For two years while living at Penn Tower, I would walk by Herwig’s Austrian Bistro nearly everyday on my way to class. While I could barely see what sat behind that green awning, I did know that there would be wiener schnitzel inside Herwig’s doors.
I didn’t know what wiener schnitzel was, but I suspected it involved sausage, which I assumed was a staple of every Austrian dish. It turns out that I was half right. Sausage is the probably the most popular food in Austrian cuisine, but wiener schnitzel is typically a breaded cutlet of veal.
I took my first trip to one of Penn State’s international culinary essentials last week, expecting a big, scary Austrian man with a heavy accent after e-mailing with Bernd Brandstatter, the son of Herwig Brandstatter, who is, as you may have guessed, the restaurant’s namesake.
What I found instead was a 40-year-old man with a big beard who attended State College High School and spoke with an American accent. If it wasn’t for the fact that he speaks Austrian, cooks insanely good food from his native country, and recalls stories about things like tobacco-sniffing competitions, I would have never guessed that he was an Austrian-American.
Bernd is an interesting character in his own right, but the story of Herwig and his journey from a small town in Austria to a small town in Pennsylvania is where the restaurant’s history begins. Herwig learned how to cook at a culinary school in Austria originally.
The Brandstatters had family all the way across the pond in State College, Pennsylvania, where they visited on their way to Australia a long, long time ago in 1981. After visiting town, Herwig decided to open the first iteration of the bistro that now rests on College Avenue. That restaurant was all the way over at Tussey Mountain.
“At that point in time, if you wanted to live in this country you needed to do something that nobody else in your community could do,” Bernd said. “So my dad opened up an Austrian restaurant at Tussey.”
Herwig eventually tired of cooking and turned to an unexpected and unfamiliar career path, opening a travel agency in State College in 1984. That lasted for quite a while, but business slowed after September 11th and the advances of online travel capabilities. Sure enough, Herwig turned back to his one true passion, this time opting for a location downtown to serve Pennsylvanians and college students his schnitzel in 2002 at the current location of Fasta Pasta.
After a few years, that location moved down to Herwig’s current home on College Avenue, a larger space with glass doors that slide to make an open-air restaurant in the warmer months, spreading the magnificent aromas of bacon and sausage onto the streets.
The most important takeaway that I had from my conversation with Bernd is how important the family feel of the restaurant is to him and his father.
“My mom passed away last year, which sucks, but it’s still that same kind of family feeling here,” he said. “It’s really different. It’s interactive. It’s like going to your grandmother’s house. If you don’t finish your food, she’s going to yell at you. That’s the biggest compliment we can get. People come in here and say its like their grandmother’s cooking.”
As for the food itself, Bernd provided me with a sampling of sorts from the Herwig’s menu, allowing me to get a good taste of authentic Austrian food and what it’s all about.
“We pride ourselves on making everything from scratch here,” he said. “Nothing comes in pre-processed. Our specials change every day. Once I’m out of something, I cross it off the board. It might not be the most ideal business model, but that’s how we do it.”
The first dish I tried was a traditional Austrian bratwurst stuffed with Swiss cheese and wrapped in bacon. It was the perfect blend of sweetness and herbs from the sausage and cheese along with saltiness and smokiness from the bacon. It was texturally compelling as well, soft on the inside with a crunchy bacon shell. The moral of the story is that any dish combining cheese, bacon, and sausage has to be good, and of course it was.
The second dish, called groestl, is essentially an Austrian hash. It combined potatoes with a plethora of meats, dependent on what the restaurant has available to them on any given day. That’s because Herwig’s uses fresh meat only, bringing in their pork from Hogs Galore.
Lucky for me, I got blood sausage, regular sausage, hot ring bologna, bacon, chicken, and pork in my hash. Basically, it was a lot of meat with some potatoes tossed in. Bernd took the liberty of giving me two fried eggs on top of the hash, which isn’t on the menu, and it was the perfect compliment. I like eating breakfast foods at any time of day, and this was by far and away the best hash I have ever had.
The third and final part of my sampling plate was some Austrian sauerkraut. Bernd warned me that it “isn’t like your American stuff” before serving it up, and he was spot on. American kraut is strongly characterized by its fermentation, giving it a sharpness and sourness that doesn’t exist in the much more mellow, sweet, and traditional Austrian version of the cabbage dish.
But none of that compared to the dessert, which was one of Bernd’s famous cinna-bacon rolls, an idea that he hopes to retire on. Picture a cinnabon, but tastier and with better frosting, and with crispy bacon wrapped within the rolled batter. It was by far and away one of the best desserts I have ever had.
Bernd told me that he likes to make anything that he can with local bacon. From dark chocolate bacon cheesecake, to salted caramel frozen custard with maple-glazed bacon, to chocolate-covered bacon, to peanut butter cake with bacon, Bernd will find a way to shove that salty, smoky pork into everything he can.
“This is nothing fancy,” Bernd said. “This is what my dad grew up on. My grandmother would make him the groestl at the end of the week with what’s left over… meats, potatoes, whatever. We don’t really have leftovers so much here. But this is authentic Austrian food.”
On my way out, I asked Bernd if he had anything to add that potential Herwig’s customers should know.
“Don’t eat before you come in and bring your sense of humor,” he said.
I highly recommend you follow that advice.