to be hearty and satisfying; creative and modernized fare can be more uneven. Baked goods and the sandwich-heavy lunch menu are well executed.
Counter service was friendly but surprisingly inefficient, even when the restaurant wasn’t busy. Some servers were unfamiliar with the menu or what was available.
Most dishes are well priced, but the pricing can be puzzling. Though you won’t walk away hungry, note that some portion sizes are smaller than the meaty hofbrau theme might suggest.