Winner Schnitzel

These days honest-to-goodness mom-and-pop restaurants seem about as endangered as family values.

For one thing, there are fewer and fewer of them. Doubtless, people have concluded that to live, rear children, and run a business together isn't a prescription for a fruitful long-term relationship: The 24-7 marriage can be downright brutal.

Then there's the fact that mom-and-poppers are hard to spot from the road. Buried in obscure little strip malls or stuck in tiny suburban complexes, they're are about as visible as Pluto on a cloudy night.

Finally, there are the typical obstacles to be avoided or overcome -- illnesses and other misfortunes, as well as capitalism, that good ol' American system that works so well for some and puts others out of business. In the restaurant trade, competition is hardly ever of the friendly variety.

Take the case of Kathee Koch and her fourth husband Helmuth Koch, an Austrian who trained for seven years as a chef, Konditor (pastry-maker), and butcher in cooking schools in his native country, and who has cooked in resorts all over Europe. The Koches had moved back to the States from Austria in 1994 to deal with various emotional upheavals -- her mother's stroke (and subsequent death), his father's accidental death, the disappearance of her five-year-old miniature dachshund from their front lawn. With money her mother willed to her, Kathee opened the ten-seat Austrian eatery Cafe Beethoven in February 1995 as a way to keep busy and assuage her grief while Helmuth was employed as the pastry chef at Jo Anna's Marketplace.

She started offering a single entree a night, take-out only, for the unbelievably low price of $4.35; she now has a full menu, still low-priced (though she has come to her senses with regard to $4.35 entrees), but still no liquor license. No matter. Located in the Shoppes of Sabal Chase (which also houses Gil Capa's Bistro), the cafe is doors away from a Food Spot and a good selection of beer; neighbor King Liquors has both wine and an instant chiller (which I consider the greatest technological advancement of this century). Tell the clerk wrapping your vino that you may need to come back and borrow his wine opener if Beethoven doesn't have one, and he'll tell you which schnitzel to order for dinner.

Kathee bought her pastries from Jo Anna's -- the very cakes and pies Helmuth was baking, owing to a noncompete agreement he'd signed when he went to work there. When she came down with phlebitis in July 1995 and was unable to work, Helmuth went to help her, and therein lies the problem. Jo Anna's is suing Helmuth for breach of contract; owner Alan Lederman refuses to discuss the suit. Helmuth says he took a leave of absence and was fired when he didn't return. The suit has yet to be resolved

Legal problems notwithstanding, the couple continues to build the business. Decor apparently was not a priority: Those who are unfamiliar with mom-and-pop interior design can expect a first-class education at Cafe Beethoven. A hand-lettered sign offering notary public and fax services hangs next to a travel agent's poster collection of Austrian towns. Lace curtains and embroidered tablecloths look just shabbily genteel enough to have been done by my Polish-Austrian grandmother.

The novelty pepper dispenser sneezes when you shake it. The salt cellar says either "Bless you" or "Thank you"; we couldn't quite figure it out, though we tested it repeatedly, to the annoyance of our fellow patrons.

If all that doesn't convince you, take a tour through the kitchen to the bathroom, where the towel says "Mom" on it. Don't forget to nod to Helmuth as he pounds the toughness out of the Wiener schnitzel you just ordered -- in the end, you'll be grateful for his deafening zeal.

Actually, you can give thanks for many of the basic, well-prepared dishes here, particularly main courses. Just don't count on everything being available. One night the bratwurst had gone missing; ditto the goulash and the stuffed cabbage. Two visits in, I still haven't tasted the elusive cabbage, but the goulash I can assure you was worth the wait, big chunks of stewed meat as tender as a tear-jerker. The stock, which had soaked into the lean beef, was oniony and winy -- delicious dripping off whipped potatoes and supple, buttered spaetzle. Every entree is accompanied by the diner's choice of two side dishes, which change nightly but typically include parsley potatoes, rice, and vegetables such as green beans and corn.

The browned bratwurst, which we scored our second time around, was bursting with juices and combined beautifully with not-too-sour sauerkraut and full-bodied mustard. This single, long sausage would also have been tasty with sauteed red cabbage, an even milder alternative to the pleasant kraut. In fact, the most acid you're likely to encounter at Cafe Beethoven blanketed the green salad, another side-dish option: Iceberg lettuce, shredded red cabbage and carrots, sliced cucumbers, and tomatoes were dressed with an almost-too-tangy red wine vinaigrette.

The schnitzels are the pride of the house, and rightly so. You can get veal, chicken, or pork, breaded or not, sauced or plain. We loved the traditional Wiener schnitzel, which featured veal that was at once crisp and succulent. The pork too was perfectly textured, under a silky sauce comprising cream, onions, mushrooms, and wine.

Pork flambe dijonnaise, two small chops in a mustard-cream sauce, didn't fare as well. Though served without the flare of a tableside fire, the meat nevertheless was too tough to chew, having obviously been exposed to the flames in the back too long.

The New York strip steak Provencal made up for the pork faux pas. This meaty sirloin was cooked medium-rare as ordered and served with a smattering of peppery brown sauce to provide additional bite (though mushrooms, billed on the menu, were absent). Even better, prime rib dripped juices; it was larded with just the right amount of fat to keep the meat moist as it roasted. This entree, which Helmuth portions out freehand, is offered in two sizes, the queen (about sixteen ounces) and the king (much bigger). I'm an equal-opportunity eater, but I had to choose the inch-thick queen, if only because I couldn't imagine finishing even that. At $10.95 ($12.95 for the king), it was a serious bargain.

Prime rib is available only on weekend nights. So too is poached salmon in a thin sour cream and dill sauce, which turned out to be tasty if unremarkable. It was put to better use in a smoked salmon appetizer, the only starter (other than soup) I've had the opportunity to try at Cafe Beethoven. Sliced like lox, the salmon was layered over shredded iceberg lettuce and garnished with capers, chopped white onions, and quartered tomatoes, with a basket of freshly baked white bread brought along as an accompaniment.

Soups, the only starters billed on the menu, didn't lift my ladle: Cream of leek was lumpy with cornstarch thickener and lacking in leek flavor and all-around seasoning; squash soup, which we expected to be a puree, was actually a clear vegetable broth, overly salty, with pieces of summer squash soaking in it.

In a way, a lack of appetizers is a clever move for this cafe: Kathee's desserts are superb and should be consumed greedily, with as much appetite as possible. We smacked our lips so loudly over a soft, cinnamon-sprinkled apple strudel that the proprietors went back into the kitchen and emerged with an order of apricot-filled crepes -- on the house. We also demolished a sacher torte, an apricot-filled double chocolate cake from the famed Hotel Sacher in Vienna, and a slice of black forest cake whose rich, crumbly layers were loaded with cherries, kirschwasser, and whipped cream.

Other possibilities: linzer torte (hazelnut dough with raspberry filling) and dobosch torte (seven white cake layers with chocolate-hazelnut filling and a caramel top), as well as miniature swans (eclair dough shaped like the elegant birds and filled with Bavarian cream) and cream puffs. The Koches are perhaps proudest of the "Beethoven Symphony," chocolate cake layered with chocolate-hazelnut mousse and raspberry jam. They'll be happy, in fact, to make any of these desserts to order and ship them anywhere in the U.S. -- or to ship themselves; they cater affairs all over the state.

That's what I call a care package, from a caring mom and pop.

Cafe Beethoven
10720 SW 113th Pl; 273-1111. Open Monday -- Saturday for lunch from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and for dinner from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m.

Soup du jour
Wiener schnitzel
New York steak
Apple strudel


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