We’re sitting in a restaurant surrounded by white-haired ladies eating fried gizzards.
At our table, though, it’s all about the chicken. Fried chicken and its skin, to be exact.
Steve Gordon and Stacy Winters, two of the four tasters on the August Food Prowl, are passionately debating what makes that skin so special.
Steve grabs an onion ring.
He peels off the crispy outside layer and offers the limp, partially transparent onion to Stacy.
“Want an onion ring?” he asks with a huge grin. Stacy laughingly refuses.
If there’s one thing that makes good fried chicken — one thing that made three of the four of us choose one restaurant as this month’s winner — it’s that crispy, savory skin. That skin is what transports the humble chicken breast into a delectable, fattening, golden-hued culinary delight.
Omaha offers its residents an array of seriously tasty fried chicken. The panel, Gordon, a local graphic designer and north Omaha native; Winters, a foodie who with his 7-year-old son, Matt, has eaten fried chicken all over the Midwest; and Jim Trebbien, dean of the Metropolitan Community College Culinary Arts Program, all agreed on that point.
The panel made a bunch of visits to Gordon’s home turf — he grew up near 34th and Grant Streets in the Yale Park neighborhood — beginning at the place we knew would be a major contender: Time Out Foods, on North 30th Street near the Metro campus.
Time Out is a true hole-in-the-wall — the first of a few we’d hit — and also the first of two with a sign proclaiming “Omaha’s best fried chicken.”
The neighborhood place has an indoor walk-up window in front of a neat, old-school kitchen. Pictures of President Barack Obama smiled down on us as we settled snugly into a dark green vinyl booth. Most customers took bags to go — only one other table held an eat-in diner. When we left, we knew we’d smell just like the food we ate: Two-piece chicken dinners, each tucked inside red and white paper boxes branded with the “Time Out” logo.
The chicken was steaming hot, succulently juicy and super crunchy.
As we ate, we talked about how long Time Out chicken has been here. Jim remembers it being here in the 1970s. Steve, who is 38, said it’s been around as far back as he can remember.
Time Out actually opened in 1969. Johnny Carson was chairman of the board of the restaurant franchise company that opened it. Omahans Bob Gibson, the St. Louis Cardinals pitcher, and basketball star Bob Boozer both were stockholders.
“The two things my wife knew about north Omaha when we met, ” Steve said, “were me and Time Out chicken.”
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.
We met again at another hole in the wall: Chi-Town Chicken. If not for the huge chicken painted on the door, you might miss it.
The four of us filled up almost all the space in the front of Chi-Town. While we waited for our made-to-order chicken, Steve told us about growing up just a few blocks away. He took the city bus to Creighton Prep, where he ran track and played sports. When he got home from school, he cooked dinner for his sisters while his mom was still at work.
“Growing up, ” he said as we walked outside to eat our lunch, “I ate fried chicken to a cliche degree.”
The spices on Chi-Town’s chicken aren’t as pronounced as Time Out’s, but the crust is exceptional: It’s thin and has a texture almost like cornflakes, though the cook told us later that it doesn’t have any cereal in it.
The chicken comes with a side of hot sauce, which all the tasters liked. The breasts are smaller, but none of us realized why right away: It’s because Chi-Town debones them. What you end up with is a juicy hunk of breaded meat, and we devoured the whole thing.
Steve was a huge fan of the thin crust, which didn’t peel off like Time Out’s crispy skin. He described it as “how Shake and Bake looks on the commercial, ” and he was right.
“So much goes into fried chicken, ” Jim said, reiterating one of the most common Food Prowl themes: No food is ever as simple as it seems.
We debated hotly over the next place to visit. Would it be Jack and Mary’s Restaurant, a place with a reputation for good chicken that none of us had visited in years, or the Alpine Inn, which might be better known for the raccoons and cats eating chicken scraps outside than the taste of the chicken itself?
I argued strongly for Jack and Mary’s, because it was in west Omaha, where you wouldn’t expect to find good fried chicken, and also because I didn’t know what its chicken was like. Stacy argued strongly for Alpine Inn, because the chicken there, in his opinion, is better than we figured it was.
With votes from Steve and Jim, we sat down for lunch amid that decidedly older crowd at Jack and Mary’s restaurant, which used to be in Old Mill but now is in Miracle Hills, off 114th Street and West Dodge Road. (I mention that only because I drove around Old Mill looking for it before realizing it had moved years ago.)
Jack and Mary’s is a sit-down place with interior decor that reminded me of a Village Inn but with Western flair: Faded checked tablecloths, lots of wood paneling and red vinyl booths.
I think we made the right choice, because our chicken, cut into meaty chunks and served with lots of homemade side dishes, almost immediately became a surprise contender.
The crust, crisp but not crunchy, wasn’t as spicy as our other stops. But it also was a true classic in texture, with a juicy inside and a nicely fried exterior.
“I had in my mind that I wouldn’t like it, ” Jim said. “But I do.”
Our panel liked that the chicken came pre-cut into manageable chunks that weren’t as hot. Each large breast was chopped through, bone and all, into three smaller pieces. Smaller cuts, like wings, remained intact. It reminded Steve of how he serves and eats ribs.
But Jim was the real fan.
“I like the presentation, ” he said. “It’s not too dry or too moist. The aftertaste stayed good in my mouth. It’s like when you say you’re only going to eat one potato chip. And then you eat another one.”
Our final destination was another hole-in-the wall: Richie’s Chicken and Hamburger at 35th and Center Streets, another place with a sign advertising the city’s best chicken.
A mixed bag of chairs and burnt orange tables fill the dining room. By the door, the sign on a tall cooler yells out “Delicious Pies” and on the walls are photographs of old boxers and former Nebraska Cornhuskers, and one random 1980s baseball poster of Ozzie Smith, aka “The Wizard of Oz.”
The crowd is blue collar — at least one police officer, at least one construction worker. While we wait for our chicken, talk turns to how places like this survive.
“It’s a place that people in this neighborhood have gone forever, ” Stacy says.
“It’s a place that has great service, ” Jim said. “It has atmosphere. And homemade food.”
Our chicken arrives sizzling hot. Juice pours out when we bite into it. This is, hands down, the juiciest chicken we’ve tried. Jim loves the juice, but for Steve, it’s a bit too wet.
Steve and Stacy find themselves struggling to make a final choice between Time Out, Chi-Town and Richie’s. Jim knows already what chicken he likes best: Jack and Mary’s, though he said Richie’s was a close second.
“Jack and Mary’s surprised me the most, ” he said.
For this writer, Time Out was the best. The group ate a lot of chicken, and no other restaurant had the subtle spices — that important hit of cayenne. For me, that pushed it over the edge. I’d go back for it probably sooner than I should.
Stacy and Steve took some time to decide.
“It’s almost a tie for me, ” Stacy said. “Richie’s is great. Almost as good as Time Out. But Time Out is still better.”
Then it’s Steve’s turn.
“You know, Time Out is my emotional favorite, ” he said. “When you live in north O, that’s just what you eat.”
He thinks. If the chicken at Chi-Town had the same hint of spice as Time Out, he said, it’d be a dead heat.
“Most times, a bias like mine can’t live up to the legacy, ” he said. “But in this case, Time Out held its own. You can’t beat it.”
Steve Gordon, graphic designer and north Omaha native
Jim Trebbien, dean of the Metropolitan Community College Culinary Arts Program
Stacy Winters and his son, Matt, fried chicken lovers
Big Mama’s Kitchen
3223 N. 45th St. 402-455-6262
2229 Lake St. 402-346-9323
Jack and Mary’s Restaurant
655 N. 114th St. 402-496-2090
Richie’s Chicken and Hamburger
3528 Center St. 402-346-4650
Time Out Foods
3518 N. 30th St. 402-451-2622
The difference at Big Mama’s
The panel, minus Steve Gordon, also went to Big Mama’s Kitchen to try her fried chicken, which has been featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.”
That day, Stacy Winters’ 7-year-old son, Matt, met us for lunch.
Winters has taken his son to all the places our panel visited for fried chicken, and earlier this summer, the family went to Kansas City so Matt could try the legendary Stroud’s, known around the country for great fried chicken.
His cut of choice? The leg.
The panel liked the fried chicken at Big Mama’s, though there was one big difference: It’s oven-fried instead of grease-fried, like all the other places we visited.
The flavorful, spicy crust wasn’t crispy, and that was what our panel was after.
In between playing games on his dad’s iPhone, I asked Matt what restaurant in Omaha, in his opinion, has the best fried chicken.
He uttered two words: “Time Out.”
And in the end, he was right.