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Klein's: Memories of a Pittsburgh favorite

Thursday, May 29, 2003

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Klein's was so fine

The original Klein's restaurant sign can be seen at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center in the Strip District. The famous seafood restaurant moved many times in its history, but it became most famous at 330 Fourth Ave., Downtown. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Pittsburgher's request for garlic puffs bring back fond memories of the famous restaurant

There is often talk about the good old days, including defunct Pittsburgh restaurants. People mention Gammon's, Weinstein's, Dutch Henry's, Schrafft's, Dimling's and The Hofbrau.

Recently, Dr. George Beurger walked into Benkovitz Seafoods in the Strip. "Do you remember Klein's Restaurant?" he asked Evelyn Benkovitz, one of the owners. "I really miss that place. And I have a taste for those hot garlic puffs they used to serve. Can you get me the recipe?"

"Do I remember Klein's?" she laughed. "Of course. They were good customers and friends. I'll get my husband, Bernard, and he can tell you stories. And I'll bet the Post-Gazette will have the recipe."

That simple request for the signature recipe from Klein's restaurant Downtown unloosed a search that involved some of the city's senior gastronomes, shaking the branches of the Klein family tree and locating surviving members of the clan.

Klein's history is as rich as its homemade Hungarian apple strudel. Let's time-travel back to the turn of the last century, when Pittsburgh was a gritty, working-class city. Riverboats steamed their way up the Ohio to the docks along the Monongahela River. Horses pulled carriages down cobblestone streets. Immigrants arrived daily to work in the mills and coal mines. Newfangled electric street lamps lighted the way through streets darkened by soot.

It was then, in 1900, that Hannah and Joseph Klein, immigrants from Austria-Hungary, hoped to make their fortune by opening a restaurant. Hannah brought her handwritten Hungarian recipes, and Joseph brought business savvy and enough European charm and personality to coax and keep customers.

Their first eatery was Klein's Kosher Cafe, 809 Fifth Avenue, a sandwich shop that quickly became a full restaurant, with the family living upstairs over the store. In the next 35 years, Klein's moved from the original Fifth Avenue location to a second, then Downtown to the old Temple Restaurant on Penn Avenue, where they stayed during the '20s, then to Smithfield Street and on to the 7th Avenue Hotel.

The Kleins made their final move to 330 Fourth Avenue in 1935, shortly before the 1936 St. Patrick's Day flood. Like most every Downtown business, the building was water-damaged, but they stayed and prospered.

Anybody who was anybody showed up. Klein's had become a rendezvous for Pittsburghers, travelers and celebrities. When Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor came to town to perform, they ate at Klein's so often that they became close friends of Hannah and Joseph.

As Klein's restaurant grew, so did Klein's family. We found two grandchildren, now retired in Florida.

"Of Hannah and Joseph's six children, Virginia, Sam and Sidney were most active in the running of the restaurant," says Margaret "Tommy" Klein, now 89, from her home in Palm City, Fla. "Sidney ran a deli in Squirrel Hill before he came into the business with the family. Then there was Ruth and Lillian, who was never really involved because she married Milton Pollack, a federal judge appointed by President Johnson. Milton is still on the bench in New York. Frances was the youngest child, but because of an illness, she was unable to work."

The restaurant was never without one of the family to meet, greet, cook or supervise.

"Ruth Klein Fischman was my mother," says Jean Klein Fischman Schimmel, 75, of Hobe Sound, Fla. "Mother helped, too, but always outside the restaurant. When I was a little girl, I'd ride in the car after school every day about 3 o'clock when Mother would drive my grandparents home from their shift. Ruth was the last surviving child of my grandparents.

"I'm still impressed that every Tuesday, back in the 1950s, Klein's ran an ad in the Wall Street Journal. And I remember hearing about union leaders and their business antagonists by day sitting down together at the restaurant to share a good dinner in the evenings. It was always the place to be."

"We remember Klein's"

In 1932, the family made its most significant decision since opening their first restaurant. They decided to specialize in fresh seafood, a first for Pittsburgh. A fish restaurant in the 1950s in a landlocked city seemed like the impossible dream. Fact is, they became famous for it.

Sitting around a spacious table with Bernard, 82, and Evelyn Benkovitz, 80, we pored over copies of old menus as they told tales of the early days. With their son Joe, they own Benkovitz Seafoods and Nordic Fisheries on Smallman Street in the Strip. Everybody calls them Mr. and Mrs. B.

Mr. B: "Back in 1917, our company was called Live Fish. My father, Joseph, ran the company with his brothers, Reuben and Morris. Klein's was one of their first customers. They did business with Joe Klein. Later, I did business with Sam and Sidney and then their son John."

Pulling out an old wholesale invoice, Mr. B. pointed to the date, March 22, 1938. "White fish, 35 cents a pound; yellow pike, 30 cents a pound; scallops, $2.50 a gallon."

The total for that day's whole order was $17.40. But prices rose. By 1950, a lobster dinner went for an astounding $2.15.

Mrs B: "When I married into the family in 1946, I had never eaten a lobster. I couldn't believe you could eat those things. I learned fast how good they are."

Mr. B: "We had more fish back then than we do now. We had yellow pike, white fish, sea bass and croaker and so many more. Much of it came from a very clean Lake Erie and from the New Jersey coast. Fish was shipped in from outlying regions by Railway Express. Klein's also got fish shipped out from Boston."

Mrs. B: I remember their frogs legs. Oh, they were good. Just dusted with flour and sauteed in butter and served with a little tartar sauce. I can taste them now."

Mr. B. "People were much more adventurous in those days. We ate finnan haddie and real turtle soup. You could get conch chowder or escargot. Klein's soups were legendary. There was always some Hungarian specialty soup, along with chicken barley, split pea, lima bean and gumbos and mandel soup."

Mrs. B. "And those garlic puffs! They were hot out of the fryer and the size of a golf ball. They just kept coming and coming. If you wanted to eat your dinner, you had to push away the basket."

At this point, they're joined by genial "Uncle" Gene Lichter, 78, ambassador-at-large for Benkovitz Seafoods.

G.L.: "Did you mention the Caesar salad? Everybody got one. It was made the original way, tableside, with a coddled egg, and it was the best thing you ever ate. Klein's had fish fries, shell roasts and stews. Those were the days of casseroles. You could have shrimp, crabmeat or lobster in any one of seven casserole sauces, including Newburg, Creole, Louisiana and Romano. Try to find that now."

Mr. B: "And clean? Hannah Klein was obsessed with cleanliness. There was an annual two-week close-down every July, when the entire place was housecleaned, renovated, painted and re-equipped to bring it up to the best and most modern sanitation standards. Again, try to find that now."

Since not every customer would choose fish, a full-time butcher was on the premises to cut up meat, which you'd better believe didn't come vacuum-packed. He'd cut beef for Hungarian goulash, Yankee pot roast, steaks and chops. Cooks roasted tom turkeys, chickens and ducklings. Broiled sweetbreads, Chicken a la King and salmon croquettes tempted appetites. Pan-fried calves liver and short ribs of beef could make a person swoon.

The recipe!

Jean Schimmel, the granddaughter of the founders, remembers Rosie Lohman, the pastry cook. "Rosie had hands of gold. She started at the restaurant when she was only 14 years old. And my grandmother Hannah taught her all of the original Hungarian pastries that were Klein's trademarks.

"In the summer, she baked fresh strudels filled with peaches, plums and berries. In the fall, she made the cheese and tart apple strudel. Rosie also made fresh blue gage plum and apricot pies. Her apple pie was always served with a wedge of sharp cheese. Rosie was also the mistress of the famous, fragrant Klein's garlic puffs. I can give you the recipe."

At last! The elusive and genuine recipe would be revealed.

For three generations, Klein's was center stage on Pittsburgh's restaurant scene. But by the fourth generation, when Joann (Klein) and Ned Fine took over the restaurant, times had changed. There was competition from new restaurants, and those Pittsburghers who had learned to appreciate fish and seafood at Klein's were now enjoying fish dinners at other restaurants.

The restaurant fell on hard times and Klein's closed its door in February 1992.

The bank that wound up with the property knew the value of Klein's history. It donated the huge neon sign with the big red lobster to the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center on Smallman Street in the Strip. If you remember Klein's, just the sight of it will start your mouth watering.

Marlene Parrish can be reached at mparrish@post-gazette.com or 412-481-1620(c).

Klein's Yeast-raised Garlic Puffs

There is some controversy over the genuine recipe. One source says to use milk, the other water. One says use butter, the other shortening. And one says to add garlic powder to the dough; the other disagrees. Both sources specify, however, that the deep-fried balls be tossed with a mixture of salt and garlic powder. Whatever. This recipe works. The puffs are best served warm from the deep-fryer. We recommend that you use the appliance called a Fry-Daddy because there's never a worry about splashing hot grease or keeping a constant temperature.

  • 1/2 cup warm whole milk
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus about 1/2 cup flour for the board
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 large egg, at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Oil for deep frying, about 1 quart
  • Homemade Garlic salt (recipe follows)

Heat milk until warm, about 110 degrees. Transfer milk to a large, warmed mixing bowl and sprinkle dry yeast over the surface. Sprinkle sugar over the yeast-water. Let mixture stand 5 minutes until creamy.

Meanwhile, place 2 cups flour, garlic powder and salt in a medium bowl and stir to combine.

Add egg and melted butter to the yeast mixture. Stir in 1 cup flour mixture. Beat with wooden spoon until a smooth batter is formed.

Beat in remaining 1 cup flour. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes, working in (about) 1/4 cup flour as necessary.

Wash the large bowl and spray it with nonstick baking spray. Transfer the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel and let stand in warm place until dough is doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes.

Turn out dough onto a lightly floured working surface. Divide the dough into 4 portions. Roll each portion into a "snake" about 10 inches long. Cut into 10 pieces. Place pieces on lightly floured baking sheet. When all the pieces are cut, let them rest 15 minutes until slightly puffy. (If you want bigger puffs, cut each snake into 8 pieces.)

Meanwhile, heat oil to 360 degrees. Oil should be at least 2 inches deep. Deep-fry garlic balls, several at a time, until golden brown on all sides. Use a slotted spoon and a chopstick to assist twirling them in the hot oil.

Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with homemade garlic salt. As you work, keep puffs warm in a 200-degree oven, then serve at once. Makes 32 to 40 balls about the size of a doughnut hole or small golf ball. Allow about 4 to 6 balls to a serving. Leftovers re-heat well in a toaster oven in just a few minutes.

Note: Homemade Garlic Salt: Place 1 tablespoon kosher salt and 1 tablespoon garlic powder into a mortar; using the pestle, crush the mixture moderately fine. If you have a spice grinder (aka, extra electric coffee bean grinder), use that, pulsing the mixture.)

Correction/Clarification: (Published June 6, 2003) Klein's Restaurant was sold in 1992 to Integra Bank for use as a parking lot. In a story on the restaurant in our May 29 editions, we mistakenly said it had gone into bankruptcy. Also, its sign ended up at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center through the efforts of attorney Harvey Robbins, not because of the efforts of a bank.

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