October is the time to experience the unsubtle glories of the city’s German-American heritage.
On my first weekend in Baltimore, my uncle picked me up at my dorm and, by way of introducing me to the city, took me to an unforgettable restaurant called Haussner’s. This was one of East Baltimore’s time-worn German eateries, a huge space encrusted floor-to-ceiling with 19th-century paintings. The Germans dominated the local restaurant scene in the early 20th century, as they did in many American cities, and Haussner’s was their most ornate redoubt. Its vast menu ranged from Teutonic fare like hasenpfeffer to overwrought “Continental” offerings in rich flour-thickened sauces. (Check out New York Public Library’s digitized copy of a 1967 menu online.)
This was the classiest place in the city, or it had been once. When Mad Men producers wanted to show Don Draper out on the town in Baltimore for an third-season episode, they sent him to Haussner’s. Here’s a 1961 promotional film of the place in its heyday:
Haussner’s, alas, closed in 1999, and its amazing art collection was auctioned by Sotheby’s for $10 million (Rod Stewart bought a painting). But its fat-clogged heart lives on in a few corners of the city, where the house specialty I ordered that night back in ‘86—sour beef with dumplings—still appears on menus.
Sour beef is Baltimore-ized sauerbraten, a kind of German pickled pot roast. And autumn is its peak season, a time when corner bars and churches host sour-beef specials and weekend dinners. At the end of this month, historic Zion Lutheran Church, just a few steps from City Hall, throws the Woodstock of sour beef, a two-day event in which thousands of locals pack the German-speaking church’s Adlersaal to load up on the stuff, plus beer and red cabbage.
You should go, but the best sour beef, in my experience, was the version made by longtime Baltimore magazine receptionist Marge Shaw, a daughter of East Baltimore who brought tubs of it into the office every October. Failing access to her kitchen, I make my own. The city’s last old-school German restaurant, Eichenkrantz, closed its doors in 2015 (now the best place is the Old Stein Inn, over in Edgewater, near Annapolis). Sour beef survives, just barely. It turns up on the menus of first-ring suburban restaurants that cater to an older crowd, places like the Greek-owned Dmitiri’s or time-warp joints like Johnny Dee’s Lounge and the aptly called Sunset. It is there, amid the early-bird specials and strong Manhattans, that sour beef is making its last stand.
Variations abound—some are stew-y, others more like sliced meat bound in thick, glossy gravy—but they’re all inevitably described as “an acquired taste.” The meat is marinated for days in a medieval-smelling mix of wine, vinegar, cloves, and other pickling spices. (I add juniper berries, because when else are you going to use the things?) Then it’s seared and slow-roasted in its marinade, which turns into a beefy, mouth-puckering broth. The whole process reminds you that this was a technique devised for dealing with tough, gamey haunches of deer back in the Old Country. The final stage involves thickening the gravy with crushed gingersnaps, adding both a medicinal kick and sugary-sweet note atop the deep meaty-sourness. The potato dumplings—baby-fist-sized blobs of carb—float in this sea of massively over-seasoned sauce, soaking it all up.
It’s…well, it’s something. You can let it sit for a few days after you cook it, which lets it mellow a bit. But not much. Sour beef comes at you fast. What does it taste like? It tastes like EVERYTHING.
That’s always been a hallmark of Baltimore’s unsubtle culinary character, which tends to be a cuisine of Haussnerian excess and overkill. The city’s more-famous signature dish, steamed blue crabs, operates on a similar principle, smothering delicate seafood in shovelfuls of Old Bay seasoning, a peppery concoction seemingly composed of everything in the spice drawer. This is powerful food, the kind that warms the soul and clobbers the senses. It’s not a meal one wants to repeat immediately. But when it’s time, it’s perfect.
Did we miss your favorite sour beef spot? Tell us in the comments.