The road to recreating lost recipes can be winding–not always leading where you expected it to go. The search for the Red Star Inn’s zwiebelfleisch (onion beef roast) recipe is our latest best example of that. After lots of sleuthing and interviews, I got the recipe–but turns out it’s really sauerbraten in disguise : ) It’s truly a special-occasion dish, though, and very delicious. Here’s the story of the search…
Reading through John Drury’s 1931 “Dining in Chicago,” you get a great snapshot of noteworthy Chicago restaurants that are no more–quite a few of them German: There was Schlogl’s, a literary hangout known for its stewed chicken & apple pancake, Wiechmann and Gellert’s, famous for its turtle soup, the Hotel Atlantic Dining Room, former Bauernstube of the Kaiserhof Hotel, and Henry Kau’s, designed by the same guy (Peter Weber) who built Ravinia and some of the World’s Fair buildings. But the Red Star Inn (originally called “Zum Rothen Stern”) outlived them all. Overseen by larger-than-life “beaming personality” Carl “Papa” Gallauer, the Red Star Inn’s black-&-white-clad waiters kept the Koenigsberger klops, potted ox-joints and deviled pigs feet coming until 1968.
That’s when urban renewal-ists made the decision to raze the restaurant to make way for the Carl Sandburg Village. That’s also when Chicago’s Riggio restaurant family stepped in to try to save the Inn. Operators of a series of Italian restaurants they launched in the ’50s, the Riggio family lived for years near the Red Star Inn in an old Sicilian neighborhood that was later replaced by Cabrini Green. “I loved the Red Star Inn,” remembers Tony Riggio, now proprietor of 60-year-old Riggio’s restaurant in Niles. “As a boy, I would so often walk by, just to see it–the waiters in their tuxes out front, the laughter and busy-ness of the place….I would walk by and say to myself, “I’m going to eat there one day.”
In 1968, when Riggio learned from his attorney that the Gallauer family was looking for someone to take ownership of the Red Star Inn, he and his family rushed to action. “But we were two weeks too late!” says Tony. Although unable to save the building itself, the family did purchase the rights to the recipes and restaurant name, and some of the original artifacts (wood carvings, wine barrels etc.) With those, the Riggios built a a new Red Star Inn at Keeler and Irving Park Road. Opened in 1972, that iteration had “a good ten year run,” says Tony, closing for good in 1982.
Readying the menu for the new Red Star Inn launch, the family sent Tony’s brother Chef John Riggio, over to Germany with what they knew of the Red Star Inn recipes. There, Riggio spent three months at the side of famed German chef Hans Karl Adam in Rottenberg. “He was a roly-poly, very nice, but very business-like man, pleasant, but serious,” John recalls. Every day for three months, John would work from 8 a.m. until 9 at night, learning best methods from Chef Adam on how to prepare the Red Star Inn dishes. Another key memory? “Adam was very efficient and no-waste minded–very frugal,” says John.
That frugal nature played into decisions behind the creation of the Red Star Inn’s zwiebelfleisch. Although zwielbelfleisch is traditionally a pot roast made by simmering pork or beef in German-seasoned broth and then topping it with onion, the Red Star Inn’s zwiebelfleisch is really a frugal re-tread of its sauerbraten (!)
The process for making sauerbraten includes marinating beef in a vinegary spice and onion mixture for five days before slow-roasting it. During this journey, some smaller pieces of the sauerbraten invariably fall off the larger chunks of beef. “So this was a way to use the little pieces we couldn’t serve in the sauerbraten entree,” explains John. “We would take those small pieces, slice them, cover them with gravy, sauteed onions and melted gruyere and cheddar cheeses, and serve that as zwiebelfleisch.”
The dish became very popular. “It had marvelous, marvelous flavor,” says John. Such good flavor, that two Lost Recipes Found readers wrote in search of the long-missed recipe. This then, is a recipe based on what John remembers, and is adapted for the home cook. It is a long-process that results in a very special, intensely flavored dish. To keep the meat from “falling to pieces” we have adopted Chris Kimball’s very-low-temperature roasting-&-resting method, which yields a very tender, rosy-centered result.
- Sauerbraten Ingredients
- 1/3 bottle of red wine
- 1 cup white wine vinegar
- 2 cups cold water
- 2 onions, peeled and sliced
- 3 cloves
- 1 Tbsp each black peppercorns, allspice betters, juniper berries
- 2 Tbsp good-quality pickling spice
- 2 bay leaves
- 2, 2 to 2 1/2 lb hanging tenders trimmed by the butcher to remove the inedible center vein (Note: this is the cut of meat that Chef John used, and that I tested–you might be able to do this with a different cut, but I can’t guarantee the result)
- 1 cup diced slab bacon
- 1 cup divided beef reduction from gravy recipe below
- Onion & Cheese topper Ingredients
- 2 large onions, peeled, halved from top to bottom and slivered
- 2 Tbsp butter
- 1 cup grated gruyere cheese
- 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
- Gravy Ingredients
- 2 cups of the sauerbraten marinade, reserved
- 1 quart beef stock
- 1/2 cup cream (NOTE: Do not mix the cream with the stock and marinade until AFTER you have reduced the stock and marinade–the cream is added to the reduction at the very end, to thicken your gravy)
- Egg Noodles and Peas Ingredients
- one package wide egg noodles
- one package frozen green peas
- Make the marinade: Combine all of the marinade ingredients. Place in a gallon-sized, double-zipper ziploc bag with the trimmed hanging tenders (Note: after the butcher trims each tender, you will have two long pieces of meat, per tender. So, there will be four pieces of meat you insert in the bag with the marinade ingredients.) Press out as much air as possible from the bag and close it. Place the closed bag lying flat, in a large plastic tub and refrigerate for five days, turning the bag over once every eight hours.
- Remove the tenders from the marinade. Blot off any spice and liquid from the surface with paper towels. Strain and reserve 2 cups of the marinade.
- Make the reduction: In a heavy pot, heat 2 cups of reserved marinade with one quart of beef stock. Simmer this to reduce by half. Scoop out 1 cup of liquid for the roast. Continue reducing the rest of the liquid.
- Make the roast: Heat the diced slab bacon in one large dutch oven, or, divide between two smaller oval enameled cast iron roasters, if you want to roast the tenders in two separate pans (two pieces of meat per pan). Render the bacon. Scoop out the bacon chunks, leaving the fat in the dutch oven(s). Brown the tenders in the fat on all sides.
- Preheat oven to 225. Add 1 cup of stock reduction to the roasting pan. (If using two pans, put 1/2 cup in each pan.) Slide pans onto center rack of oven, uncovered. Roast for one hour and fifteen minutes at 225. Turn off oven leaving roasting pans in oven, and do not open door. Leave roasting pans in oven for 1/2 hour more.
- While meat is roasting, make onions, gravy and noodles.
- To make onions: Melt 2 Tbsp butter in saute pan. Saute onions until completely soft and golden. Do not brown. Add a bit of water to help as these cook if you like.
- To make gravy: In saute pan, further reduce stock until it is very concentrated. Whisk in small amount of cream to thicken.
- To make noodles and peas: Follow package instructions to heat peas and to cook noodles.
- 10: To plate: Thinly slice the sauerbraten tenders and fan half way around edge of an oven-proof plate. Ladle gravy over meat. Cover with sauteed onions; sprinkle with gruyere and cheddar. Place under broiler for 15 seconds until cheese melts. Remove from oven. Add buttered noodles and peas to plate. Serve immediately.