I'm not obsessed with Fountain. Honest. But sometimes I discover interesting little restaurants out there that I feel compelled to visit. You never know when -- or where -- you might discover a gem.
My most recent foray took us to Café Alpen Rose, located in the Fountain Valley Shopping Center. I was reminded of the café's existence after a grueling morning of searching for the perfect pumpkin at Venetucci's, so back we went one evening last week.
I'm going to give our waitress the benefit of the doubt and assume that she was either brand new to the job or pressed into helping out for the evening. When we arrived and she directed us into the large, dark and empty non-smoking section, she couldn't find the switch to turn the lights on. In fact, she had to go back to the kitchen to ask. She made many trips back to the kitchen over the course of the evening, but eventually everything came out all right.
With your dinner you are offered the choice of soup or salad. Opt for the salad. You get a large plate full of several different salads, and except for some fairly bland cabbage, they were all fresh and delectable. There was shredded lettuce in a light vinaigrette which made me wish other restaurants around here would learn to have such a light hand with the vinegar. (Strangely enough, I like to actually taste the lettuce, not just the sharp flavor of vinegar.) There was a lovely sample of diced tomato and onion accented with bits of fresh parsley. The marinated wax beans were a little on the soft side, but their flavor was excellent, a nice balance of sweet and sour. The shredded carrot salad had a good tang which offset the natural sweetness of the carrots. The potato salad was lightly dressed and fairly mild, and the plate was rounded out by some thinly sliced cucumbers in sour cream, lightly spiced with fresh dill.
I wish I could rave about the soups, but the ones I tried just weren't that good. I found them both to be too salty, especially the goulash soup. I love a good goulash, but this was all thick, gelatinous broth with barely a shred of meat or vegetable to be seen. It was also much spicier than I'm accustomed to -- not a bad thing, but unexpected. The vegetable soup (which we had to remind the waitress to bring) had a smoky broth and loads of chunky vegetables, but it was fairly bland. It also came with a huge clove of garlic in the bottom, which fortunately had been simmered into submission.
The main dishes on the menu are quite tasty, and portions are typically enormous. Both the wiener schnitzel and the jaeger schnitzel come with two enormous pieces of meat, both thin, tender, delicately breaded and perfectly fried so the coating was crispy/crunchy and the interior was still juicy. The jaeger schnitzel comes with a lovely, rich, mahogany gravy which could have used a few more mushrooms. The rouladen was an absolute masterpiece, a huge roll holding the creamy, tangy filling inside, again covered with an excellent gravy.
The side dishes range from good to spectacular. The spaetzle was shaped liked very thick, short spaghetti noodles instead of the irregular squiggles and bumps I adore, but the flavor and the texture was there, soaking up the gravy. (Incidentally, leftover spaetzle stirred into canned tomato soup makes a fine dish for a cold day.) The potato dumpling are almost softball-sized and done to a perfect turn. It would be easy with a dumpling this size to make it either too light or too dense so that the interior came out mushy. The cook at Alpen Rose knows the trick, however, and these substantial dumplings are chewy and hearty, perfect for mopping up gravy. Even the fried potatoes are exemplary, not a bit greasy and nicely golden all over. The green beans are especially yummy, slow-cooked until soft but not mushy, flavored with onion. The red cabbage, when we finally got it, was also tasty, tender and seasoned to be both lightly sweet and sour.
A couple of other factors make Alpen Rose lean toward the "gem" side. The lady who came out from the kitchen periodically to check on the dining room was extremely friendly and on the ball, catching and speedily correcting the waitress's oversights and omissions. Her friendliness and concern made up for the server's lack of experience. Also, there's a nice children's menu and one or two vegetarian (non-meat, at least) selections on the dinner menu.
Another factor that might sway you to visit Alpen Rose is the deli next door. Simple, unpretentious and very reasonably priced, you can get a lovely selection of packaged goods or fresh deli fare, including cold cuts and various sausages. Visit one or both, then make your own decision about the gem status of Alpen Rose.