I hadn’t been to Check’s Café in probably three years, and I have no idea why. Time sneaks by sometimes, and suddenly you shake your head and say, “Crap, I haven’t been to Check’s in a while.”
While working on a writing project, I ended up interviewing longtime Germantown resident Don Haag, and he suggested we go to Check’s. I had forgotten how inviting the place is. Don regaled me with tales of growing up in Germantown/Schnitzelburg and said Check’s feels exactly like it did decades ago when it first opened in the site of a former A&P grocery store in 1944.
He talked of days when people sat on their porches, sipping beer and chatting with their neighbors, oblivious to the fact that their grandchildren would one day be obsessed with smart phones and social media.
After attending a bock beer festival recently, I decided to return to Check’s for some German food and hospitality. The plan was to have a late lunch and one or two beers. My plan went strangely awry as the place filled up, people anxious to start the Thursday evening karaoke.
But before the “just one more and we’re outta here” syndrome set in, my girlfriend Cynthia and I did manage to have a good lunch. While Check’s really makes its dime and its name on its variety of daily plate lunch specials, from fried chicken to open-faced roast beef sandwiches to country fried steak to chicken livers, there are a few other homespun staples I was out to try. (And no, it wasn’t the chili, but that’s one of Check’s specialties.)
Nope, I wanted the bratwurst sandwich, which is another longtime staple. Hey, it’s Germantown, why wouldn’t it be? At Check’s, you don’t get your bratwurst on a bun — it’s butterflied and served on rye bread. I got mine with a side of sauerkraut and piled it on with plenty of mustard.
Man, talk about comfort food. The brat was mild, but had a hint of spice and a slightly sour flavor that blended nicely with the rye. It was grilled crisp at the ends and edges so that and the kraut gave it a bit of crunch.
Cynthia and I both had several bites of the sauerkraut separate from the sandwich, and I have to say it is some of the best I’ve had. Whereas store-bought kraut too often comes on like a punch in the mouth, this fermented cabbage was served cold and had a mild, vinegary flavor. It tasted to me like Check’s is making its own.
But the highlight of my lunch — well, besides the Warsteiner Dunkel beer — was the German potato salad. I admit I had this when I sat down with Don to talk about the old days, and I was craving more. It’s homemade and fairly basic, but I could eat a bucket full of the stuff they serve at Check’s.
I’ve had German potato salad that was made with way too much sugar for my taste buds, but this stuff is spot on — big, tender chunks of potato, a bit of celery, onions and plenty of bacon. I mean lots of bacon. And this bacon wasn’t fried; it apparently had been boiled along with the potatoes. Heck, it looked raw, but that didn’t stop me.
When you add the salt and the natural saltiness of the bacon, what you get is a delicious, creamy potato salad that, frankly, makes you want more beer.
Meanwhile, Cynthia had a fried bologna sandwich and a side of onion rings. The bologna is fried until it has a black ring in the center, making it look almost like 45 rpm phonograph record made of processed meat. But the thick-sliced bologna, she said, was like a trip back to her childhood.
“You know what I wish I had ordered as a side?” she said when the bologna was gone. “Another sandwich.”
That’s taking nothing away from the onion rings — the fried bologna was just that good.
Anyway, it wasn’t long after that when we noticed people staring. Finally, Cynthia’s boss, who is a regular at Check’s and had stopped in, came over and told us we were sitting in the spot where the karaoke machine is set up. People were waiting for us to finish and get the heck out.
We surrendered our table and decided to get, er, “one more” beer. All I’ll say is this: People in Germantown/Schnitzelburg not only know how to have a good time, those folks can flat out sing.