Thursday, April 2, 2015
It turns out that onion rings are even good at breakfast.
Scroll through our Food Prowl archives for past winners in our battles of epic dining. This entry won the January 2015 prowl for Omaha's best BBQ. PHOTOS BY KENT SIEVERS
• Big Fred's, 1101 S. 119th St., 402-333-4414, bigfredsinc.com
• Block 16, 1611 Farnam St., 402-342-1220, block16omaha.com
• Crescent Moon, 3578 Farnam St., 402-345-1708, beercornerusa.com/crescentmoon
• Dinker's Bar, 2368 S. 29th St., 402-342-9742, dinkersbar.com
• Dundee Dell, 5007 Underwood Ave., 402-553-9501, dundeedell.com
• Gorat’s, 4917 Center St., 402-551-3733, goratsomaha.com
• Harold's Koffee House, 8327 N. 30th St., 402-451-9776, haroldskoffeehouse.com
• Johnny's Cafe, 4702 S. 27th St., 402-731-4774, johnnyscafe.com
• Johnny Sortino's Pizza, 7880 L St., 402-339-5050, johnnysortinospizza.com
• La Casa Pizzaria, 4432 Leavenworth St., 402-556-6464, lacasapizzaria.net
• Petrow's Restaurant, 5914 Center St., 402-551-0552, petrows.com
• The Rustic Inn, 116 S. 14th St., Fort Calhoun, 402-468-5565, facebook.com/TheRusticInCalhoun
The buttery, savory rounds reserved mostly for evening appetizers pair quite well with strong coffee. And I’m sure soft-cooked, over-easy eggs and onion rings must have met before this, the first Food Prowl of 2015. (Surely they’ve cuddled atop a hamburger, right?)
It’s not likely that I’ll find myself eating another 10 a.m. onion ring any time soon. But if I had the chance, I would do it again in the name of the prowl. That memorable breakfast-hour onion ring turned out to be what the team of tasters was after, but we made 11 other stops before declaring it our favorite.
Mike’l Severe, host of The World-Herald’s The Bottom Line, and Ron Samuelson, co-owner of M’s Pub in the Old Market, met me over ring baskets around the city, and together, we sacrificed the health of our arteries and the level of our cholesterol. Our goal: to find the perfect golden round, crisp yet tender, flavored with simple spice and sweet onion and just the right amount of batter.
We found rings that fell, roughly, into two categories: the onion string, slender bits of onion that tend to heap together, making for many onion bits in each bite; and the classic steakhouse ring, thick and solid with a more intense flavor and encased in a variety of batter styles.
Our adventure began at Block 16. None of the team members had tried the restaurant’s rings. The basket of fully coated, carefully formed onion rings in a neat pile looked great that day, and if the prowl were based on appearance alone, these would have won.
The batter tasted slightly sweet and faintly of cornbread, and the rings came with the restaurant’s signature “ghetto sauce,” a mix of ketchup, mayo and sriracha, among other secret ingredients.
These also achieved a feat of onion ring engineering, because with each bite, the onion inside the breading stayed in place instead of sliding out. Ron put the rings to the test, munching out small bites to see if he could get the onion to slide out. He couldn’t.
We liked the classic, old-fashioned nature of the rings, but we had one complaint: We didn’t taste enough onion. Nonetheless, their appearance made them standout.
“They almost look frozen,” Mike’l said, “but you know they made them from scratch.”
On The Others
At Big Fred’s, the onion rings clearly were handmade.
I grew up eating at Big Fred’s, and I still found pleasure in their rings, coated in a batter thick but light and almost puffy in texture — it reminded us of tempura batter, or the coating on fried fish. Ron said he thought the rings could have used another minute in the fryer because the coating was fairly pale.
“If they had cooked these ever so much longer, they would have been perfect,” Ron said.
On one end of the basket, a big chunk of onions had melded together, and the batter at the center wasn’t cooked all the way through.
Nonetheless, the rings had a noticeable onion flavor and a singular crispness. They were solidly in the middle of our taste tests.
Mike’l had high hopes for Johnny Sortino’s; it’s one of his family’s favorites.
The old-school pizza stop, packed over the lunch hour when we arrived, might have been having an off day. The rings, while well-cooked and texturally appealing, didn’t have much onion flavor.
It was too bad, because the batter had a melt-in-your-mouth consistency and a nice flavor, once we shook a bit of salt on the rings.
“I have had them here before many times,” Mike’l said, “and they have been better.”
We hit another old-school pizza favorite, La Casa. It’s known for its pizza, of course, but also for its onion rings, and we had high expectations.
The rings had more onion flavor — a plus in our book — but they were somewhat inconsistent. Some had batter while others were almost bare; some were dark while others were pale. One ring had the texture of breaded onion skin instead of the tender, center-sliced onion.
“I like the aesthetic of these, and they do taste like onions,” Ron said. “And this might just be their style.”
Harold’s Koffee House
At Harold’s Koffee House, we found an onion firmly in the “onion string” category, and one with a singular appearance and flavor.
“They almost look like calamari,” Mike’l said. The onion rings arrived in small fried pieces in a giant mound, with black specks that turned out to be the house special, lemon pepper seasoning.
The acidity of the onion strings hit me right away. The small pieces of onion had a melt-in-your-mouth quality, and we all liberally used the house-made ranch dipping sauce.
Mike’l liked the lemony seasoning — for him, seasoning was a key element at each stop — but Ron and I didn’t care for it as much.
Seasoning also played a key role at the Dundee Dell. Instead of lemon pepper, the rings were speckled with small bits of green herb throughout the batter. Mike’l wasn’t a huge fan: He found the batter floury, and the herbs, for him, were the kind of seasoning better suited to meat.
Ron liked them more.
“The more I eat them, the more I like them,” he said. His favorite things were the thick cut of onion and a well-seasoned batter. Aside from Block 16, it might have been the most flavorful batter we encountered.
“It’s memorable,” Ron said. “It’s different from what we’ve had.”
Petrow’s would have taken home the prize if the prowl was looking for the largest onion rings. Theirs came in a bowl with about eight huge rings, each individually coated with a golden-hued batter.
Though they impressed us visually, they didn’t as much in terms of flavor: The batter tasted of cornmeal, and inside a thick crust, a slim bit of onion all but disappeared.
For us, this version of rings was closer in scale and breading to a hush puppy. The crunch of the exterior was the best part.
The Crescent Moon’s onion rings had the darkest exterior color of any we tried and came served with house-made dill ranch dressing.
Though they had a strong onion flavor, the finished rings were a bit uneven: a few were crisp, a few less so. Though the dressing would have been good in another context, here the herb’s strong flavor overwhelmed the delicate onion.
“It’s a solid tavern onion ring,” Ron said. “It’s not bad.”
We continued the tradition of trying rings at popular burger joints and hit Dinker’s Bar, which claims its onion rings are the second most popular item after the burgers. We understood why.
Instead of fully formed rings, Dinker’s were solidly in the onion string category. “This is the Omaha-style onion ring,” Mike’l said.
Small and flaky and rich, the strings were the kind of thing that’s difficult to stop eating, even when you know you have more restaurants to visit. The team preferred this style. Strong onion flavor dominated each bite, and though the cooked onions could have been sweeter and we would have liked more seasoning in the batter, we had a leader.
Throughout the prowl, our discussion turned to salt. Most rings, especially those cooked “Omaha style,” came without a lick of salt, either in the batter or on top.
Salt shakers, which came with every basket, solved the problem; we surmised the lack of salt is by design to let diners season to their liking.
“How much salt is the right amount is a tough question,” Ron said. “What is a pinch? It’s different to each guy in the kitchen. And if you go too heavy, you run the risk of the dish coming back to the kitchen, and you lose the sale.”
The team couldn’t judge onion rings without hitting some of Omaha’s old-school steakhouses, and we really liked what we found at our stops.
At Gorat’s, the rings arrived with a strong fragrance of sweet, cooked onions and a special dipping sauce, a tangy aioli.
Gorat’s had some of the thickest-cut onions we’d seen. We liked the breading, which had just enough seasoning. The one problem, though, was that the rings weren’t cooked quite enough for our liking — they arrived with a pale yellow crust instead of a rich, golden one. Nonetheless, they were good.
“This is the right onion-to-batter ratio,” Ron said.
The special sauce snagged Mike’l. For him, it launched the rings into the top five.
Johnny’s Cafe describes its onion rings as “bronzed to perfection,” and though we joked that they might be cooked in a tanning bed, the description wasn’t too far off.
A thin coating of batter, cooked to a golden brown, covered the thick, sweet onion slices.
I liked the seasoning, but most of all, I liked the buttery, sweet, almost melty texture of the onion inside. I also appreciated that the crust stayed mostly adhered to the center.
“I’m getting all my needs met with these,” Ron said, noting that he was a fan of the big slices of onion. “I have to tell you, I’m kind of surprised. But they have been doing these since the ’60s.”
I had a new favorite in Johnny’s, though my teammates were more hesitant to choose it as their favorite.
Then there was breakfast. The team ventured to Fort Calhoun, about a half-hour outside Omaha, thanks to a reader tip. We arrived at The Rustic Inn about 10 a.m. — the restaurant opens at 7 — and nobody blinked an eye when we ordered a basket of rings, two plates of eggs and one walleye dinner. (Ron couldn’t resist.)
The first thing we noticed after biting into the rings was what we’d been in search of: seasoning.
“It’s very light seasoning, and it tastes like onions, and the batter has a subtle flavor,” Mike’l said.
We liked how each ring, coated in flaky batter, was separated in the basket. No big clumps stuck together during the frying process. The gentle seasoning meant we didn’t need to coat these rings in salt, and they seemed the perfect hybrid between a fully encased piece of onion and a flaky, Omaha-style onion string.
“A lot of work goes into these,” Ron said. “They aren’t just throwing these in the fryer. We have had some good tavern-style onion rings. But these are a little more transformational.”
I was torn. I liked the seasoning and the texture at The Rustic, but ultimately, I couldn’t get the thick, sweet onions inside the rings at Johnny’s out of my head. They earned my vote.
My companions disagreed. The mix of seasoning, light batter, onion flavor and overall taste of the Rustic onion rings won them over.
“I was surprised, to find it in Fort Calhoun,” Mike’l said. “I thought it would be one of the old-fashioned steakhouses.”
For him, the size and seasoning nailed the win.
Ron agreed on all counts with Mike’l, but he concurred with me, too: onion matters.
“I still prefer the size of the onion at Johnny’s, and if they had matched the Rustic’s seasoning, it might have been them.
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