Food Prowl: The 11 best dishes we ate in 2012

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Posted: Sunday, January 6, 2013 12:00 am

Eleven stories in, we've reached the end of the first year of Food Prowl, a yearlong series in which we examine what the city's restaurants have to offer and choose our favorite foods in different categories.

You might be wondering where the December Food Prowl installment — ribeye — might have gone. The truth is that we're still prowling for steak. We simply could not eat the required amount of steak to make a fair decision on the best in Omaha in just one month. So after two months of eating beef around the city, our favorite Ribeye will kick off a second year of prowls in January.

Food Prowl stories aren't comprehensive — we can't try everything. But they'll continue to include as many stops as we can make, I'll offer my opinion, and we'll collect the opinions of other Omaha food lovers who treat the city as a place for culinary adventure. We'll eat together, and then collectively make the call on the stuff we like the most.

And we're asking for your help again. What do you want us to prowl for in 2013? Send your ideas to Sarah Baker Hansen at sarah.bakerhansen@owh.com, or comment on this post at omaha.com.

For now, we're taking a look back at where we ate and what, in our humble opinions, were the best dishes we ate.

THE WINNERS

01 / January / Crescent Moon's Blackstone Reuben 02 / February / TIE: Pho at Saigon & New Gold Mountain 03 / MARCH / Dante Ristorante Pizzeria's pappardelle bolognese 04 / APRIL / Amsterdam Falafel and Kabob's falafel 05 / MAY / Bliss Bakery's chocolate cupcake with chocolate frosting 06 / JUNE / Tacos el Peligro's al pastor taco 07 / JULY / TIE: cheeseburger at Dinker's Bar and Block 16 08 / AUGUST / Time Out Chicken's fried chicken 09 / SEPTEMBER / The Boiler Room Restaurant's Old-Fashioned cocktail 10 / OCTOBER / India Garden's chicken tikka korma 11 / NOVEMBER / Dixie Quicks Public House's eggs Benedict

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01 / JANUARY: The Best Reuben

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Our favorite Reuben was the Crescent Moon's Blackstone Reuben. It came to us neatly arranged in two halves on a plate next to a pile of french fries.

The Blackstone Reuben is a feat of engineering. It doesn't fall apart when you eat it, and it doesn't leak dressing or kraut. Chunks of tender, moist corned beef burst with flavor. The meat mixed in perfect harmony with the tangy kraut, the creamy dressing and the subtle crunch of the bread.

Crescent Moon buys that corned beef locally from Omaha Steaks and cooks it all day long, trimming off extra fat when it's done. The meat is cut into chunks because, Crescent Moon owner Bill Baburek said, it's just too tender to slice.

The sauerkraut comes from a can, but it's “doctored up” with fennel and other spices to add depth. And the kitchen doesn't cook the sandwich on a flat-top grill — it sends each one through a conveyor-belt pizza oven because that's all the restaurant had when it first opened.

They have a flat-top now, but the sandwiches still go through the oven.

“The Reubens just come out perfect every time,” Baburek said.

02 / FEBRUARY: The Best Pho

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This month, we encountered our first tie, for the best pho, a beefy, brothy Vietnamese noodle soup.

Two of the judges chose the pho at Saigon, which has mild, clear broth and a good balance between noodles and meat. The other two judges chose the pho at New Gold Mountain, which had spicier and bolder broth.

Both are great, especially when it's cold outside. There's nothing quite like a huge bowl of broth filled with savory beef, noodles and a hint of spice and acid. Either of the winners will be satisfying and likely cost less than $10.

03 / MARCH: The Best Spaghetti

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We ate boatloads of sauce and heaps of pasta in Italian restaurants old and new, and the thing we ended up liking the best — at Dante Ristorante Pizzeria in west Omaha — was the first upset of the year.

The papardelle bolognese came to our table looking like nothing else we'd sampled. The richly brown bolognese sauce is made with lots of meat, including chicken livers, ends of salami, pork and beef. A hint of tomato paste, herbs and no fewer than ten bottles of wine are in there too, and it all cooks down and mingles for 10 hours. The sauce is evenly distributed through a pile of thick homemade pappardelle pasta.

We tried lots of more traditional sauces, too; the favorite of those was at Lo Sole Mio, in South Omaha.

04 / APRIL: The Best Falafel

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This was the first month the team members outvoted me. Their pick for the city's best falafel was Amsterdam Falafel and Kabob. The Dundee spot serves its sandwiches in a thick round of crispy, chewy bread filled with two large falafels, green on the inside with herbs.

Amsterdam's has singular sauces and condiments: a cool slaw of minced garlic, bright purple cabbage, carrots, whole chickpeas, cucumber and tomato sits on top of the sandwich and below are three sauces: spicy, green herb and creamy garlic.

The restaurant's bread is made at South Omaha's International Bakery and traditionally used for Mexican Torta sandwiches.

Our judges loved the restaurant's green, herby falafel cakes. Its spicy sauce. Its garlicky hummus and fresh condiments.

My choice, for what it's worth, was El Basha. The restaurant's falafel wrap is coated in some of the best tahini sauce I've ever tasted.

05 / MAY: The Best Cupcake

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We learned that there is such a thing as a bad cupcake. The best one we tried was the chocolate with chocolate frosting at downtown's Bliss Bakery. The chocolate frosting hit all the right notes, and wasn't too sweet or too chocolatey. It met moist cake that was light and deeply fudgy at once. Coffee is the secret ingredient in the frosting, which gives it that signature richness our tasters liked so much. Cocoa powder, buttermilk and more coffee make the cake special.

I also loved the vanilla cupcake with white frosting — I'm a white cake girl to the core — at Sweet Magnolia's bakery. Sprinkled with sparkles, moist, deeply flavored with vanilla, not too sweet. I'd have eaten more than my quarter if given the choice. In fact, I'd eat one right now.

06 / JUNE: The Best Taco

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For the sixth prowl we found the city's best tacos at a hole-in-the-wall in South Omaha. I also got outvoted a second time.

At Tacos el Peligro, we ordered a number of taco flavors, including al pastor, marinated pork chunks cooked on a hot grill; shredded chicken; carnitas steak; and barbacoa, fragrant Mexican barbecued beef.

No one had any funky chunks or fatty bits in their tacos. None of the meats we tried were greasy or oily.

We all agreed that the al pastor taco was the taco to beat. The incredibly tender meat came topped with petite slices of pineapple — a tart and sweet counterpart to the chewy tortilla, tangy cilantro and subtly spicy meat.

Rivera's Mexican Restaurant, which had a delicious, authentic fish taco, won my vote.

07 / JULY: The Best Cheeseburger

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We did the biggest prowl of the year this month to find the city's best cheeseburger, and our panel landed in the second and final tie of the year.

One of our tasters at Dinker's Bar said the restaurant's burger may be the “perfect burger.” It passed the test for seasoning and had a delicious toasted bun. The patty held together, but it wasn't too tightly packed. It was juicy, fatty and greasy, but not too much of any of the three. The flavor of the beef managed to still come through even between condiments. It was subtle but fresh and meaty.

At Block 16, the team's other favorite, was a burger meaty and delicious, oozing with juice, slightly pink in the center, tender and deeply flavorful. I loved the stack of condiments on the burger — it was messy in the best possible way.

The burger itself sold me. I love being surprised by something so unexpectedly delicious.

08 / AUGUST: The Best Fried Chicken

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We prowled through North Omaha and beyond for the city's best fried chicken and the first stop we made — Time Out Chicken — was the best. The chicken was steaming hot, succulently juicy and super crunchy.

The place is legendary for a reason. The flavor of the crisp outer crust — with a hint of cayenne pepper, one ingredient in the restaurant's secret spice-loaded marinade — melts into the meat. It's spicy but not too spicy, greasy but not too greasy. The fries are the closest I've had to Runza's fries: crinkly and crisp outsides with hot, mealy insides. They're easily as good.

Time Out was, from the beginning, the place to beat. It still is.

09 / SEPTEMBER: The Best Old-Fashioned

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Cocktails were the theme of the next prowl, and we found the best Old-Fashioned cocktail at the Boiler Room Restaurant, where bartender Clark Ross and his assistant barkeeps know their stuff.

The Old-Fashioned is a delicate balance between booze and sweet, fruity and bitter. It takes a bit of art to make a perfect version.

The ingredients for the classic version are bourbon or rye whiskey, a small amount of water, a dash of bitters and a sugar cube or sugar syrup. It's served in a squat old-fashioned glass and garnished with an orange slice and a maraschino cherry.

There's one main difference in the Boiler Room's recipe, and that's the sweetener.

At other bars, we had drinks sweetened with sugar cubes and simple syrup. At the Boiler Room, an Old-Fashioned is sweetened with demerara sugar syrup, made from a natural brown sugar that's like sugar in the raw, with bigger brown granules instead of small white ones.

The resulting cocktail tasted rich and incredibly smooth. The bourbon was there, but it wasn't as harsh. The demerara played with its flavor and added a depth we hadn't had elsewhere. It won with all our votes but one.

10 / OCTOBER: The Best Chicken Tikka Korma

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India Garden took home the next prowl for its chicken tikka korma, a classic Indian dish.

The restaurant is tucked snugly in a strip mall on West Center Road; if you weren't looking for it, you wouldn't find it. It was dim, quiet and nearly empty when we arrived, but a few parties of Indian diners began to arrive as we ate. (It is now located around the corner from the old location.)

The korma came out steaming hot, with a warm, yellow-hued sauce, plenty of spice and deliciously cooked hot rice. Visible bits of green jalapeno studded the dish, and tender chicken met thick, creamy sauce with plenty of heat.

The overwhelming savoriness of the sauce met the heat when we swallowed, and the chicken was moist, tender and deeply flavored with garam masala. But the heat pushed it over the edge, way beyond what we'd tried anywhere else.

11 / NOVEMBER: The Best Eggs Benedict

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The final food prowl of 2012, for eggs Benedict, ended in a three-way tie followed by a vote. In the end, Dixie Quicks Public House took home the win.

The ham was the first difference we noted. It was more like a griddled ham steak than a slice of lunch meat — thicker and saltier. And the hollandaise, maybe the thickest we'd seen, was bold with acidity. Here we saw another free-form poached egg with a perfectly runny center.

The English muffin was dry toasted and crunchier than any we'd had. It stayed crisp under the sauces and yolk.

I knew my favorite after just a few bites: Dixie Quicks. I loved the lemony, thick sauce, the free-form egg and the classic and crunchy English muffin.

The other panelists each cast votes for Tommy Colina's Kitchen and Baileys, though the Quicks ended up with the most votes for its riff on this classic.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1069, sarah.bakerhansen@owh.com

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