Staying in downtown Milwaukee one evening, I decided to walk over to the venerable Karl Ratzsch's for dinner. Karl Ratzsch's has been around since just after the turn of the 20th century and you'll get a lot of debate as to which German restaurant is better in Milwaukee - Kegel's Inn, Mader's or Karl Ratzsch's. Well, I was going to find out on my own.
The restaurant opened in 1904 as Hermann's Cafe, run by German chef Otto Hermann. After a few years, Hermann's step-daughter, Helen, moved to Milwaukee to help in the cafe. In the mid-1910's, a young German man by the name of Karl Ratzsch was touring the U.S. when World War I broke out in Europe. Deciding not to go back to Germany to fight in the war, Ratzsch settled in Milwaukee and began to work in the restaurant. Helen and the young Karl Ratzsch soon became an item, but it took them 10 years of courtship to tie the knot.
After they married, Karl and Helen bought the cafe from Otto Hermann, changed the name and moved it to it's present day location (see map). "Mama" and "Papa" Ratzsch continued to work in the restaurant until they sold it to their son, Karl, Jr. in 1962. Karl, Jr. ran the restaurant until the mid-90's when he sold it to his son, Josef. Josef, in turn, sold the restaurant in 2003 to longtime employees, Tom Andera, John Poulos and Judy Hazard, who, collectively, have nearly 90 years of working experience at Karl Ratzsch's. The ownership team continues to provide the same food and service that people have come to trust for over 100 years.
It was a 10 minute walk from my hotel to Karl Ratzsch's on a brisk winter evening in Milwaukee with the wind cutting through my winter jacket. By the time I got to the restaurant, I was ready to warm up. There were a handful of people in the ornate dining area, but I decided to pull up a seat at the bar. The bar area is decorated with a number of antique beer steins that Helen Ratzsch collected over the years. Some of them, including the big ones in the window of the bar area (above right), are pretty darn cool.
As I was going over the menu, another waitress came, Dawn, over and told me that she'd be taking care of me for the evening. She told me of a couple specials they had that evening - one of which was a combination of weiner schnitzel and Hungarian goulash, served with red cabbage. Oh, man! I about stopped right there and ordered that, but I knew I had to look through the full menu before I made up my mind.
In addition to Old World German foods on the menu - such as sauerbraten, rouladen, roast duck and pork shanks - Karl Ratzsch's also offers a number of European specialities such as Chicken a al Poulos, named for chef John Poulos and it features a grilled chicken breast with both a white cream and marinara sauce, then stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes, spinach and feta cheese. That certainly caught my attention.
Karl Ratzsch's also features seafood and steaks, and on Saturday nights they serve a 12 oz. or 18 oz. beef prime rib.
But some other things on the menu also made my stomach do jumping jacks -
Koningsberger Klopse - veal, beef and pork meatballs in a lemon caper sauce.
Black Forest Veal - a breaded veal cutlet layered with smoked pork, Swiss cheese, spinach, and mushroom sauce, served over spätzle.
Wiener Schnitzel a la Holstein - a breaded veal cutlet topped with fried egg, anchovies and capers served with steamed vegetables and potato dumpling.
It all sounded so good and I was having a lot of problems. After the second time Dawn came back to take my order, I decided to go with the wiener schnitzel and Hungarian goulash combination. I also got a cup of their liver dumpling soup and a basket of rolls and toasted bread chips was served with the meal.
The cup of liver dumpling soup came out first. The liver meatball was different in taste from other liver dumplings I've had in the past. I didn't know if I cared for the taste or texture at first, but decided that different is good - it allowed me to try something new. The liver dumpling fell apart easily in the broth, it was very moist and tender. I will have to say that it was above average overall.
Not long after finishing my liver dumpling soup and getting another Spaten, my waitress brought out the main entree. It was a lot of food! The wiener schnitzel was a pretty good sized cutlet and the portion of the Hungarian goulash was heaping and heavy ladled over the spatzle. The wiener schnitzel was, well, it was OK. It wasn't the best I've ever had and it was a little dry in taste. A sauce would have helped it, but on its own it was just OK.
However, the Hungarian goulash was excellent. There were large chunks of beef and vegetables in a rich sauce that had a slight tinge of paprika. I've always like the Hungarian goulash over at Mader's. I'll have to say the Hungarian goulash at Karl Ratzsch's was even better. But, oh! Was it so filling!
I can see why people have trouble when they debate the merits of the big three German restaurants in Milwaukee. I think the wiener schnitzel at Mader's is better than Karl Ratzch's. But the Hungarian goulash at Karl Ratzsch's is better than Mader's. However, overall I feel that Kegel's Inn is the best value of all three. I guess the bottom line is that you can't go wrong with any one of the three. But the menu at Karl Ratzsch's intrigues me enough to want to go back and try some of the interesting food at some point in time.