Food Prowl is a yearlong look at what the city's restaurants have to offer. Each month, food writer Sarah Baker Hansen, and a few guest tasters, will name a new victor in the epic battle of food.
Click here to read past Food Prowls.
Coming in June: Omaha's best gourmet burger
The May Food Prowl team spent the past month pretending to be old men.
We met as the sun rose and wedged our bodies into vinyl booths. We sipped piping hot coffee in mismatched mugs, just like the old guys who frequented each of the five diners we visited. We talked. We lingered.
And, like the old guys, we bickered. We weren't debating politics. We were debating French toast.
We ate golden slices of eggy bread for more than three weeks until we reached an 11th-hour consensus that left my opinion in the minority once again.
Though the decision was tough, what we learned is pretty simple. French toast is best when it's kept somewhere between bare bones and grandiose, between soft and crisp, between sweet and savory. It can be challenging to find the perfect combination of all three.
Team members were me, Cat Koehler, formerly a momaha blogger who now works as a social media advocate for Home Instead Senior Care, and Autumn Pruitt, who runs Bliss Bakery in the Old Market and won last year's cupcake Food Prowl.
The winner: Louie M's Burger Lust's classic French toast
Louie M's Burger Lust
1718 Vinton St.
At Louie M's, a Vinton Street classic we also visited during last year's burger Food Prowl, we liked what we found. I didn't realize Louie M's served breakfast all day every day, but it does, and it draws a decent morning crowd of neighborhood types — those same seasoned old fellows we saw everywhere. More men sat outside on a balmy spring morning and people-watched.
The thick-cut toast came three slices to an order. One bite in, Autumn said she thought this one had a hint of vanilla in the batter. A spread of butter topped with powdered sugar made a sort of glaze on the toast. That alone made it sweet even without syrup. The texture was dense though not soggy and the edges were crunchy.
"This is like the one my grandma would make," Cat said.
Throughout the prowl, Cat and Autumn couldn't stop thinking about the toast. Cat thought it had the best texture and flavor. Autumn liked the sweetness, the portion size and the price. She also liked the powdered sugar glaze, and the fact that a diner could eat it without syrup. In the end, it got both their votes.
I learned after the prowl that the secret at Louie M's is dipping the toast in egg spiked with a hint of vanilla and another secret ingredient: a touch of pancake batter.
"In the end, the trick is not to over-complicate things," Autumn said. "It's bread, eggs, milk and seasoning."
Just like all those retirees who hit their neighborhood restaurants for reliable classics, the team turned to a basic, classic version of French toast as its favorite. Simpler was better, we learned.
Just ask those charismatic early risers we saw all over town, sipping coffee. They already know.
The other contenders:
Lisa's Radial Cafe
817 N. 40th St.
Our quest began at Lisa's Radial Cafe. We met there at 8 a.m. on the dot, and the only other patrons at that hour were retired men who chatted and ate at a pace you could gently describe as leisurely.
Our judges adopted that pace, conversing over coffee while we waited for one stuffed French toast and one Texas style.
The portions arrived, each one big and dusted lightly with powdered sugar. Each piece had bits of fried egg from the egg wash around its edges and the bread had decent chew, though there wasn't the seasoning — such as vanilla or cinnamon — we were hoping for. Without syrup, the toast tasted like plain bread.
The stuffed version, cut in the middle and filled with cream cheese and canned peaches and finished with a spray of whipped topping, got soggy fast, and the unsweetened cream cheese didn't do it for me at all — it was too much and too thick. Cat also thought there was too much filling.
"The stuffed one is sort of like a French toast Hot Pocket," Autumn said.
409 S. 12th St.
We met again at the Diner in the Old Market for a late breakfast to try its "Ooh La La" French toast, among others.
The Diner is a fixture for Old Market types, and businessmen there for an 11 a.m. lunch meeting sat near us. Retirees filled the rest of the place, nursing endless cups of coffee. When I was a downtowner, I lurked there myself, sipping coffee and filling out crossword puzzles.
Made with apple walnut bread, the Ooh La La French toast was better on paper than in real life. Though the bread had nice texture, it tasted slightly stale and definitely store-bought. It lacked eggy flavor and tasted more like plain toast than French toast. We all liked the crunchy nuts in the bread — they're the best thing about it.
The Diner's Texas French toast and its plain version also tasted basically like plain toast with syrup. The classic style toast had the texture and consistency of white Wonder bread. By the time I got that plate from the other side of the table, the bread had become mush. This is the kind of French toast that made me dislike the dish as a kid.
6405 Center St.
I was 10 minutes late for breakfast at Amato's, made famous on "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" and known more for its pancakes than French toast. We sipped coffee amid the sound of television news and a sizzling grill while we waited. When the toast arrived, I realized right away that it is made with one of my favorites, sliced bread from Orsi's Bakery, a south Omaha staple.
The toast was eggier than any we'd tried, and the egg wash gave the outside of the bread an uneven, deeply savory texture.
Though it wasn't crisp enough for Cat, I liked the density. A sprinkling of powdered sugar made it just slightly sweet and the side of syrup came to the table warm, something Autumn insists on.
"This is like a breakfast," Cat said, "instead of a dessert."
Amato's got my vote in the end, with its Orsi's bread and textural, savory toast.
Joe Banana's Food and Spirits
1022 S. 10th St.
The prowl ended at Joe Banana's, one of those random spots that I love to find on Food Prowl. The South 10th Street restaurant has always looked to me more like a dive bar than a diner. Turns out it's a bit of both. We sat adjacent to a long table of retirees, all men and a woman, who were clearly regulars, calling the waitress by name and handing her their frequent diner punch cards when they ordered.
We tried the French toast made with white bread and the one made with Italian — the restaurant gives diners the choice of Orsi's bread or the bread from Rotella's, another Omaha bakery. We ordered a mix of the two.
All three of the varieties were too soft and didn't have enough flavor, though the egg wash was visible around the edges and a sprinkle of powdered sugar was the standard here, too.
911 S. 87th Ave.
Zurlo's Bistro Italiano
13110 Birch Drive
The Food Prowl Team met at two non-diners to sample French toast on the recommendation of World-Herald readers.
On a Sunday morning at Zurlo's, near 132nd Street and West Maple Road, we found French toast that was done well but not simple enough. Our waiter urged us to try the amaretto French toast with the house selection of toppings: marscapone and berries, Nutella and banana or apple cinnamon. We ordered one of each.
We didn't taste the amaretto in the batter, and two of the three — the marscapone and Nutella versions — seemed more about the toppings than the toast. It also got soggy faster than we could eat it.
The price also was a lot higher than that at the diners. The bill for the three plates and three cups of coffee was more than $60 after tip.
"That's a lot of money for bread dipped in egg," said prowler Autumn Pruitt.
At the Market Basket in Countryside Village, we found a version of French toast that wasn't like anything else we tasted. The restaurant deep fries its French toast and does both a plain and stuffed version. The result is more like a French toast version of a cheese frenchee than the traditional breakfast food.
It was incredibly rich and greasier than regular French toast. It came with regular syrup and cinnamon syrup, and though the variety was nice, the syrup came to the table cold instead of warmed. The stuffed version of the toast, filled with cream cheese and walnuts, had too much stuffing and a stick-to-your-gums texture, while the plain one came off tasting more like "fried" than French toast.
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