Tag Archives: Carol Crissey Nigrelli

Michael Sanchez’s Inspiration

August 5, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Why would a young, healthy finance graduate of California State University-San Marcos leave a prestigious and lucrative job in the world of Southern California banking to run a restaurant in Ralston?

For Michael Sanchez, a more appropriate question was, “How can I not do this?” 

In 2008, his grandmother Maria Sanchez, the woman he calls “my everything” and the namesake of the legendary Maria’s Mexican Restaurant, needed his help. Michael’s grandfather, Patrick, had died some years before. Maria was determined to carry on and manage a business they had started together in 1976. But when Maria turned 70, she knew the years were catching up with her. 

“Michael is like my husband because he’s really into the business side of the restaurant,” Maria says. Michael’s grandfather grew up in Colorado and was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base when he married Maria in 1959. While the couple lived overseas in Puerto Rico and the Philippines, Patrick set up a Mexican food cart on base during the weekends. The food cart was a hit with fellow service families. It eventually inspired their restaurant. 

Maria practically raised Michael from the time he was a baby. “He’s a creator,” she says, acknowledging the grandson inherited her husband’s financial acumen. “I told him, ‘Come home, Michael. We’d love to have you.’”

“It took a lot of planning, mostly over the phone, to make the arrangements for me to come back [as majority owner and operator],” says Michael, 35. “Because she’s so passionate and wants the best for her business and her employees, I think she wanted to advance the business, but she just didn’t have the wherewithal.” 

Michael knew exactly how to advance the family business when he returned to Ralston. His vision coincided with the same thing customers had been telling his grandmother for years: Maria’s didn’t have enough space. 

A remodel and expansion job began immediately on the Burlington Street restaurant in the heart of Ralston. Michael added a party room and doubled the seating capacity. Ten years later, the growing popularity of Maria’s signature fried puffy tacos taxes the new floor plan. 

“Even now that we’ve expanded, it’s a long wait sometimes,” says Maria, in what may be the understatement of the year. Patrons congregate outside the restaurant before the doors open. 

After unleashing his inner entrepreneur, Michael embarked on a creative and professional tear. 

Over the past decade the Creighton Prep product has added a satellite Maria’s Mexican Restaurant inside the Ralston Arena, created the sensational Mula in Omaha’s hip Blackstone District, developed a new taco eatery in Benson, drawn up plans for a fast-casual dining experience, earned a graduate degree in business from Creighton University (completed in one year), and won a seat on the Ralston City Council. In addition, he helps raise two sons, ages 12 and 9.

Michael grew up at Maria’s (“My crib was in the back office of the restaurant,” he says) and can perform every job within his businesses. Although he prefers working outside the kitchen, his vast knowledge of Mexican food has paid dividends in his business ventures.

“Living in California and traveling often to Mexico opened my eyes to how many varieties of Mexican food there are,” he says. “Omaha-style Mexican is very similar to Maria’s, which has a heavy Texas influence. It’s all about sauces, cheese, and beans.”

The Tex-Mex influence comes naturally to Maria. “My mother was raised in Texas,” she says. “We use her recipes. We’ve used them from the beginning, when Patrick cooked.”

As he conceptualized a culinary creation of his own, Michael strived to bridge the gap between Americanized Mexican food and the traditional fare immigrant families dish up along Omaha’s South 24th Street—fare similar to the street food made-to-order from vendor carts on Mexican street corners.

He chose to establish Mula (Spanish for mule) at 40th and Farnam streets because he felt the community would travel there to sample his contemporary version of Mexican street food. The location struck gold. 

“When we moved here to the Blackstone District in 2014, there was nothing around, I mean nothing,” Michael says with a touch of awe. “Now it’s become the hottest part of the city.”

Relying on social media and word-of-mouth, Mula found its footing within a year and exceeded expectations. 

The décor reflects the Old World, with statues and icons of the Virgin Mary and colorful votive candles with images of saints lined across the back bar. Hundreds of bottles of tequila rest on rustic bookshelves, giving credence to Mula’s billing as a “Mexican Kitchen and Tequileria.”

Diners experience flavors outside the realm of taco seasoning, with fresh red cabbage, chile crema, a splash of citrus, and “a hint of vanilla” integrated into some of the offerings. Unlike many Mexican restaurants, portions at Mula don’t rival the size of houseboats, although the tortas, Mexican sandwiches stuffed with meat, can easily feed two. 

With Mula running smoothly, Michael turned to a simpler concept and a new restaurant debuting this summer: Taco Co. at 61st and Maple streets in Benson, a margarita garden that pays homage to his grandmother. 

“We serve nothing but margaritas and her fried puffy tacos,” he says, referring to the pita bread-like quality of the taco shell. “We also have finger food, salsa, and guac.”

Always one to stay up on trends in the business, Michael and his trusty culinary director, chef Kyle Lamb, have an idea for a line of fast-casual restaurants. “Counter service, not full service, is the largest growing segment,” he says matter-of-factly.

While Michael plans for the future, his beloved grandmother, whose smooth skin and bright smile belie her age, basks in the goodwill bestowed on her at the restaurant. As she welcomes third- and fourth-generation customers to Maria’s, she takes comfort knowing her family’s culinary legacy will continue for years to come. 


Visit mariasralston.com to learn more about Maria’s in Ralston, visit mulaomaha.com for Mula in Blackstone, and find Taco Co. on Facebook at @handmadetacos.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

The Catholic Issue

February 21, 2017 by

The March/April issue of Omaha Magazine hits the streets just as Oscar season comes to a close. Meanwhile, the subject of Omaha’s best-known Oscar-winning story is up for an even greater recognition—sainthood. A tribunal from the Vatican is currently scrutinizing Boys Town’s founder, the late Father Edward J. Flanagan, for canonization.

Boys Town (the movie) tells a fictionalized story of the real-life Father Flanagan. Released in 1938, the movie was actually filmed on the grounds of Boys Town. Spencer Tracy won the Academy Award for Best Actor with his portrayal of Father Flanagan, and Tracy’s Oscar sits in a protective case at the Boys Town Hall of History.

The Village of Boys Town was engulfed by Omaha’s westward sprawl. But Boys Town itself has grown significantly, too, with satellite locations throughout the metro (and nationwide). This year, Boys Town enters its 100th year of operation.

Should Pope Francis designate Father Flanagan to be a saint, the Village of Boys Town would become a place of holy pilgrimage. Add that to Omaha’s list of annual pilgrimages (a cherry—or maybe “halo” would be a better word—on top of Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholder meeting and the College World Series).

Although Father Flanagan’s earthly remains now rest in a tomb adjoining Dowd Chapel on campus, if he is canonized a saint, the village would need a shrine to accommodate the throngs of devout pilgrims (to avoid disrupting the normally calm chapel that was designed by local Omaha architect Leo A. Daly according to Father Flanagan’s own instructions).

Omaha Magazine’s March/April cover story tells the tale of Father Flanagan’s life and his ongoing canonization process. With St. Patrick’s Day, Lent, and Easter taking place during this issue’s distribution period, the magazine has taken on a noticeably Catholic theme.

There is a guide to Omaha’s St. Patrick’s Day bar crawl, a guide to six of the best Lenten fish fries, and a story about the mysterious stained glass windows of St. Mary Magdalene Church (which was also designed by Omaha architect Leo A. Daly).

The cover story’s author, Carol Crissey Nigrelli, converted to Catholicism one year ago on Easter. She has become the magazine’s go-to writer for all subjects Catholic. Nigrelli wrote about the last nuns of Duchesne Academy in the September/October 2016 issue. She also profiled the University of Notre Dame’s president in “From Omaha to Notre Dame” for the cover story of our November/December 2015 issue.

Omaha Magazine’s 35th Anniversary

A publication titled Omaha Magazine has existed in Omaha since the 19th century. The earliest version, according to publisher Todd Lemke, was published in 1890. It was a satirical newsprint publication in magazine format, he says.

Lemke entered Omaha publishing in March 1983 with the first issue of City Slicker, the precursor to his current Omaha Magazine. This March issue of Omaha Magazine marks the 35th anniversary of Lemke’s career in magazine publishing. That history explains why Omaha Magazine’s issue numbering starts with No. 1 in March.

When CitySlicker was initially in distribution, another Omaha Magazine was on the streets. Lemke says the previous Omaha Magazine—no relation to the current magazine—started in the 1970s and folded a few years after he had entered the local media market.

The Omaha Magazine brand name came available in the late 1980s. Lemke secured the copyright, and the first issue of his Omaha Magazine came out in 1989. The rest is history.

Today, Omaha Magazine Ltd. is the parent company of Omaha Publications, which also produces several other local community-focused magazines such as Encounter, B2B Magazine, Omaha Magazine’s Family Guide, and assorted custom publishing products.

For 35 years, Lemke’s Omaha Magazine (previously known as City Slicker) has told the stories of Omaha people, culture, and events. Thanks for reading!

Craig Nigrelli

June 8, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article originally published in May/June 2015 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Whether he’s giving the scoop, dishing the dirt, spilling the beans over the airwaves, or just delivering a friendly “hello” at his local supermarket, Craig Nigrelli is always on.

It might sound exhausting to some, but for the KMTV news anchor who has been serving Omaha his buffet-style brand of broadcast journalism for nearly the past seven years, it’s just another perk of the job.

“I think when you’re in the public eye, you always have to be aware that you’re on the air,” Nigrelli, 48, admits in a dynamic tone that makes everything he says sound newsworthy. “People are always watching you no matter where you are. It’s what I signed up for. It comes with the territory.”

Known as “Ron Burgundy” or “Newsboy” within the ranks of his hockey buddies, Nigrelli says he’s been tirelessly engaging his new home as his station’s “Steady Eddy.” But perhaps the Buffalo native’s most appropriate nickname derives not from his profession, but from his habitual nature, which he says has allowed him to consistently bring high energy to his news teams for over two decades.

“I’m a man of routine, and I get that from my father,” Nigrelli says. “My wife calls me ‘Mr. As Is.’”

Nigrelli’s as-isness, he says, manifests itself in taking the first half hour of a day in silence, pumping iron four times a week, playing hockey twice a week, and watching his wife, Omaha Magazine contributor Carol Crissey Nigrelli, play the cello at their church every Sunday.

“As soon as you step outside the house and as soon as you step into the subterfuge of the daily [routine],” Nigrelli explains, “you’re on. You’re in the spin cycle from 10:30 in the morning till when you get home at 11:30 at night.” Nigrelli’s dedication to an unwavering, controllable routine lends balance the often chaotic world of news reporting. “For better or for worse, the world never stops spinning.”

As a master storyteller, Nigrelli is resigned to the fact that he must often report on doom and gloom to the viewers he likes to consider his neighbors.

“People are curious—they want to know why there’re flashing lights. They want to know why a road was closed. We live in a curious world.”

As part of his professional regimen, the anchor says he writes almost all of the reporter introductions for all four of his daily newscasts. The humanizing aspect of Nigrelli’s style, which seems to break a fourth wall at times while making an emotional connection with audiences instead of just an informative one, is how he says he’s comfortable selling his station’s content.

“Because if I’m bored, the viewer is bored,” Nigrelli says. “If I’m engaged and I’m energetic and I’m driving the content and I’m excited about it and I’m taking viewers on my shoulder for a ride like it’s a roller coaster…then they’ll probably enjoy it.”

CraigNigrelli