When you live in the South Hills and don’t drive, there’s any number of excuses to largely ignore the North Side. However, having recently caught on to the irresistible charms of Banjo Night at the Elks Lodge, I’ve had more opportunities to get to know the current culinary landscape of the area. Now I can count Max’s Allegheny Tavern as its own reason to make the trip.
Kait and I were all set to meet at Bistro Soul, the fairly recent addition to the popular Bistro-To-Go takeout counter, but they only stay open until six. We had to figure out a new plan. Kait knew about a good German restaurant down the street from the Elks Lodge, but couldn’t remember the name. Thankfully, Urbanspoon (and fate) intervened. Their handy little luck of the draw slot machine app of restaurant picks, when set on North Side, spit out the name: Max’s Allegheny Tavern.
Residing in what used to be Allegheny City’s “Dutchtown,” Max’s Allegheny Tavern has over a hundred years of history, a long-standing story immediately apparent once you step through the doors. Little rooms spill off of the narrow bar area: a little parlor space, a larger dining room, and a slightly more formal white-painted dining room. There are old photos and paintings all over the wallpaper walls. The floors are old wood, the dining tables and chairs are wood. Soft golden light comes from antique fixtures hanging from the ceiling and scones on the wall.
The menu can be found in the interior of what looks to be an old newspaper, and the waitress directed our attention to the paper insert listing the night’s specials. Considering that we were headed off to Banjo Night after dinner and that we’d have more than enough beer to drink there, we passed on brews and went straight to ordering our entrees.
The table received a bread basket with sesame bread, brown bread, knotted rolls, and pumpernickel rolls, plus two sides of apple butter and a side of seemed to be a sweet cabbage relish. I barely had eyes for my starter salad as I was too busy devouring the pumpernickel rolls slathered with a thick smear of apple butter. A complimentary basket of bread is one thing – an appreciated enticement to your main course and little else. But then there’s a basket like this, a bread basket that not only whets your appetite for the meal to come, but is designed to intelligently and deliciously reflect on the type of cuisine served. It’s an extra touch, but it’s those extra touches that really leave an impression.
We were even more pleased with our entrees. Kait and I were curious about the traditional German fare on the menu. She realized that in all of her years of German heritage, she’d never had schnitzel. So she ordered the Schnitzel Royale, a thin breaded veal topped with tomatoes and Gouda cheese. It came complete with sauerkraut and spatzle and a roasted beet for garnish. While the spatzle was bland (as the doughy little nuggets tend to be), the sauerkraut was bursting with flavor a little sweet, a little sour, and perfectly textured with accompanying little slivers of pork.
As for the schnitzel, I’ll let Kait do the talking: The meat was perfectly tenderized. The breading was a delicious touch; it remained surprsingly unsoggy given all of the cheese and juiciness of the meat. The breading also worked well bridging the taste of the veal and the gouda cheese. The end result was a nicely layered set of flavor perfect for a cold evening. As my first schnitzel I have nothing to compare it to, but I believe the schnitzel bar has now been set decently high.
I also went the traditional route. After going back and forth between the turkey reuben on potato pancakes and several ‘wurst’ items, I made a last minute choice on the goulash. I had no idea what to expect, but I was mildly surprised at the bowl of stew that was set down in front of me. What at first seemed to be a bowl of fairly typical beef stew turned out to have several surprises. First off, the roast beef played second fiddle to the terrific amount of onions, peas, carrots, corn, and potatoes filling out the dish. In fact, if I had been looking for something meat-heavy, I would have been rather disappointed. Fortunately it was just as I could have asked for. The bigger surprise was the flavor of the dish, which was somewhere between a vegetable soup and a port-based stew. It had an earthy sweetness that overruled the more gravy-like consistency. In a strange way, and I say this in the highest regard, it was like a dish of something you could get in a German cafeteria. Authentic, a little generic, but very satisfying in a lunch special way. I was especially pleased to have a little bread left to finish off the traces of goulash.
Adam ordered the fish sandwich and was presented with a giant, impeccably breaded and fried filet monster on bun. A half of this sandwich could have been an entire meal. What’s more, it was probably the best fish sandwich all of us had tried in a long, long time. The salty, crunchy breading complemented the mild, flakey filet that was not even remotely fishy. It was clean and fresh tasting, and more than any one of us could handle. Thankfully, Adam’s a generous sort, so we all got a fair share to try.
Alongside the sandwich were two dense potato pancakes. I make it a point of sampling potato pancakes wherever I go, with wildly varying results. Aside from quality level, the type of potato pancake varies with the kind of cuisine prepared. The Greek-influenced potato pancakes of the Dor-Stop and the German-influenced potato pancakes of Max’s are both delicious, but very, very different. These were fluffy, but solid, like a more savory version of a regular breakfast pancake. Like many of the starches in the meal, they were on the bland side, meant more as a textural addition to the other flavors already present in the dish. Here they were perfectly paired with sour cream and the homemade apple sauce, and they served as a nice mellow counterpart to the teeming mountain of fried fish placed in front of Adam.
We ate until we were bursting full, and even then, Kait had half of a meal left. We were so satisfied with our experience that when the check came, we were stunned at how affordable it had all been. For the amount and quality of food, you’d likely pay twice as much elsewhere. But then again, it seems that Max’s Allegheny Tavern is a package deal: A bit old world atmosphere, a bit of old world cuisine, and closest to old world prices you can get. Knowing how great this place can be, I may have run out of excuses to stay out of the North Side.