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Winner: Tie between Dario's Brasserie and Bronco's.
Omaha french fry lovers have no shortage of options. There's the fast-food fry, the gourmet fry, the crinkle cut and the waffle, the fancy fry loaded with truffle oil or sizzled in duck fat.
No matter the type, though, in our search for the city's best french fry, members of this month's Food Prowl team longed most for one thing: The throwback fry that doesn't come out of a freezer bag.
We found it twice, and our search ended in a tie, with choices on the opposite ends of the dining spectrum.
This month's opinionated panel included Diane Zipay, director of nutrition and catering services for District 66 schools, who has taste-tested literally hundreds of fries for Omaha students; Diane's foodie husband, John Zipay; and Karin Kingkade, married to Omaha chef Ryan Kingkade and the mother of four french fry-loving children.
Per tradition, we immediately started talking fries and standards. We wanted a thin fry, not a steak fry or a waffle fry. Though we'd consider fries with seasoning, we mostly were after a more bare-bones classic. And most of all, the fries had to be hot, crispy and not too greasy.
4540 Leavenworth St.
broncoburgers.com for additional locations
At Bronco's, at 48th and Leavenworth Streets, one of John's favorite places, the team had high expectations. The old-school Omaha burger joint is known for its hand-cut fries.
We ordered one classic french fry and a second order of Laredo fries (and a burger and two pork tenderloins, just for good measure).
The fries weren't nearly as greasy as I had recalled, and were hot, fresh and clearly hand-cut. They looked different than the others we'd seen. The exterior, slightly mottled, clearly came from a "real" potato. The fries all were a little imperfect and some had bits of skin still attached.
They weren't the prettiest fries, but the flavor was something else entirely.
"It tastes like a real potato," Karin said. "And the inside seems fuller."
"There is no way these are out of a freezer bag," she said.
The fries at Bronco's aren't salted, so we added our own. The flavor was indeed pure potato and the texture was both light and crispy. We didn't love the seasoned and waffle-cut Laredo fries, however. We devoured the classic fries and left the others almost untouched.
We had a front-runner in Bronco's, with one last stop to make at Dario's in Dundee, another place known for fries.
4920 Underwood Ave.
We met again at Dario's in Dundee, another place known for fries.
The atmosphere at Dario's couldn't have been more different than that of Bronco's. At Bronco's, the fries come in a printed paper sack and we ate them quickly off a red tray with paper napkins.
At Dario's — a low-lit, French Brasserie where the napkins are cloth and the atmosphere is classy — the fries arrived in a cone with two dipping sauces: thyme-spiked mayo and unadorned ketchup. We ordered two batches. Though the first batch had some darker fries and a few limp ones, the second batch was outstanding: hot, crispy and golden-hued.
These fries, also hand-cut, had the same mottled exterior as those at Bronco's. They were a deeper hue of gold, though, and had fewer imperfections. The outside breaks with a soft crunch and the inside is perfectly fluffy and just dense enough.
Their potato flavor was intense and rich and the salt level was spot-on.
A few of the fries at Dario's were stuck together — three of the four tasters loved that handmade detail — and the paper inside the cone wasn't too greasy.
The team wavered as voting time came. Karin went first, casting her vote for Dario's because of their depth. I voted for Dario's, too — I've returned to eat these fries again and again, and I'm always satisfied. They're like the fries at Bronco's, but they're dressed up for a night on the town.
The Zipays both went for the old-school Bronco's fries. John couldn't find a fry he liked more than his lifelong favorite, and Diane said she'd been thinking about those fries since our lunch there.
Though we ended split, no one seemed particularly sad. Mostly, we loved the contrast.
"It's like the best upscale fry," Karin said, "and the best fast-food fry. Both were about as fresh as you could get."
The other contenders:
Amsterdam Falafel and Kabob
620 N. 50th St.
We met at Amsterdam in Dundee, where the scent of the restaurant's well-known curry fries wafted out the door to meet us.
The Amsterdam fries arrived, sizzling hot and coated with a good layer of heavily-scented curry powder, a bit hot and a bit spicy. Four tiny, pale green forks stuck out of the top of the sizable heap. The fries came with mayonnaise and ketchup for dipping.
Diane separated herself as a fry expert: She peeled back the outer crust to take a look inside and nodded approvingly at the fluffy center.
We all liked the Amsterdam fries — the mayo dip was especially popular paired with the spicy curry — but Diane thought the spice might be a touch heavy-handed for some. Karin liked the fries, but she said the slightly gritty texture of the spices made a dipping sauce especially necessary. It keeps the fries moist once you start to chew and absorbs some of the powdery texture. I agreed with her — I always load my Amsterdam fries with ketchup.
We pushed leftover fries to the side of the basket paper and took a gander at grease. Amsterdam's paper was yellow with curry powder and not too greasy.
1004 S. 74th St.
At the request of readers, we headed to Lighthouse Pizza, which just released a new french fry menu. We sampled two — garlic Parmesan and truffle. Lighthouse has more exotic choices, including fries topped with pulled pork.
Diane told us the restaurant is a hangout for Westside High School students and she was right: While we waited, I saw at least four girls in Westside T-shirts eating pizza during the noon hour.
We liked the sauces at Lighthouse, and the creativity of their fries, but the fries themselves were inconsistent.
The Parmesan garlic fries were mostly hot and crispy, though two of our tasters wanted more salt.
Diane and Karin both love salt; John is a fan of self-applied salt to adjust his own levels. I fell somewhere in the middle, but all of us agreed that these fries could have been saltier. I also wished the garlic was more prominent.
The second batch, with the truffle sauce, had many floppy fries and a few dark brown, soggy ones. The sauce wasn't the culprit of the soggy fries: Though it was on top, it was too thick to sink into them.
I would have preferred a bigger hit of truffle — admittedly, I expect a lot from anything "truffle" and this didn't have the distinct flavor I love.
We took the paper out of the baskets, and the grease level was low. When Diane examined the fries, the inside was denser instead of fluffy like the fries at Amsterdam.
5051 Center St.
Runza.com for additional locations
We reconvened at Runza near 50th and Center Streets.
Our two large orders of fries came sizzling hot, clearly just out of the fryer, and salty. They were the only crinkle-cut fries we saw.
"This is an authentic fry," John said.
They were soft on the inside and crisp outside. Diane thought Runza's fatter fries with the zig-zag cut start crispy and stay crispy longer than other cuts. Karin agreed that even in a take-out bag, Runza fries can stand the test of time.
The boxes here were greasier than others, but not necessarily in a bad way.
"There's nothing wrong with greasy fries," she said, "as long as it's grease with a purpose."