Tag Archives: beef

The Land of Pharaohs and Omaha Beef Liver

August 6, 2017 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

CAIRO, Egypt—Sometime around 2012, I started going to a sausage and liver cart in the middle-class neighborhood of Dokki where I then lived. I was still new to Egypt, having recently moved from the U.S.

The cart, however, was a longstanding neighborhood fixture. Since 1976, from dusk until dawn, Ezz al-Monofy has been serving spicy sausage and liver meats in vino bread (which is like a less-airy hotdog bun).

On any given night, there are 30 to 40 men of all ages, standing and downing sandwiches for late-night snacks. Steam rises from three frying basins, illuminated by bright fluorescent lights. On the otherwise dark street, the glowing cart becomes a beacon for the nocturnal community of Giza, on the western bank of the Nile opposite Downtown Cairo.

For my friends and I, a visit to Ezz al-Monofy is part of our healing process. The spicy and greasy meat, washed down with some of the saltiest pickles in the Cairo metro, enables our bodies to retain more water. Consequently, the food cart helps our minds to function properly the next day. A long night of drinking Stella—the Egyptian beer, not to be confused with the Belgian brand of the same name—can result in an incapacitating hangover.

I didn’t realize the significance of these late-night food runs until Abou Malak, the cart’s mustachioed cook, who I came to know, asked me where I was from.

“Omaha,” I said.

He stared at me for a second, as if deciding whether I was being honest, or if he should be.

“By the way, this liver is from Omaha,” he replied.

I thought it was some sort of joke.

“Swear on it,” I said.

A bigger man at the cart, with a bigger mustache, gestured at me as if to say, “one second.”

I was afraid I had offended the two men, since I used a more Muslim religious phrase to exclaim my disbelief. For all I knew, they could be Christians, who have had a second-class status in Egypt, and whose security has been threatened (especially recently). He came back with a cardboard box with some blood smudges on it.

The box read:

“GREATER OMAHA

PROVIDING THE HIGHEST

QUALITY BEEF

Produced for Hanzada Company-Cairo, Egypt”

In general, Egyptians love beef liver, and Americans don’t. So by the osmosis of the world economy, Americans tend to sell Egypt liver, and a lot of it.

Egypt is the world’s biggest importer of liver. In fact, Egyptians eat so much American beef liver that there’s a market for American liver near Ramses Square in central Cairo. Meanwhile, American beef producers are actually afraid that they are too dependent on Egypt buying livers, and they have been looking to new markets. But I doubt South Africa, a rising consumer, is up to the challenge. In 2016, 76 percent of all U.S. beef liver exports (68,474 tons) ended up in Egypt.

I’ve been a journalist in Cairo for six years, and it makes sense that the first time I’ve come across a story that really resonates with my American family history—or one that could be written for a hometown publication—has to do with beef.

My grandmother, Frances “Jean” Wheeler, has never seen the mountains or the ocean. My maternal family’s story is one of migration across the Great Plains for various slaughter and meatpacking jobs.

Her grandfather, my great-great-grandfather Emil Peklo from Prague, loaded the family onto a boat and took them to the U.S. According to Grandma, most of the boat’s passengers were sent back, but Emil’s wife gave birth to a son in the harbor, so they were allowed to stay.

When an immigration officer found out Emil was a butcher, he connected him with his brother, who had a meatpacking house in Chicago. The family went west to work there. With the savings from that job, he moved to Lynch, Nebraska, to open a butcher shop.

“Peklo in English is hell. H-E-L-L,” she said. “And he had on his window, “Go to hell for your meat.’”

“Uncle Vic could put on a Sunday dress shirt, roll up his sleeves, put on an apron, and take apart a whole cow without getting a drop of blood on his suit,” Grandma said.

I love my grandmother very much, but she has a tendency toward hyperbole, and the anatomy of a cow makes me doubt this claim. A cow liver can be between 10 and 15 pounds, and anybody who has cut one up knows they’re more slippery than muscle meat.

In the prep area of Ezz al-Monofy, the sous chefs do not have the mind, nor the time, to worry about getting blood on their shirts with a bunch of hangry men around. They cut the liver into pencil thin pieces, which are thrown into 2-gallon pots before being mixed with fried garlic.

After tossing the liver around with a spatula in the oil, Abou Malak adds coriander, cumin, salt, pepper, chili pepper, nutmeg, and more garlic. Another cook slices the vino bread with a box-cutter, slathers them with sesame paste that’s thinned out with lemon juice, and sprinkles that with fresh parsley before passing them to Abou Malak to fill with a serving of liver.

If liver is not for you, the cart also sells home-style sausage and Alexandrian sausage. I’m not aware of the beef sausages’ country—or anatomical region—of origin.

Liver sandwiches are the Egyptian equivalent of the hot dog. They are cheap and probably the nation’s most famous street food. But prices are going up. Recently, a food-ordering service, Otlob, released an infographic warning that the price of a liver sandwich had quadrupled since 2013, and was expected to keep rising.

Rising food prices are a major concern for the Egyptian public. In fall 2016, the government floated the exchange rate, which meant that the price of the Egyptian pound plummeted in comparison to the U.S. dollar. Although Egyptian food prices may seem extraordinarily cheap to American readers back home, the pound’s declining value means it’s increasingly expensive for regular Egyptians to buy anything.

The changing currency dynamics also means American beef has become more expensive to purchase. As a result, the share of liver exports to Egypt from America went down from 82 percent to 76 percent between 2015 and 2016. In 2014, the North African country was the largest importer of liver in the entire world.

The American beef industry uses the term “variety meat” for liver, kidneys, brains, stomach, and such. It’s a beautiful example of an American industrial euphemism. The phrasing implies “choice,” a cornerstone principle in American free-market philosophy. Egyptians use a term that translates to “sweets,” or “fruits of meat,” which sounds more poetic and folksy.

Liver, though, is ultimately a category unto itself, a comfort food of both the rich and poor. When I first encountered liver in Nebraska, I viewed it as leftovers cooked for/by those who couldn’t afford “regular” meat. But a look back into history shows its place in American fine dining, too.

In the heyday of Omaha’s stockyards, liver sometimes enjoyed luxury status. In 1946, Caniglia’s steakhouse had liver and spaghetti on the menu for $3.25. In 2017 dollars, that’s about $42. Macarona Reda in Downtown Cairo’s Bab al-Louq neighborhood has “macarona bil kebda” (spaghetti and liver) for 7 Egyptian pounds (less than 42 cents).

I assumed my grandmother would have eaten liver growing up, being the daughter and granddaughter of butchers and growing up poor.

“Are you kidding? I didn’t like liver,” she said. “When I was pregnant with your uncle John, I had iron deficiency. I had to eat liver three times a week. I fixed liver one time for your grandpa, mom, and uncle Monte. And he said, ‘What’s this? I won’t eat it, and my kids won’t eat it!’”

My grandparents met each other, in part, because of the meat industry. When my great-great-grandfather Emil’s son, Emil Jr. (my great-grandfather), attempted to borrow money to continue his studies at the seminary, his mother said no, according to Grandma.

So, great-grandpa Emil Jr. moved across the state line to Winner, South Dakota, to work at a different butcher. Then, he moved to a meatpacking house in Pampa, Texas, during World War II. Finally, he moved to South Omaha after the Pampa factory burnt down.

My grandmother was a child during the family relocations. Her roots would take hold in Omaha.  She was working at a hide processing company in South Omaha when she met my grandfather. He was working at a truck wash that also serviced the stockyards.

In 1947, when the Peklos moved to Omaha, 2,016,768 cows moved through the Omaha stockyards. By 1955 the stockyards were the biggest meat producer in the world. That superlative lingered over my hometown until 1971.

My mother grew up in Papillion. My father came from Lebanon; he was studying engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when my parents met.

By the time I was born, peak beef production had passed in Omaha. Even so, the remaining Omaha-area meatpacking plants still process huge amounts of cattle today, with slaughter and butchering having become heavily industrialized.

The Nebraska business responsible for supplying my favorite beef liver cart in Egypt—Greater Omaha Packing Co.—processes 14,000 head of cattle a week, almost 728,000 a year, at its South Omaha factory off 32nd and L streets.

When it comes to eating red meat, my time living overseas has brought one major epiphany: Growing up in Nebraska has spoiled me.

I’ve tried hard to replicate some of my favorite Omaha dishes in Egypt—for example, Big Fred’s prime rib sandwich. But I can’t do it.

Cuts of meat just aren’t really the same in Egypt, and the pricing is much closer than one might expect. It’s a double-edged sword: You can get a filet for 80 Egyptian pounds (equal to $4.41 in U.S. dollars) per pound in Cairo, but stew meat can cost 60 Egyptian pounds (or $3.25) per pound. 

The lack of common vocabulary once meant I went home from an Egyptian market feeling pretty excited about an extremely cheap rib-eye, but when I unwrapped it, that feeling turned into confusion. It turned out to be spleen, and I failed miserably at cooking it.

On return trips to Omaha, I relish the city’s renown for beef.

For days leading up to my homecoming, my father and I will message back and forth on the topic of meat cuts that I’d like to eat. He then purchases the beef in bulk from the meat market down the street from our house and freezes the rest.

My first meal after arriving at home is usually a steak, if it’s warm enough to fire up the grill. In the wintertime, it’s usually corned beef (on a Reuben sandwich), since I have yet to come across high-quality deli meat in Cairo.

The absence or presence of food in a particular place can tell you a lot about how local people are connected (or disconnected) to other parts of the world.

Recently, China reopened its country to American beef products, which might be a good plan-B for Nebraskan liver merchants in the event that Egypt becomes a less lucrative market. 

On the face of the global beef trade, the tradespeople (the butchers) are increasingly mobile globally. In fact, many butchers in the United States have come from the Arab world, and they are exporting Nebraska meat back to their countries of origin.

The trend is evident even on the rural outskirts of Omaha. In Lexington, Nebraska, the meatpacking industry employs hundreds of resettled Sudanese and Somalian refugees. The immigrants take apart thousands of cows every day.

With Cairo, Egypt, as a major transit point for refugees, it’s possible that tomorrow’s Sudanese-American butcher is right now eating a liver sandwich from a Nebraskan plant where he might work in the next year.

Then again, with mounting anti-immigration rhetoric in American politics, maybe not.

Visit greateromaha.com for more information about the Omaha-based company that supplied the author’s favorite beef liver cart in Egypt.

Egyptian Beef Liver Recipe

Ingredients:

1 quarter pound beef liver, cut into inch long, pencil thin strips

2 tablespoons cooking oil

4 tablespoons freshly minced garlic, divided

1 teaspoon cumin

½ teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon white vinegar

3 spicy green peppers, chopped

¼ cup tahina (sesame paste)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Chopped parsley for garnish

Hot dog buns, for serving

Instructions:

Heat the cooking oil, then fry 2 tablespoons garlic until just
beginning to brown.

Add the sliced beef liver, and toss until cooked through. The meat should turn a grayish-brown.

Add the remaining seasoning, vinegar, and peppers. Toss.

Taste and adjust seasoning and salt.

Mix the tahina and lemon juice in a bowl, then spread on the hot dog buns, and sprinkle with parsley.

Fill each bun with the liver mix.

Serve with pickled carrots, turnips, peppers, onions, and/or pickled tomatoes.

This article appears in the July/August edition of Omaha Magazine.

Living with 
Livestock in Omaha

June 19, 2017 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Hungry for a taste of the simple life? You don’t have to sacrifice the convenient luxuries of living in the Omaha metro.

Nick Batter, a lawyer who raises livestock in the Ponca Hills area, knows how to get the best of both worlds.

From left: Nick Batter and Jill Stigge

Batter owns five acres near Hummel Park, just outside of the city limits. He says he can’t imagine any other place where a young professional can raise a pig or shoot a shotgun in his or her front yard, and then drive 10 minutes to have sushi or see a Broadway show.

Urban Logistical Hassles

After first determining whether barnyard animals are allowed in your neighborhood, Batter says there are some challenges to raising livestock in the Omaha metro.

“There’s not many people to buy livestock from,” he says. He has to go on road trips to get animals. He must be selective about breeds due to space limitations: He raises a more docile breed of pig and a shorter-legged sheep (it runs slower). He doesn’t have space to overwinter animals either.

Batter’s livestock selection changes throughout the year to accommodate his space. He gets baby animals in spring and slaughters them after the first frost. By the end of April, he already had sheep, lambs, goats, rabbits, laying hens, and was expecting four pigs to arrive soon.

Limited access to feed stores presents another logistical challenge in the Omaha metro,  he says. For a variety of reasons (including his professional schedule), he has to buy feed on Sundays, and only one store is open when he’s available—and it’s in Irvington.

Nevertheless, he says the perks of animal husbandry outweigh any hassle.

Perks of Residential Livestock

Batter says his animals mostly “live off the land,” and their diet is only supplemented by feed. His rabbits and sheep eat grass. “Goats eat everything green,” he says.

He pens the pigs under mulberry, walnut, and oak trees. So, the pigs eat plenty of berries, nuts, and acorns. Batter finishes fattening them on black walnuts, a “very American walnut,” he says.

Batter doesn’t need to mow the lawn. The sheep do it. His two border collies make sure the sheep don’t leave the property.

He says the animal pens are near his home due to space limitations. His window faces the pens, so if predators are in the area—and his animals are distressed—he knows quickly.

Batter eats fresh eggs and chicken. “Keep them warm, keep them watered, keep them fed,” he says of the chickens. “They really do the rest.” He gets two to three dozen eggs a day. “They’re producing eggs like crazy,” Batter says. “I’m not even feeding them.”

The chickens eat bugs and grass, which they prefer. Batter enjoys sharing eggs. “Sharing eggs is expressive,” he says. “Time goes into it. It’s a way to share your personal time with somebody.”

Batter practices ethical husbandry and reaps the rewards, both in food and in spirit. “I’m not divorcing myself from the process [of processing animals],” Batter says. He knows his animals have a good life. “Every day of their lives is terrific except for the last day,” Batter says, adding that it pains him to waste meat: “You realize it came from a life.” And in the case of his backyard farm, a life that he nurtured and raised.”

Do It Yourself

Before investing in urban livestock, would-be farmers must research the zoning of their neighborhood. Circumstances are different all across the Omaha metro. To be safe, the University of Nebraska’s Douglas-Sarpy County Extension Office encourages homeowners to check with neighborhood associations or county planning and zoning offices.

“There are so many different situations, SIDs, acreages, in city limits, out of city limits,” says Monte Stauffer, an educator with the county extension office. “The person who can make that decision is at the county courthouse; you just have to give them an address.”

For advice on raising chickens, Stauffer suggests reaching out to Brett Kreifels, an extension assistant with a master’s degree in poultry production. Meanwhile, Stauffer (an animal sciences and animal husbandry expert) can answer any questions about pigs, calves, horses, sheep, and goats.

Kreifels and Stauffer are available by phone at 402-444-7804. A receptionist at the Douglas-Sarpy County Extension Office directs queries to the relevant experts on staff.

“You can do it for several reasons: to try to generate additional income, to produce your own food, or provide an educational opportunity to young people—giving them some chores to do, some responsibility that they may not get them in trouble,” Stauffer says.

Visit extension.unl.edu/statewide/douglas-sarpy for more information.

Eggs, sausages, and bacon harvested from the farm.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

Year of the Rooster

December 23, 2016 by
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

Chinese Lunar New Year falls on January 28 this year. The holiday is like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s all rolled into a week of celebrations. This year will be my third Lunar New Year in Omaha. Since relocating to the Midwest, I have developed a small go-to list for dishes that taste like home (or at least satiate my appetite until my next return visit to Hong Kong).

When coworkers ask me to recommend “real” Chinese food, I often probe how adventurous they are with eating. Authentic Chinese cuisines do not usually come with a thick brown or red sauce. Sometimes, signature dishes also feature uncommon ingredients. Although I never fancied chicken feet, I know several European Americans who will gobble down the dish (which translates to “phoenix talons” in my native Cantonese language) at any opportunity.

Chinese cuisines vary depending on region. Sichuanese (from western China) is known for its “mala” numbing spice. Cantonese (from Hong Kong and Guangdong) is famous for fresh seafood and dim sum. Dumplings, maybe even more than rice, are beloved in northern Chinese cuisines. You might even say Americanized Chinese food is authentic in its own way, with its distinct flavors and history woven into the story of Chinese migration.

1. Fresh housemade dim sum

I was excited to see barbecue pork and duck hanging on display upon entering Canton House Restaurant during my first visit; the Cantonese diner reminds me of the typical Hong Kong-style café (also known as a “cha chaan teng”). The chef started his career in Hong Kong decades ago and has brought a long list of authentic Hong Kong dishes to his restaurant in northwestern Omaha. Dim sum—bite-size breakfast hors d’oeuvres—are freshly made to order; I highly recommend ordering a variety and enjoying them with a group of friends. Stuffed eggplant, fish slices in congee (rice porridge), and sliced beef with pan-fried rice noodles are among my top three choices.

4849 N. 90th St., No. 1, Omaha, NE 68134

402-505-9446

cantonhouseomaha.com

2. Savory Shandong cuisine

Tucked in the corner of a strip mall on 72nd Street, Blue and Fly Asian Kitchen is a homey eatery that is crowded with Chinese students every night. The traditional Chinese menu features a range of quick-fried and fish dishes that are iconic of Shandong cuisine. A bilingual handwritten menu beside the kitchen offers a further selection of seasonal delicacies. The owners are generous in sharing their cultural heritage with patrons; for example, in the last Mid-Autumn Festival, they gave out handmade “mooncakes” to diners to share celebration of the Chinese holiday. I have yet to order anything I do not enjoy at Blue and Fly (and I am definitely a frequent patron). My personal favorites include spicy shredded potato (a cold appetizer), spicy pig intestine (an entrée), and a specialty dessert—caramelized sweet potato.

721 S. 72nd St., Omaha, NE 68114

402-504-6545

blueflyasiankitchen.com

3. Cantonese-style barbecue duck and barbecue pork buns

Order a Cantonese-style duck (half) to go with a bowl of rice, and you will get an authentic Hong Kong lunch experience. Grand Fortune Chinese Restaurant also has an extensive dim sum menu—the baked barbecue pork pastry and baked barbecue pork bun are must-tries as you may only find the steamed version in other dim sum shops in town. Steamed barbecue pork buns are known as “cha siu bao” in Cantonese. Cha siu bao, pork and shrimp dumplings (“siu mai”), and shrimp dumplings (“har gow”) are regular fixtures of dim sum brunch anywhere in the world.

17330 West Center Road, Omaha, NE 68130

402-697-9888

grandfortunecuisine.com

4. Dim sum brunch after church

New Gold Mountain is crowded with families after church on Sundays. The restaurant has an intimate atmosphere. Its fried items—such as salt and pepper shrimp, deep-fried minced pork shrimp dumplings, and crispy fried tofu are all finger-licking good. Meat lovers can try barbecue pork with five spiced beef. The meat platter is a common dinner staple in Hong Kong, and is best enjoyed with a bowl of rice and some stir-fried vegetables.

15505 Ruggles St. No.105, Omaha, NE 68116.

402-496-1688

newgoldmountain.com

5. Mouthwatering tofu dishes

People may not associate Three Happiness Express with authentic Chinese food. But its kung pao tofu is a good representation of Chinese cooking. The tofu is perfectly fried to form a crispy crust; the dish is not drowned, rather it is drizzled with a light brown sauce. The restaurant’s steamed dumplings are also authentic, as long as you skip the sweet and spicy sauce and dip it in soy sauce. Friends from the neighborhood have professed a deep love for the crab rangoons, Princess Chicken, and Loc’s Chicken Wings (and these dishes are definitely American Chinese inventions).

5107 Leavenworth St., Omaha, NE 68106

402-558-8899

facebook.com/threehappinessexpress

6. Classic American Chinese food

Golden Palace has an old-school menu and an Oriental interior design that suggest the restaurant has been passed down through generations. The restaurant serves polished classic American Chinese food. The barbecue back ribs are the absolute bomb.

4040 N. 132nd St., Omaha, NE 68164

402-493-2777

goldenpalacene.com

7. Unlock the secret menu 

The “secret menu” of Jade Palace offers authentic Chinese cuisines. Even if you don’t read Chinese, pick a protein and ask the server what he/she recommends. The owner suggested we try “water boiled fish”—beware though, the Sichuanese dish is cooked with a lot of red hot chili peppers. The heat index of the fish is a challenge (southerners, like me, are not known for eating spicy). Be sure to discuss the level of spiciness before ordering.

1702 Galvin Road South, Bellevue, NE 68005

402-558-8899

jadepalacebellevue.com

8. Hot pot special

China Garden Restaurant has a winter hot pot special. The communal dish is popular in colder months. Select meats and vegetables from a list, and the server will bring a pot of broth and a portable stove for you to cook the food in. The restaurant offers most of the favorites of Sichuanese cuisine. To drink, ask the server if sweet-sour plum juice is available. Other thirst-quenching options include Tsingtao beer and canned Chinese herbal tea, “Wong Lo Kat.”

8315 Tangier Way, Omaha, NE 68124

402-397-1995

chinagardenomaha.com

9. Fusion Chinese food

P.F. Chang’s modern take on Chinese food results in a range of light, savory fusion cuisine. I highly recommend the chicken lettuce wrap.

Westroads Mall, 10150 California St., Omaha, NE 68114

402-390-6021

pfchangs.com

10. Oldest Chinese restaurant in town

The interior design of King Fong Cafe resembles that of Chinese courtyard houses. The wood carvings and chandeliers (imported from Canton, the old name of Guangzhou) are well-preserved—the visual enjoyment is a feast in itself. The restaurant is not only the oldest Chinese restaurant in town, it is the longest-running restaurant in the city.

315 1/2 S. 16th St., Omaha, NE 68102

402-341-3433

facebook.com/pages/king-fong-cafe/117861274906131

* Note: King Fong Cafe announced its temporary closure in 2016 and had not announced a reopening date at the time of Omaha Magazine‘s publication deadline.

Another great way to discover new dishes is to ask the server what Chinese customers have ordered. If something looks delicious at another table, ask your server what it is. For anyone looking to celebrate the Lunar New Year with a Chinese feast, please note that restaurants may close during the festival, so check ahead to confirm if they are open.

Authenticity aside, I absolutely love when fortune cookies arrive with the bill. The American Chinese invention (or American Japanese, depending on the origin story) coincides with Chinese affinity for auspicious signs. Happy Lunar New Year! May your fortune cookie bring good luck!

How do you say Happy New Year in Chinese?

“Gong hei fat choi!” That’s Cantonese (the language of Hong Kong and Guangdong).

“Xin nian kuai le!” That’s Mandarin (the official language of mainland China and Taiwan)

mattsrooster2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…and for a preview of the 2017 Nebraska Chinese Association Lunar New Year Celebration:

Czech, Please

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omahans received a shock in early May when they learned yet another longtime local restaurant would shutter its doors. Soon after Terry Kapoun and his family announced they were closing Bohemian Cafe, old and new faces alike began packing the Omaha landmark to savor one last gravy-slathered bite of classic Czech comfort food.

In recent months, the restaurant has served hundreds of meals each day. On Father’s Day, lines snaked out the door, resulting in 600 plates of food coming out of the kitchen. Letters and phone calls have poured in from fans around the country wanting to share memories of the cafe.

“It’s just amazing,” Terry says of the outpouring. “It brings tears to your eyes.”

Several visitors have driven or flown hundreds of miles to slide into a booth and dig into one of the cafe’s signature dumplings before it closes on Sept. 24. The closing is partly due to dwindling customers and aging owners.

Czech immigrant Louie Macala opened the business in 1924, in a space just north of its current location at 13th and William streets. The cafe, later owned and operated by Josef and Ann Libor (Kapoun’s grandparents), moved to its present spot in 1959.

In 1966, Terry’s parents—Mert and Robert Kapoun—took over, followed by Terry and his siblings: Bob, Ron, and Marsha. Bob tends the bar while Marsha hosts and oversees the office. Terry makes dumplings and fixes anything that breaks. Ron has served as head chef for 37 years.

Customer favorites include tender roast pork, duck, and beef; sweet-and-sauer cabbage; Czech goulash; and kolaches. Servers clad in traditional Czech-style outfits offer baskets of light rye bread—perfect for dunking into a cup of liver dumpling soup.

For many guests, the restaurant’s appeal goes beyond its food. They appreciate the old-world charm, friendly service, and distinctive decor. Ceramic floral tiles, bright blue paint, and an arched doorway greet visitors. A sign reads vitame vas, Czech for “we welcome you.” Inside, there are painted plates, a decanter collection, plants, and knickknacks like those you might find at grandma’s house.

The Kapoun siblings, now in their 60s, are ready to retire but want Bohemian Cafe to go on. “It’s so unique,” Terry says. “There’s nothing else like it—the atmosphere, the experience.”

Until the final day, the family will continue cranking out dumplings as fast as customers can eat them.

“It’s the people we’re going to miss,” Terry says.

Longtime customer Cindy Findeis is sad to see the restaurant close. Findeis grew up in Carter Lake, Iowa, and has come to the cafe since she was a young girl. Now living in North Platte, Nebraska, she and her husband, Tim, happily drive five hours to eat there as often as possible. “It’s well worth it,” she says.

The cafe has been like home for the Findeis and their family, a place to celebrate birthdays and other special occasions.

“It has a special place in our hearts,” she says. “There’s a lot of memories.”

Visit bohemiancafe.net for more information. Sixty-Plus in Omaha

Bohemian-Cafe

OJs Enchilada

August 2, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ground beef and cottage cheese on an enchilada. The combination sounds strange, but it tastes amazing.

Creamy, melted cottage cheese oozes over hearty meat and shredded lettuce, tucked into a flour tortilla. Douse the whole plate with ladles of finely chopped hot salsa (made fresh every day), and dig in.

The menu warns in all-caps: “GUARANTEED A GUT-BUSTER!” It stretches across the plate like a log, coated with a blanket of cheddar and sprinkled with black olive slices. Twin mounds of rice and refried beans huddle beside the delicious monstrosity.

OJs1Ever since I learned of cottage cheese enchiladas, OJ’s Cafe on the edge of the Missouri River has called to me like a siren song for fat kids.

Mexican food is fairly common in the Midwest nowadays, but OJ’s Cafe was a trendsetter. Located next to the Florence Mill, just south of I-680’s 30th Street exit near the Mormon Bridge, OJ’s wood-paneled facade harkens back to the days of the Wild West.

The recipe for cheese and beef enchiladas belonged to the owner’s mother. The owner, 70-year-old Olga Jane Martinez (whose married name is Vlcek) was born in Anaheim, California. She opened the cafe 40 years ago. Vlcek says they added the Western-style facade a few years after opening.

Mexican food was hard to find in Omaha back then. The restaurant was situated in the site of a former dairy that sold milk, eggs, ice cream, hamburger, and cheeseburgers. At first, Vlcek followed suit. She kept the menu and added a daily special. Mexican dishes were the Thursday and Friday special.

“Then customers started asking for more Mexican food,” Vlcek says. “I said, ‘You know what? I am going to try to make a business of this.’ So, I cut everything else (about a year after opening).”

OJ’s now offers a full menu with tacos, burritos, vegetarian options, nachos, and a wide range of Mexican fare. The kitchen will even switch out flour tortillas for corn upon request.

Walk inside OJ’s today and find heavy wooden lacquer tables and booths. Kitschy decorations abound. Ceramic suns cover one wall. Promotional mirrors for imported Mexican beer cover another. There’s a stained glass window with cacti and a sombrero, a crucifix, family photos, and lots of other trinkets contributing to the down-home atmosphere.

A waitress asks for our order. I know what I want, but ask her suggestion anyway. She recommends the cottage cheese and chicken enchilada. I pause for a moment. I didn’t know the meat choice could be switched. I take a risk. Chicken and cottage cheese it is.

When I order a plate of tortilla chips, I ask for a mix of corn and flour ($3.75) and a Pacifico on-tap ($3.75 glass) from an ample selection of Mexican beers. The beer arrives in a frosty mug. A margarita ($4) with salt on the rim follows with the entrée.

Word to the wise couple: Those with smaller appetites should consider splitting the enchilada ($10.25). After essentially chugging half of the dish, I slow to contemplate the merits of beef vs. chicken and cottage cheese. The chicken is fairly bland, aside from the rich cheesiness common to both. I still prefer the beef (which seems more savory, possibly cooked with more seasoning); however, I’m not disappointed. Being perfectly honest, I dump so much homemade salsa on my plate that it probably doesn’t matter what I’m eating.

OJs3To wrap up the meal, a sombrero ($5.50) arrives. Luckily, I’m eating with a dinner companion. We share the two heaping scoops of vanilla ice cream towering over a cinnamon and sugar-coated tortilla, all drizzled with Mexican caramel. 

Completely stuffed, I wonder about the origins of my favorite enchilada. Who better to ask than Olga Jane Vlcek herself. She still works at her namesake restaurant every day (OJ’s is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., with a mid-day break that closes the cafe from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.)

“That’s my signature enchilada,” Vlcek says of the beef and cottage cheese enchilada, which happens to be her favorite, too. The cottage cheese and beef enchilada was on the menu in the early days of OJ’s, but it wasn’t popular. “Ironically enough, I couldn’t sell them,” she says with a laugh. “People wouldn’t buy them, so I took it off the menu.” She made a commitment to herself that if her restaurant became established, she would bring back her mom’s enchilada recipe. And that’s exactly what she did. Omaha Magazine

Flagship Commons

June 10, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When I am trying to pick a place to go for a quick casual meal, the mall is not usually one of my top choices. That changed when Flagship Commons opened at Westroads Mall in January 2016. Now I find myself going to the mall to eat all the time. Judging by the crowds, it appears I’m not alone.

MysteryReview1Flagship Commons is an innovative new concept by the Flagship Restaurant Group. These are the same people that brought to Omaha Blue Sushi Sake Grill, Roja Mexican Grill, Blatt Beer & Table, Plank Seafood Provisions, and Amsterdam Falafel & Kabob.

In the comfortable and open Flagship Commons area, you will find eight different fast casual or full service dining concepts, plus a bar, in one food hall. The list includes: Weirdough Pizza Company, Yum Roll Sushi, Yoshi-Ya Ramen, Clever Greens, Juan Taco, Aromas Coffee House, Amsterdam Falafel & Kabob, and Blatt Beer & Table. As you might guess the hardest part about eating at Flagship Commons is deciding which concept to go to. Well, I have tried all of them and I can tell you that they are all good. It just depends what you like and what you are in the mood for.

Some of my personal favorites come from Blatt Beer & Table, which has an abbreviated menu of what you will find at the other locations that share its name. Here you will find the best-ever mall burger ($11.50), and some very tasty mac and cheese ($9), as well as a great assortment of craft beers ($5.50 each). Amsterdam Falafel & Kabob is kind of fun in that you first chose a style—flatbread, salad, or plate. Next choose a protein—falafel ($6.25), beef ($7.99), lamb ($7.99) or chicken ($7.50). Then you can doctor it up with assorted sauces and veggies. Juan Taco has a great assortment of authentic tacos ($2-$4.50) as well as some very yummy quesadillas ($2.50-$4.25).

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Over at Clever Greens everything is bursting with freshness. They have some specialty entree salads ($7.50-$13), or you can build your own creation, specifying every single ingredient. The build-your-own option starts at $7.50. As you might have guessed Yoshi-ya Ramen serves up authentic ramen noodles. My favorite is the Tonkotsu Deluxe ($11.50). This ramen soup has chicken and pork broth, chashu, ajitama egg, menma, moyashi, negi, corn, pork belly, and rayu chili oil. Yum Roll Sushi has some excellent bowls ($7-$9), sashimi ($5-$7), nigiri ($4.50-$6.50) and of course sushi rolls ($4-$11.50). Weirdough Pizza Company is known for its Roman-style, square-cut pizza, made by hand to order in their custom oven. You can get whole-sized pies ($18-$23) or a large slice ($3.75-$4.50).

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Many of the concepts serve beer and wine and there is also a full bar at the appropriately named “The Bar.” I should also mention that there is a reverse happy hour Sunday-Thursday from 7:30 p.m. to close. I really like this concept and think that it has some great growth potential. If you have not been over to check it out yet, you really need to do so soon.

Cheers!

Our Livestock Legacy

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nothing screams “feed me!” like the smell of a thick, juicy steak sizzling on an outdoor grill. The aroma draws friends and neighbors to an informal, laid-back rite of summer: the backyard barbecue, now in its peak season. But before you throw a T-bone, cowboy ribeye, New York strip, or sirloin on the “barbie,” give a tip of your chef’s hat to that hunk of meat.

After all, beef put Omaha on the map. The cattle industry became the brick and mortar used by pioneering families like the Roths, Buschers, and Simons to build solid businesses; it created hundreds of enterprises related to the meat industry, like the great steakhouses of Little Italy. The packinghouses paid “the best wages in the city,” so young adults like Terry Moore could prosper and start a family. The demand for workers brought diverse cultures to Omaha that enriched life here.

For more than 80 years, livestock drove Omaha’s economy. “Omaha was the largest livestock center in the world; we’re talking the 1950s and ‘60s,” says Bob Buscher, Sr., whose great-grandfather, John Roth, a German immigrant, started a small beef-packing outfit, John Roth & Son, in 1885. “Millions and millions of dollars worth of meat went through the Omaha stockyards to the packers every week. We even beat Chicago.”

Bob Buscher, Sr. of John Roth & Son’s.

Bob Buscher, Sr. of John Roth & Son.

Chicago first gained Omaha as a spirited rival for livestock supremacy way back in 1883 when a group of prominent Omaha businessmen decided they wanted to corral some of the wealth Chicago had amassed from its stockyards. And why not? they reasoned. Omaha had the lush pastures and the Union Pacific Railroad. Equally important, Omaha provided a more central location for cattle barons and ranchers of the Plains and the West to bring in their steers, hogs, and sheep.

According to newspaper clippings of the era, the business syndicate—which included John Creighton, one of the founders of the university that bears his family’s name— bought “2,000 acres of land about four miles due south of the Omaha post office.” They set aside 200 acres for the animal pens and “split up the rest into building lots.”

“Millions and millions of dollars worth of meat went through the Omaha stockyards to the packers every week.” – Bob Buscher, Sr. of John Roth & Son

The Omaha Union Stockyards opened in August 1884 with a shipment of longhorn cattle from Wyoming as the first tenants. By early 1885, a slaughterhouse began operating in the shadow of the yards. Almost overnight, Omaha went from a sleepy frontier town to a hub of agriculture and commerce, thanks to its upstart namesake: South Omaha. As the stockyards expanded throughout the 1890s, the packinghouses and the burgeoning meat industry drew thousands of immigrants with the promise of jobs. Poles, Czechs, Bohemians, Greeks, and Lithuanians joined the Irish and Germans in carving out a better life.

The Simon family, the name behind Omaha Steaks, traces its proud heritage to a Latvian immigrant and his young son.

“Our family started as butchers and became exclusively wholesalers,” says Todd Simon, a fifth-generation owner. In 1898, Todd’s great-great-grandfather, J.J. Simon, got off the train in Omaha with his son, B.A., because the landscape reminded J.J. of the Riga farmland he had left behind. “They bought sides of beef from the packinghouses, cut them up into smaller pieces, and sold them to hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores. They basically replicated what they knew in Latvia.”

Cousins Todd and Bruce Simon of Omaha Steaks.

Cousins Todd and Bruce Simon of Omaha Steaks.

Their new butcher shop, Table Supply Meat Company, began in 1917. The business moved to 12th and Howard streets in Omaha in 1924. No one could have imagined then what fortunes lay ahead for that modest enterprise.

By the time the Simons arrived here, South Omaha—a separate jurisdiction— had become the fastest-growing city in the nation. Census records show 8,000 residents by 1889, leading one local journalist to dub it “The Magic City.”

“It even had its own newspaper, the Magic City Hoof and Horn,” says Gary Rosenberg, research specialist at the Douglas County Historical Society, which houses a treasure trove of information on the Union Stockyards.

“Our family started as butchers and became exclusively wholesalers.” – Todd Simon of Omaha Steaks

With its unprecedented growth—and wealth—South O became a much-coveted acquisition by its neighbor to the north. The city fiercely fended off many annexation attempts before finally conceding to a merger with Greater Omaha in 1915.

But the beef industry never conceded its importance to the region’s economy and kept nipping at the heels of Chicago. By the early 1950s, the stockyards stretched from 27th Street on the east to 36th Street on the west between L and Q streets. The majestic, 10-story Livestock Exchange Building, where buyers and sellers completed transactions, rose from the middle of the stockyards on South 30th Street. Tens of thousands of animals came into Omaha every week for processing. When the markets opened in New York on Monday mornings, the buying and selling frenzy began.

“You didn’t want to be caught on L Street on a Sunday evening,” remembers Terry Moore, long-time president of the Omaha Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, and a graduate of Omaha South High School. “The trucks carrying the cattle in from the ranches would be lined up all the way past 90th Street to the west, trying to get into the yards.”

Terry Moore, president of the Omaha Federation of Labor AFL-CIO.

Terry Moore, president of the Omaha Federation of Labor AFL-CIO.

“The stockyards had to be the most interesting place on earth,” recalls Buscher, who, as a teenager in the ’50s, often accompanied his father, Clarence, when he went to buy cattle for Roth & Son. “My dad would go down the alley with all the pens of cattle, 25 cattle per pen. He’d bid so many cents per pound on this pen and that pen, and he never wrote it down. Never. He remembered everything.”

Nor were any contracts involved. After haggling over prices and often cursing at each other, the buyer and commission firm agent would come to an agreement and use a handshake to seal the deal.

“A cattleman’s word was his bond,” says Buscher with a hint of reverence. “In all the years I paid the bills, I don’t remember a discrepancy in the number of cattle we bid on or the price.”

“The trucks carrying the cattle in from the ranches would be lined up all the way past 90th Street to the west, trying to get into the yards.” – Terry Moore, president of Omaha Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO

Anyone who grew up in South O after World War II remembers close-knit ethnic neighborhoods where life revolved around a variety of Catholic and Orthodox churches, and social clubs. They also remember a vibrant city with a bustling commercial strip.

“You couldn’t see the sidewalk for all the people shopping on South 24th Street,” recalls South District Councilman Garry Gernandt, who grew up at 20th and Vinton. “We had Phillips Department Store, Buck’s Shoes, TV repair shops, dime stores, restaurants, and lots of ‘mom and pops.’”

On November 21, 1955, the Omaha World-Herald trumpeted the news Omaha had waited decades to hear: It had overtaken Chicago. Bragging rights as the center of the world’s meat industry had finally come to the Midlands. According to the Omaha Daily Journal-Stockman, “Fully one-half of the Omaha labor force is employed in some facet of the livestock industry.”


The demand for meat products kept 13 independent packing plants humming alongside the “Big Four” meatpacking companies: Armour, Swift, Wilson, and Cudahy. Each of the large plants employed more than 2,000 people. The Armour plant alone could process 1,360 head of cattle, 4,800 hogs, and 3,600 sheep in an eight-hour period.

“I went to work for Swift and Company right out of high school in 1961,” says Terry Moore, following in his father’s footsteps. “I worked in all areas of the packinghouse: the kill floors, the coolers, the hide cellar where we cured hides, the engine room, the sausage room, the specialty-cut room—that’s where we’d fill the restaurant orders for the day when they wanted the extra-thick cuts of beef or pork.”

From the hide to the hooves, no part of the animal went unused. A pinched-off hoof, for example, could stabilize gunpowder. The rest of the foot, when boiled, yielded oil for waterproofing.

“You couldn’t see the sidewalk for all the people shopping on South 24th Street.” – Garry Gernandt, South District Councilman

Generations of families who worked in the stockyards or the packing plants found themselves constantly surrounded by mud, manure, or blood. And that was fine with them.

“On a summer evening when it would rain, my father and I would take a deep breath,” says Moore. “My father would ask, ‘What is that, Son?’ I’d say, ‘It smells, Dad.’ And he’d say, ‘That’s the smell of money, son, the smell of money.’”

That’s the same line Sally Kawa’s (KAH-vah) father, Jack, fed her when they had to hose down the floors of their restaurant, the iconic Johnny’s Café.

Johnny’s Café sisters Sally Kawa and Kari Kawa Harding.

Johnny’s Café sisters Sally Kawa and Kari Kawa Harding.

“The stockyard workers and cattle haulers would come in for lunch and manure would drop off their boots,” says Sally, who now co-owns Johnny’s with her sister, Kari Kawa Harding. “We had washable linoleum floors then. I’d say, ‘Daddy, this smells,’” at which time Jack would give her the stock reply.

While Italian immigrants, who elected to live between the river and 10th Street, started most of Omaha’s early steakhouses, a Polish immigrant named Frank Kawa invested what little money he had into a bar called Johnny’s at 4702 S. 27th St., next to the stockyards. What started in 1922 as a small, eight-table operation quickly grew into a South Omaha staple.

“We’d have a chuck wagon-style lunch, where all the workers would line up at the steamship round [of beef] counter for their sandwiches,” says Sally. “It was a quick way to serve people.”

“Back in the day, we’d open at 5:30 in the morning for breakfast and not close until 2 in the morning,” adds Jack Kawa, Frank’s son.

“The stockyard workers and cattle haulers would come in for lunch and manure would drop off their boots.” – Sally Kawa of Johnny’s Cafe

Even after the stockyards closed, Johnny’s survived—outlasting once-popular steakhouses that Jack can still reel off: Angie’s, Sparetime, Mr. C’s, Caniglia’s, Johnny Hrupek’s, Ross’, Marchio’s.

“People didn’t forget us,” muses Sally. “We added chicken, fish, and salads to the menu to change with the times, but we still serve old-school favorites like braised ox joints. It’s our biggest seller.”

When “the smell of money” started to turn, it hit people in South Omaha like the thud of a fallen steer. By the late ’60s, the tall, multi-storied, brown brick packinghouses with the kill rooms on the top floor had become woefully outmoded. Built at the turn of the century, they lacked the latest technology and had succumbed to gravity. Terry Moore remembers, “You could take your pen and slide it in between the bricks, and the mortar would fall out.”

At the same time, rural areas like Glenwood and Sioux City, Iowa, and western Nebraska lured packers to relocate to be nearer the product—the cattle, sheep, and hogs. Ranchers could sell direct and avoid the middleman.

One by one, the Big Four packinghouses packed up and moved out, followed by many of the smaller ones. By 1971, Omaha lost its “greatest livestock city in the world” title. The Union Stockyards eventually closed for good in 1999, the same year the Livestock Exchange Building became a historic landmark.


Out of the stagnation that followed emerged a new era for Omaha’s beef industry.

“We still have three of the largest independent packers in South Omaha,” Councilman Gernandt points out. “Greater Omaha Packing, Nebraska Beef, and XL Four Star Beef [now JBS].”

The workforce now consists mainly of Hispanics, Sudanese, Somali, Asians, and some Hmong. “The [melting] pot’s still percolating; it just has different ingredients,” says Gernandt.

John Roth & Son, at 5425 S. 43rd St., got out of the slaughter business in 1986. A few years later, it began manufacturing edible dried animal plasma and rotary-dried blood meal. In 1995, Bob Buscher, Jr., became the fifth generation to work there.

Ironically, the Simon family business that never owned a slaughterhouse or sold retail became the nation’s largest direct marketer of premium beef and gourmet products, single-handedly making “Omaha” synonymous with “steak.”

“They would ask the railroad people, ‘Where did you get these steaks?’ And they would tell them, ‘Well, we got them from Omaha Steaks.’” – Todd Simon

“[Momentum] started in the late 1940s,” explains Todd Simon. That’s when his grandfather, Lester—whether by luck or design or a little of both—secured a contract with Union Pacific Railroad to supply beef products for the dining cars.

“Customers were impressed with the quality of the food, and they would ask the railroad people, ‘Where did you get these steaks?’ And they would tell them, ‘Well, we got them from Omaha Steaks,’ which is how Table Supply marketed them,” says Todd. “And that’s when we started getting calls from around the country for our steaks.”

The business soon began shipping products directly to restaurants and customers in wax-lined cardboard cartons filled with dry ice. In 1966, capitalizing on its best-known commodity, Table Supply Meat officially changed its name to Omaha Steaks.

Today, Todd and his first cousin, Bruce Simon, president and CEO, helm the multi-million-dollar enterprise. Their fathers, Fred and Alan, remain public ambassadors of the company’s philanthropic largesse. Omaha Steaks boasts three million active customers; ships four million coolers of its beef throughout North America each year; employs a permanent workforce of 1,800 Midlanders; uses cutting-edge technology to drive sales, just as it pioneered direct mail, telesales, and the internet as marketing tools; and remains dedicated to Omaha.

A labyrinth of alleyways, fences, and pens stretching through acres of muck and mire became the measure of success for Omaha’s beef industry in its first century. Perhaps the prosperity of Omaha Steaks, the resiliency of South Omaha, and the honesty and loyalty of our modern cattlemen will become the hallmark of the next 100 years.