Felicitously located smack dab in the middle of a Lutheran cemetery, 150-year-old Niederstein’s recently shuffled off its mortal coil, soon to be replaced by an Arby’s. You thought the dead had better taste? Earlier, 70-year-old Gebhardt’s also set sail for the great beyond. There’s no doubt that the ancient German eateries of Middle Village, Glendale, and Richmond Hill are in their death throes, leaving Chalet Alpina one of the few remaining repositories of German culinary heritage in Queens.
The exterior admirably executes the chalet theme, with gingerbread trim, lace-curtained windows, and a galaxy of tiny twinkling lights. But the inside has undergone something of a redo, and the steins and Tyrolean feathered hats have been supplemented with paintings of flowers and nondescript bric-a-brac. Though some of the older waitresses wear the cinched-bodice garments called dirndls, the younger ones wear punky black. It was no accident that I found myself dining there on a recent snowy evening with a table of Wisconsin expats, who grew up eating in German restaurants with their parents.
“This place is creeping me out,” said Gretchen. “That guy over there looks like my weird uncle, who owns a mortuary and a shoe store near Green Bay.” Later, she observed: “I’m certain those two guys over there in plaid went to my high school.” Most of the diners in the comfortable boothed room, though, were well over 60. As the hour approached eight, a logjam of walkers developed under the carved wooden arch that leads into the dining room. Predictably, we went for the hyper-Teutonic stuff, like headcheese (“suelze,” $5.75). This is not Mario Batali’s warm, crumbly, reinvented headcheese, but the wobbly gelatinous product once found in the supermarket’s luncheon-meat case. It arrives in thick slices, with bits of pimento embedded for color appeal. Still, identifying the various pig tissues in the trembling mass constitutes one of its chief pleasures. Oh, and did I mention that the stout slices come bedded on lettuce dressed with—ugh!—balsamic vinegar? Is there any cuisine that has not been contaminated by it?
Luckily, it’s easy to wipe balsamic off a slice of headcheese. Another worthy appetizer is Hamburg-style herring salad. Morsels of sweet pickled fish are tossed with potatoes, beets, apples, and mayo into something that looks like a bloody kitchen accident. You expect to find a finger as you fork it down. A third app worth noting is a sometime special: braised eel. Unlike the Japanese, who tenderize the phallic fish, the Germans merely boil it in white wine, leaving it as rubbery as an expensive silicone dildo.
Entrée-wise, we compared a pork schnitzel with a veal schnitzel ($16.75 and $17.75, respectively) and found them both razor thin, nicely crumbed, and approximately 56 square inches in surface area. We also discovered that, at this stratum of the restaurant industry, there isn’t much difference between veal and pork. The best entrée is a plate of potato-free goulash with a gritty sauce like Texas chili. Nearly its equal is a Bavarian platter ($18.50), consisting of a bratwurst, a thick slice of smoked pork loin (like a boneless chop), and another of unsmoked loin. The smoked rules. But the Wisconsinites complained bitterly about the bratwurst. They found it bland compared to the “brat” they’re used to, king of summer picnics from Racine to Superior.