I have a piece of notepaper tacked to my desk.
"Sarah is so cool," it reads. "I like her, but maybe not as much as chicken fried steak. I dunno. It's a toss-up."
I've since cooked the guy who penned that poem chicken fried steak from scratch with all the fixings as a birthday dinner.
And at two more of my husband's birthday dinners, I employed two of the city's finest chefs to do the cooking.
The first was a gorgeous, arugula-topped chicken fried ribeye courtesy of Chef Paul Kulik at the Boiler Room Restaurant. And last May, V. Mertz chef Jon Seymour cooked him a second incredible chicken fried steak the size of a dinner plate; that's how we learned Jon loves this down-home meal as much as my husband, Matthew, does.
So it makes sense, then, that the three of us reunited in a vinyl booth earlier this month over two slabs of fried beef and piles of mashed potatoes gently swathed in thick, white country gravy. I don't know if two tasters have ever been better suited to a prowl than Matthew and Jon were to October's quest for the city's best chicken fried steak.
Winner: Gorat Steakhouse
4917 Center St.
There was already a small crowd at Gorat's Steakhouse on a cold, rainy Monday at 5:30 p.m. — we brought the average age down by about 30 years when we sat in a booth in the lounge to chat about steakhouses and judge some gravy. The aroma of the restaurant's notorious onion rings wafted toward us from a nearby table.
While we waited, we talked about the prowl.
"I think what's going to be challenging for me," Matthew said at the outset, "is that I love chicken fried steak so much, I'm not discerning. I love it even when its bad."
Jon, though, had some parameters already in mind: We'd judge this prowl based mostly on the steak itself. The thickness and combination of tenderness, chew and crunch in each bite was important. So was the country gravy, which the guys chose to judge in lieu of brown, which we found available at every place we visited.
"The gravy is one of the most important elements in terms of flavor and consistancy," Jon said. "And it has to taste like something. If it just takes like flour and water, no."
For Jon, the meat must be "fork tender." In other words, he wants to eat it without the hindrance of a knife.
"I don't want it like shoe leather," he said.
We'd try mashed potatoes and French fries, though the guys weren't particular about the potato. And we wouldn't judge the wan side of vegetables that sometimes come with the meal — this show is about the meat and gravy.
After the first bites of our two plates of chicken fried steak at Gorat's, we faced a dish that had chew but wasn't chewy and a breading that was crunchy but not crumbly or greasy. The texture, Jon said, was spot-on and the meat had a fresh, beefy taste.
"This is damn good," Matthew said.
The big, comforting, rich slabs of meat had nicely seasoned white gravy smothering their tops and covering chunky homemade mashed potatoes. A side of fresh tasting vegetables on the side pleased me, especially the lima beans, a personal favorite.
"It's almost umami," Jon said. (I believe this might be the first time a chef has uttered these words over a piece of fried meat.)
"The flavors wake up the palette," he continued, "like a spoon of miso paste."
The only thing the guys wished for was more pepper in the gravy, an easy fix thanks to a table shaker.
"This is the kind of meal where after you eat it," Jon said, "you might need to take a nap on the banquette."
We had a serious contender in Gorat's. No one ever surpassed it.
"I didn't expect Gorat's to take this," Jon said. "But the overall appeal of it was just right. It had a meatiness to it that no one else had, and the gravy was tasty. It wasn't too thick and it was seasoned properly."
"The whole package at Gorat's was the best," he said. "It was hearty."
I liked Gorat's the best too, hands down. The reason: It was the first time that I'd eaten chicken fried steak that I wanted to eat again. And again. It was good enough to make me stop thinking about fat and calories and simply indulge in things I usually don't.
Our judges, being chicken fried steak lovers to the core, didn't want to make it seem like the other seven places we tried weren't good enough. They liked the meat at Venice Inn, another place we tried. The brown gravy at Millard Roadhouse was a hot. The creativity at another place we tried, Amato's, impressed.
If Jon and Matthew could have built their own Frankenstein chicken fried steak, with bits from here and there, they'd do it. Ultimately, though, they chose the one that blended familiarity, flavor and quality as their favorite.
"I never think of a steakhouse when I think chicken fried steak," Matthew said.
"We had a preconceived notion of what chicken fried steak was," Jon said. "And every single one we tried was one I would eat again."
This month's food prowl might have been the one tied most to memory and to nostalgia. The most surprising thing for me was I found a new love for a dish I had a hard time embracing. Diving into fried meat and thick gravy, I felt comforted. And I left at least one visit with gravy all over my pants — a sure reminder that food is meant to be enjoyed instead of judged.
We also tried...
13325 Millard Ave.
To see if it could be beat, we drove to the Millard Roadhouse. With a name like that, you would think it probably serves a mean fried hunk of beef
We got two chicken fried steaks with one switch — we went for their spicy chicken gravy instead of the classic white gravy, though we got a bowl of it on the side to sample.
The guys liked the brown gravy here better than the spicy chicken.
"It tastes like a mix between chicken and hot and sour soup," he said.
The white gravy didn't have enough seasoning, but the meat had the chew we were looking for. The guys liked the thinner breading paired with a thicker cut of meat. Matthew especially was a fan of the crust's crunchy yet crumbly texture.
The salty, deeply flavored beef gravy was the best we'd had thus far, and though we liked some of the elements at Millard Roadhouse, we didn't like all of them.
Caniglia's Venice Inn
6920 Pacific St.
World-Herald readers urged us to go to another old-school Omaha steakhouse, so we lunched at Caniglia's Venice Inn one afternoon.
The incredible meat inside the Venice Inn chicken fried steak stood out. Thick and tender, it definitely passed Jon's fork-cut test. It had a tender-chewy texture and the grain was more of steak and less of tenderized hamburger. The texture made Jon think of pot roast.
But the white gravy — one of our two key elements — was gelatinous and salty. The guys liked the steak so much, though, they wouldn't commit to a favorite so early in the game.
"I'm torn," Matthew said. "The over-salting could have been a one-off."
Jon thought the gravy brought what could have been a winning dish — or at the very least a serious contender — down.
"At the end of the day, its still tasty," he said.
All of us were surprised. We thought the diners and dives would represent in this challenge, but it turns out the old-school Omaha steakhouses were giving them a real run for their money, battling it out for the top spot.
2419 Leavenworth St.
We reunited at one last diner on a Sunday morning and faced a huge crowd of hungry people in the entryway of the 11-Worth Cafe. After 15 minutes of slurping down coffee from big plastic foam cups, we got seated in a row at old-school stools next to the bar.
The guys discussed the contenders while we waited for two of 11-Worth's self-proclaimed "famous, giant chicken fried steaks" to arrive.
They were absolutely huge, and the guys liked the seasoned crust and the meat, which wasn't dry in spite of its thinness. Jon asked our waitress if the steaks were homemade.
"No," she said, refilling our coffees. "But it's still good."
"This gravy is like a childhood memory," Jon said.
And Matthew: "When I think of chicken fried steak, this is what I think of."
What 11-Worth serves is the classic incarnation of chicken fried steak. It's not fancy. But it's infused with the flavor of comfort, fattening and satisfying.
5914 Center St.
At Petrow's, we found a huge slab of beef that judge Jon Seymour, the chef at V. Mertz, said looked like it was cooked on a flat top. There wasn't a lot of seasoning in either of the two steaks we tried, or the white country gravy, though we liked the flavor of the brown gravy.
The taste of the meat itself, though, didn't thrill us, and since we'd decided to put our stock in the white gravy, this one lost points for lack of flavor. If we had to pick a favorite here, it'd be the brown gravy.
Both Jon and Matthew Hansen, our other taster and my husband, said they were fine with the gigantic portion — they expected it.
“I don't think I could ever eat too much chicken-fried steak,” Matthew said.
“If we're going on character,” Jon said as we sat down in a booth at Shirley's Diner, in Millard, “this place wins.”
5325 S. 139th Plaza
Shirley's will cook you a chicken-fried steak as a sandwich or one dipped in hot sauce, which we opted against in favor of the classics we'd been trying already. Jon and Matthew were both excited to see sausage gravy for the first time, but the flavor wasn't deep enough for us. When you got a chunk of meat in your mouth, it was there, but otherwise it was absent.
The thick crust reminded me of fried chicken, and the guys liked the thin meat's good chew and the texture of the thick gravy, but we could have used more seasoning.
6405 Center St.
Amato's chicken-fried steak was one of the stars of the Food network's “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” when Guy Fieri came to Omaha, so we took a trip there to check it out. Turns out his description wasn't quite right — Amato's calls its dish Italian Steak, and instead of gravy, it's topped with a thick layer of melted cheese and the restaurant's signature cooked and spiced peppers.
“It's good,” Jon said. “But it's not chicken-fried steak.”
The piece of pork, coated in Italian bread crumbs, reminded us more of chicken Parmesan or Italian sausage and peppers than chicken-fried steak.
157 W. Broadway, Council Bluffs
At Dixie Quicks in Council Bluffs, we expected a contender, especially when the guys spotted the sausage gravy, the second time we'd seen it on the prowl.
But the steak was missing the crunch factor in the crust that's so important, and the inside of the steak was drier than we'd have liked. The gravy, though, was fantastic, richly flavored, seasoned right and with a sausage-y smokiness.
“I don't know why every place doesn't make sausage gravy,” Matthew said.