Why: With chilly and rainy weather settling in, it’s time for some hearty, sticks-to-your ribs fare. Menu items at Gustav’s have changed little since Horst Mager opened The Rheinlander in Portland in 1963 and followed up with Gustav’s, with restaurant locations in Portland, Clackamas, Tigard, the Portland International Airport and, of course, Vancouver.
Atmosphere: Belted by asphalt, it’s like an Alps lodge tucked away in the middle of Vancouver. Walk into the restaurant, and high ceilings with exposed honey-colored beams beckon. In the fittingly-named Alps Room, where we dinned, beer flags hung from the wooden rafters, a fireplace flickered and trophy deer heads dotted the walls — one with a Bavarian feathered cap. It was lunchtime on a weekday, and a few other diners were scattered around the room, where light Christmas music played in the background.
What I Tried: We started our meal with a fondue sampler, which comes with a trio of melted Swiss cheese in mini-crocks. Typically, the pots hold one each of melted Swiss cheese, tomato jam in melted Swiss and crab and roasted peppers in melted Swiss cheese. Enter my shellfish allergy and a need to nix the crab. The server readily swapped out the crab crock for an extra Swiss cheese, and the plate arrived with bread chunks, roasted pretzels, sliced apple and celery, along with fondue forks for dunking.
The fondue jettisoned me back in time to fondue dinners with bread chunks and cooked meat dipped in communal cheese sauces. Except in this offering, there was no heat source to keep the sauce from chilling. Still, it was fun to spear bread chunks while trying to avoid cheese sauce drips. And the apples made an interesting sour-sweet-savory dunk.
For the main course, I ordered German cabbage rolls and mashed potatoes while my dining companion ordered chicken schnitzel.
The German cabbage rolls and mashed potatoes came from Gustav’s à la carte menu, which allows for sharing or mixing and matching of dishes. The chicken schnitzel, an entrée item, came with red cabbage and mashed potatoes.
Our meals arrived at the same time, with my German cabbage rolls, basted in tomato sauce, on one plate, and on another plate, the mashed potatoes, which, with their scalloped edges and puffy mounds, looked as if they were piped from a pastry gun.
The cabbage rolls, tender and savory, were stuffed with a rice and meat filling. The mashed potatoes were dense and filling, without even a touch of potato chunks in its smooth texture.
In a later interview, restaurant manager Larry Baldwin explained that the cabbage rolls, and all of the restaurant’s recipes, originated with Horst Mager, the restaurant’s founder. The rice mixture is blended with pork and beef and wrapped into braised cabbage leaves. But no dice when it comes to seasoning explanations. Baldwin has state secrets to keep: “I don’t want to tell everybody,” he said.
Baldwin is more generous, however, with the secret to the cabbage rolls’ fork-tender state: They’re braised for three to four hours in the tomato stock.
When it came to the mashed potatoes, Baldwin said chefs add a touch of nutmeg. I didn’t taste the spice, but the potatoes were a hearty serving that paired well with the cabbage rolls’ tomato sauce.
My dining companion’s chicken schnitzel arrived on a plate with mashed potatoes and braised red cabbage. The fork-tender schnitzel was golden brown and lightly breaded with a crisp exterior.
“You can turn just about any meat into a schnitzel,” Baldwin said of the dish. “It’s just pounding it until it’s tender.”
The dish’s humble origins reflect the ingenuity of the German people and others following World War I, when good meat cuts were scarce in Germany and throughout Europe. A tough cut of meat, whether chicken, beef, pork or some other meat, was tenderized by walloping it with a kitchen mallet. That tenderized and flattened the meat, making a tough cut palatable. Enter spices and breading, and making do eventually became a culinary delicacy, as evidenced in my friend’s meal.
From the fondue to the main courses, the meal earned mutual thumbs-up with promises to try them again. But be warned: This solid fare is probably better during winter months than in the summertime, when you’ll probably want something lighter.
Menu Highlights Beyond What I Tried: We noticed shepherd’s pie on the menu. That’s a wintertime staple for me, and I’d give it a shot next time.
Other Observations: The wait staff was friendly and approachable from start to finish. We were immediately seated at a comfortable window-side booth and the server checked in on us several times during our stay. To our surprise, we found that we’d spent 11/2 hours on lunch and conversation and never felt hurried or as if we’d over-stayed our welcome.
Cost: Figure $9 to $13 for an appetizer. Entrées are $11 to $15. Sandwiches fetch $7 to $11. A la carte dishes run $6 to $11 with sides about $5 to $6.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Where: 1705 S.E. 164th Ave., Vancouver.
Health Score: Gustav’s received a score of 5 for its inspection on Aug. 23. Zero is a perfect score, and Clark County Public Health closes restaurants with a score of 100 or higher. For more information, call 360-397-8428.