Many Omahans can claim some form of German ancestry, and it really shows, not just in the number of hard-to-pronounce surnames, but also with the popularity of German restaurants. In a quest to find a few German gems in Omaha, I recently visited three distinctive local eateries.
My first stop was on bustling Leavenworth Street, in a modest building with the words “Gerda’s Bäckerei,” or bakery, painted on the side. Customers are greeted by an array of confections in the pastry case. A taste of the orange roll, a type of Danish with a sugary sweet citrus glaze, and the flaky German-style apple strudel proved exceptional.
Lunch choices are limited to cold deli sandwiches and a few rotating hot dishes. For the bacon and beef rolls known as Rouladen and other staples, be sure to go during dinner hours.
The mixed green salad was enlivened by a scoop of authentic potato salad, complete with a healthy dose of vinegar and scallions. The Hungarian Goulash stew consisted of cubes of pot roast in a subtle paprika broth. It was served with another specialty, the curly egg noodles known as spätzle, which complimented the delicate broth nicely.
Although the recipes may appear simple and unfussy at Gerda’s, it’s the grandmotherly touch and years of experience that set it apart from others.
Ten miles down the road, Chef Otto Helbig offers a more extensive menu at his family-friendly restaurant Zum Biergarten in Bellevue. Despite the name, this is not a beer garden, but a regular restaurant occupying a former Pizza Hut. The attempt to camouflage the pizza chain feel by hanging fake plants and doll figurines gave the atmosphere a heavy dose of kitsch.
The Appetizer Sampler ($10) featured crab cakes that were disappointingly overdone and salty. The brick of fried feta cheese was a welcomingly potent departure from the usual mozzarella, especially with sweet raspberry sauce to cut through the richness. We sorely missed the third component, potato cakes, since they were reportedly out.
The Tour of Germany ($19) was breathtaking to behold. The house-made bratwurst, coarsely ground with herbs and caraway seeds, came perfectly browned on the outside. So flavorful it was, that I preferred it without the spicy horseradish mustard. The pork schnitzel was nicely tenderized, and the breading wasn’t too thick. Topped with a Zigeuner sauce of sharp green bell peppers and tomato paste, it was another highlight of the meal. A breaded pork cutlet, pork roast with mushroom gravy, mashed potatoes, creamy Bavarian cabbage, and a load of sauerkraut rounded out the plate. If you don’t have a love affair with pork, they also serve a vegetable-stuffed cabbage entrée, among other vegetarian dishes.
A slice of classic Bee Sting cake ($3.80), the yeasty, honeyed bread with almonds and Bavarian cream, was a lush final course.
Portions are remarkably oversized. Those feeling extra ambitious can partake in a nine-pound eating challenge, but to attempt this, I’d recommend sipping on one of their classic German wines or beers ($3.50-$5) to rack up the nerve.
More of a night spot than a proper restaurant, 1892 German Bier Haus in Council Bluffs also offers a challenge for fans of Das Boot, the drinking game wherein you pass around a glass boot filled with beer. Simply down three of them in one sitting and you’ll be added to the Boot Wall of Fame.
On the menu, regular bar food staples share space with traditional items such as Currywurst ($6.95), the quintessential Berlin street food. This creation of sausage doused in house-made curry ketchup on a bed of French fries could have used a sprinkling of curry powder for a more pronounced flavor.
The trio of sausages on the Gemischte Wurstplatte ($10.95) were coated in gravy and accompanied by soft spätzle and crunchy sauerkraut. The seasonings in the bratwurst were much too subtle, but the others were pleasantly smoky. I bemoaned the lack of crusty rolls and spicy mustard, but overall, 1892 offers a quick and easy meal best enjoyed between passes of Das Boot.
Other restaurants feature tastes of German as well: Farm-to-table Grey Plume has spätzle, and “Gastropub” Block 16 does schnitzel. Huber Haus German Bier Hall in Midtown will celebrate the beginning of spring with its 7th Annual Bockfest on Saturday, March 31st. But wherever you decide to get your German fix, be sure to bring a big appetite. Prost!
Gerda’s German Restaurant and Bakery is located at 5180 Leavenworth Street; call 402.553.6774 for more information. Zum Biergarten is at 513 Ft. Crook Rd. North, call 402.733.1900 or visit zum-biergarten.com. 1892 is located at 142 West Broadway in Council Bluffs; reach them at 712.256.9700.