Drawn in by the window's “pan fried chicken” sign, greeted by a hand-written “reserved” sign at our table and won over by a wunderbar meal, we put Gerda's German Restaurant and Bakery on the winner's list.
An institution since 1976, Gerda's began as a bakery with a lunch counter, with namesake owner Gerda Bailey furthering both the female entrepreneurial spirit and German food in Omaha. Gerda said there were no strictly German restaurants in Omaha in the '70s, much less one female-owned and operated.
Since the early days, she has moved to the current location and added a full restaurant to her bakery business, and the schnitzel (breaded and fried pork loins) has been frying ever since.
Settling into the casual restaurant for our cocktail course, we focused on the German beer menu for festivity's sake. It features rotating draft and bottled varieties. Wine and liquor are also available.
Gerda's offers only two appetizers, potato pancakes or pickled herring. The fish was exactly as you'd expect, served with bakery fresh rye bread, a variety I had never cared much for — until I had Gerda's.
We enjoyed a broccoli-cauliflower soup with a thin cream base far more refined and delicious than the globby ol' cream of broccoli soup common to restaurant menus. The florettes, sliced thinly, were the perfect bite size. A real “bowl scraper” of a soup, as I like to say.
The pre-dinner salad was a surprise delight. It came topped with unexpected bonus items, including German potato salad and sliced beets pickled in-house. I tossed a couple of herring fillets in with the beets and chewed with a swell of joy I typically don't associate with salads.
Gerda's entrťe menu is mostly schnitzel-based and can be paired with spaetzle (German noodles), German potato salad, dumpling or fried potatoes. The schnitzel are served with a variety of sauces and toppings, Holstein style if you want Swiss cheese, fried egg and caviar; Jaeger for mushroom sauce; and Ziguener for a bell pepper, onion and mushroom take on the classic. I liked that she put a schnitzel combo meal on the menu: Jaeger Schnitzel, a glass of beer or wine and a slice of black cherry torte for $19.95. Sure beats fries and a Coke.
Beyond schnitzel, Gerda's offers a handful of other entrťes, including Bratwurst, Knackwurst, Sauerbraten and, Wednesday through Friday nights only, “the best pan fried chicken in town.” I do not pretend to argue with the menu's assertion.
A tremendous value at only $10.95, the two piece dinner features breaded, boneless, skinless chicken breasts that boasted the ratio of crispiness to juiciness that every chicken cook aspires to. Thanks to a little secret trick Bailey said she picked up when she lived in North Carolina, her chicken is as good as it gets for a pan fry. Her culinary research did not go unappreciated.
You must, must, must save room for dessert, and then take some cookies or pastries from the bakery home for your breakfast. Breads, pies, cakes, pastries and other treats all have the advantage of being coming from a lifelong baker, and you can taste her decades of experience. Seriously, the doughnuts will make your eyes light up.
And now, let's talk torte. Gerda's Black Forest Cherry Torte. It is only impressive that I ate the whole wedge if you know that I am typically a two-bite dessert eater. You know, just enough to quiet the sweet tooth.
But that torte was worth every single calorie, with its perfectly moderate sweetness and cake that maintained a nice consistency, impervious to any sogginess from the fillings. House-made whipped cream was the key, though. It changes a cake experience to one so much more refreshing with its lightness, compared to a cake with icing.
While you can't go wrong with any bakery choice, I prodded Gerda for her personal favorite: the Hazelnut Torte. “It's so good, people even want wedding cakes made out of it,” she said.
Don't forget Gerda's for a swift lunch — her breads upgrade the deli sandwich selections to something greater than themselves. Or, choose the daily special, served with soup or salad, a fine opportunity to get your beets in. After all, you can't have your schnitzel if you don't eat your beets.
Gerda's German Restaurant and Bakery
Location: 5180 Leavenworth St.
Hours: 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday
Hit: The juiciest pan fried chicken I've ever eaten
Reservations: Suggested for dinner hours
Drinks: Go with an oversized bottle of German beer
Price: Selections to fit every budget
Service: Friendly and efficient
Noise level: Comfortable