THE SALZBURG CHALET
Nothing highlights the aspirations of people from far-off places more than the sprouting of restaurants themed after said far-off places. Such was the case with Hans Klein and his Salzburg Chalet that opened its doors circa 1970 thirteen degrees north of the equator on the tropical island of Guam. It was the first Austrian restaurant in this swath of the Western Pacific. It would also be the last.
Anything new on this tiny island soon became the talk of the town and the Salzburg Chalet had people talking… where the heck was Salzburg and what was a chalet? We, as children of a Swiss mother, were excited by the option of European fare in a soy sauce permeated landscape and were thus unequivocally in the “Absolutely!” faction when the question of whether we should dine there came up. Dad who is Korean and at the time traveled with a bottle of Tabasco® in his brief case was not as moved by the proposition. Mom, who floated the idea in the first place and from whom we had assumed unconditional support, was hesitant for other reasons.
She had heard from Marcel – a compatriot and the general manager of a company distributing Swiss goods – that every December Hans Klein would raid his supply of glossy promotional calendars for the Swiss brands Marcel marketed. These he would send back home to Austria at Christmas, the irony of free calendars earmarked for Asia being repatriated to Europe as gifts apparently escaping him. This detail should not have had any bearing on my mother’s calculation as to whether Mr. Klein’s new restaurant was worth a visit but this parsimonious flair rubbed her the wrong way. It was perhaps benevolent solidarity for a fellow European far away from home but more likely our relentless chanting in crescendo of “Hooray for the Salzburg Chalet’” that finally swayed Mom into our camp. Dad, finding himself casting the lone “No” vote, resigned himself to a dinner at the chalet.
Coconut fronds were rustling in a gentle breeze and the sun was setting behind pink, orange and cool aid purple clouds as we pulled up to the restaurant. To our disappointment it did not, from the outside anyway, look anything like a chalet. As we got out of our car my father remarked, judging from the filled spaces in the lot, that business must be okay. This seemed to cheer him up some. Dad opened the door and stepped aside for my Mom, a gesture that my sister and I took advantage of to side step around her and into the restaurant in a scramble for dibs on prime seating. This competitive instinct fizzled as, thanks to the end product of Mr. Klein’s imagination, we suddenly found ourselves smack in the middle of an Austrian chalet – much the same way the gondolas at the Venetian transport you to Venice. To give credit where credit is due, the effort was absolute. The pièce de résistance of this lost air-conditioned winter wonderland was a fake fireplace complete with a flickering hearth framed by a pair of wooden skis. The mantle was encrusted with souvenir knickknacks – a set of eight ornate beer steins that were arranged from small to progressively larger, a pewter plate embossed with the head of a large smiling milk cow and an assortment of other Alpine curios that filled the remaining gaps. All of this tied in perfectly with the large black bear rug with its tooth filled snout gaping wide in a frozen yawn that lay in front of the fireplace.
I was headed over to the beast for a closer look but was intercepted by Mr. Klein who skipped over to welcome us just as the cuckoo in the cuckoo clock cuckooed a single, raspy and shrill “CUCKOO!” to mark the half hour.
“Velcome home,” Mr. Klein chuckled to my mother.
“Home is a bit further north,” answered Mom forcing a smile. A few pleasantries were exchanged and then Mr. Klein showed us to a booth. This, as it always did, triggered a stalemate regarding the question of who would get the preferred aisle seat. This impasse was resolved when I succumbed to the first deployment of mom’s “big eyes” after which I slid in reluctantly but not before administering a stealthy but firm pinch to my sister who annoyingly did not react and continued to smirk victoriously. We were handed and then disappeared behind the embossed and leather bound menus.
“My menu doesn’t have any prices,” whispered my sister after a minute or so, excited without understanding the implications of this set up.
“Daddy’s menu has the prices dear,” explained Mom. It was clear from the tone of her voice that she was not impressed. There is something admittedly romantic about freeing the palate from any price sensitivity but that this extravagance would be bestowed upon children and come at the literal expense of the paying patron did not mesh with my mother’s sensibilities.
“I’ll start with the escargot and follow that with the Lobster Thermidor,” I announced, breaking the silence.
“Snails are out of season,” said Dad quietly without looking up from his menu, “and the lobster is frozen son… how about the Wienerschnitzel?” Clearly a rhetorical question.
“I want the medallions of filet mignon with the imported wild mushroom sauce,” chimed in my sister.
“Sweetheart, you don’t even like mushrooms,” said my mother.
“But these are imported and wild,” she answered back, provoking the second activation of big eyes.
“Okaaaayy,” said my sister, “I’ll have the Weinerschnitzel.”
“Weeeeeeeeinerschnitzel, “ I enunciated deliberately. “Sounds like a crusty wee wee.”
“WHAT… did… YOU… say?” hissed mom under her breath.
I might have spent the rest of dinner in the car had the sudden commotion a few tables over not commanded the attention of the entire dining room. The maître d’, in an over zealous application of cognac during the tableside flambéing of a pepper steak, had managed to ignite a Rear Admiral’s sleeve. In a testament to Mr. Klein’s quick thinking and agile gait, he was over in a flash and had patted out the flames before the Admiral understood what had happened.
“Don’t vorry,” Mr, Klien reassured the smoldering naval officer, “Ve vill give you a free dessert.”
I took the opportunity of this distraction to quietly excuse myself for a trip to the “Badezimmers,” making a mental note to return the pinch my sister inflicted on me as I slid past her. I pushed open the door to the men’s room, identified by an enameled cut out of a blond blue-eyed rosy-cheek lederhosen sporting lad smiling jubilantly in the forefront of his pastoral background, and stepped in to use the urinal – except there wasn’t one. I lingered anticipating that the more time that passed the better chance I would have at being absolved from the timing of my underappreciated sense of humor. I washed my hands, checked my hair, sniffed the bouquet (of fake flowers) and then there was nothing left but to take care of business. Having established an appropriate trajectory I drew my attention to the poster of the Austrian Alps that wrapped its way panoramically around the stall. All the major peaks were named and their elevations indicated in meters. Front dead center was Austria’s highest mountain, the mighty GroBglockner in majestic splendor at 3798 meters. It was when I turned to take in the western flank that I set off the errant cascade that splattered the seat, floor and the legs of my pants. Relieved, annoyed and zipped, I reached for the toilet paper to blot out the evidence of my indiscretion and was delighted to find that this activated a chime in the dispenser. The first few bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Movement were still resonating from the midst of the Austrian Alps as rejoined my family
I was going to relay what I cleverly coined as the “movement for the movement” detail to my family but decided against this figuring that Mom was not in the mood for bathroom related trivia.
“Did you know the highest mountain in Austria is the GroBglockner?” I queried instead. “It’s 3798 meters tall.”
“There are much higher mountains in the Swiss Alps,” Mom answered quietly.
A few minutes later, the Weinerschnitzels arrived. Though nothing was said, the skepticism was palpable. For one, the schnitzel’s that extended beyond the edge of the plate was inordinately large. It was also extraordinarily thin, the result of a vigorous and as we would soon find out ineffective tenderizing session.
“It looks good,” Dad said, in a show of support that did not inspire much confidence.
I was about to cut off a piece when big eyes signaled that I should wait until everyone had been served. I set down my knife and fork but not before poking at the schnitzel a couple of times. It was dead that was for sure. But had it ever been alive? I looked over at my sister who also seemed dubious. Mom and Dad’s orders arrived and so I set out to carve out a slice. The serrated edge of my steak knife must have snagged a tendon or something elastic because the blade slipped projecting the schnitzel clear off my plate and only skidded to a stop after knocking over the pepper grinder.
My parents said nothing and continued eating. My sister found this was hilarious. I retrieved my schnitzel and finally got a slice into my mouth and began to chew. And chew. And chew. The breaded topping was tasty but it had long dissolved leaving a stringy piece of meat that despite mandibular and concentrated resolve would not break down into something I was willing or able to swallow. Judging from the bulge in my sister’s cheek she was being similarly challenged. I don’t recall who started it, but we were soon sniggering uncontrollably.
Dad, who was wondering what was so funny, reached over to sample a large bite. When he was finally able to speak again he offered, “We’ll stop at McDonald’s on the way home.”
When the bill arrived Dad looked at it and then at Mom. Mom shrugged back as if to say, “What?”
Some three months later my sister and I were chasing each down the aisles of a supermarket when we noticed Mom in conversation with a man. “Kids, you remember Mr. Klein from the Salzburg Chalet?”
Remember? Though many memories of my youth have dissolved into the fallible, suggestible and inaccessible recesses of my autobiographical record, this episode has been recounted so many times that it has achieved the status of permanent recollection. Sure, I’ve taken the liberty of embellishing, for the sake of comedic and dramatic purpose, a detail here and there. Blame it on the adrenalin charged chase through the aisles or the premature firing of still developing synapses, but upon hearing “Salzburg Chalet” my sister exclaimed, “Oh! You mean the place with the tough meat?” In the glacial silence that set in Mom must have managed to nudge her or perhaps lob a discreet salvo of big eyes because four uncomfortable seconds later, having understood the nexus between the man and the Salzburg Chalet, she looked him straight in the eyes and proclaimed with a smile and as much sincerity as she could muster… “Oh… but I LOOOVE tough meat!”