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The Grid: Funkenhausen a blend of Southern and German eats

Since opening Funkenhausen in August, chef/owner Mark Steuer has steered away from branding the cuisine at his West Town restaurant.

“I hate the labels,” Steuer said. “We’re cooking my food that I’ve been wanting to make for a long time … and what our team likes and what inspires us.”

“My food,” for Steuer, is the Southern and German cuisine he grew up eating. Steuer was raised in Charleston, South Carolina, but would travel every other summer to Germany, birthplace of his father and homeland of his maternal grandparents.

The kitchen at Funkenhausen restaurant in East Village. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

The kitchen at Funkenhausen restaurant in East Village, a pocket neighborhood in West Town. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Creating a menu where German and Southern food coexist never seemed far-fetched to Steuer. It was simply second nature. He fondly remembers his father making “Käsespätzle” with German egg noodles, Gruyère cheese and crispy, caramelized onions on top — a German version of Southern mac-n-cheese.

Perplexed by what all the fuss is about, he proudly shares another way the cuisines are correlated. South Carolina barbecue was influenced by German immigrant settlers’ expertise in smoking and curing meats. Regional mustard-based barbecue sauces originated from the German-Americans’ penchant for serving spicy or sweet mustard to complement sausages.

Steuer, nostalgic for the barbecue of his youth, says he has “lofty barbecue goals” and proudly claims his smoked spare ribs are the best around town.

The sign near the entrance of Funkenhausen restaurant. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

The sign near the entrance of Funkenhausen restaurant. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Before opening Funkenhausen, Steuer spent 11 years on the local restaurant scene with stints at Hot Chocolate, Carriage House, Bedford, The Gage and Rootstock.

He came up with the restaurant name Funkenhausen — which isn’t a real word –– while working at El Che with chef John Manion.

“Honestly, it was a joke at first and the name of an Argentinian wine we found, although spelled differently,” said Steuer. “It became a placeholder name but then, later, I couldn’t think of another name I liked more.”

His cuisine is, self-described, as a “funky, personal affair” made more personal by the fact that Steuer’s wife, Daniella Caruso, works with him as an events and marketing coordinator, along with anything else that needs doing. Steuer’s best friend Daniel Boyd, who officiated the couple’s wedding, is his business partner and spearheaded the restaurant’s design.

The first few months following Funkenhausen’s opening was “terrifyingly stressful.” But now, the team has settled into showcasing an establishment Caruso describes as “approachable” and “inclusive.”

Customers enjoy drinks and their meals at Funkenhausen | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Customers enjoy drinks and their meals at Funkenhausen.  | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

“This space and our vibe have settled into this neighborhood very well. I love that for brunch we have a lot of people bringing in their kids,” she said.

Funkenhausen, 1709 W. Chicago, is sleek and modern with some whimsical touches, exemplified by the cuckoo clocks flanking the ends of the 40-foot long bar. Traditional globe lighting, dark green tile accents and loft ceilings give it an airy, open mood evocative of a beer hall. Despite the size, it’s warm and inviting.

On the menu, the “Big as Funk” category includes a pork chop “choucroute” with ingredients consisting of sauerkraut, potato, wurst, mustard, pork belly and love.

Ribs at Funkenhausen restaurant. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Ribs at Funkenhausen restaurant. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

There’s “Oysters Hockafeller” with ham hock, creamed spinach, pickled chiles and chicharron. “Surfenturfen” features scallop, pork belly, kraut puree, spicy mustard and pickled quince. “Carolina Gold Risotto” has braised field peas, mushrooms, parmesan, sherry butter, truffle vinaigrette and herbs. The menu will soon also include skate wing schnitzel and blood sausage arancini.

The playful names are also peppered throughout the cocktail menu designed by mixologist Javier Rios, who uses spices in the winter, stone fruits in the fall and fresh produce in the summer. The “German Vacation in Mexico” has tequila, Kümmel, cucumber, lime and basil. “The Hans Gruber” has rum, amaro, egg and anise.

There are also great deals on rib tips, pretzels, wings and donerkebab during Happy Hour, which runs from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday. In the Kolsch service trays, a special delight, 3-ounce glasses of the beer keeping turning up until you ask the wait staff to stop. The majority of the wine list is from Germany and Austria, and there’s a featured wine every week.