Tag Archives: chicken

The Ham Ma’am

July 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For Ella Weber, her career as a professional artist began where all the greats get their start—bathing in a tub filled with 40 gallons of sprinkles. 

After working in a frozen yogurt shop, she was inspired by the toppings to capture artificial happiness in a video as part of her graduate thesis project. The final close-up shots show sprinkles moving around her body like mesmerizing multicolored waves. She’s practically swimming in a sea of rainbow sugar. Then, suddenly, Weber shoves fistful after fistful of sprinkles in her mouth and proceeds to regurgitate them. This is performance art that’s not for the faint of heart…or stomach.  

“There is a fairly large amount of work being made in the Omaha echo chamber that’s void of anything I would consider stimulating or surprising. Then there’s Ella Weber,” says Joel Damon, curator and founder of Project Project, a local independent art space. “She’s a breath of fresh air covered in Black Forest ham and beige vinyl siding.”

That’s right, this girl has a thing for ham. She’s a foodie, but not in the typical sense. Don’t look at her Instagram for shots of chic eats or expect Weber to whip up Chopped-inspired dishes for dinner. Instead, she uses food as a medium in videos and sculptural installations to explore the relationship between consumerism, sexuality, and religion. 

“I use food because I’m always thinking of it symbolically,” Weber says. “I hope my work makes viewers hungry for questioning and looking at life a different way.”

With a pastor father, Weber spent much of her childhood on the move, living in towns so small it was practically required for her to play sports so there were enough girls to form a team. Then, her family relocated to a suburb of Chicago where she discovered a great art program and sports teams that required players to have actual athletic skills. Just like that, it was hello to creativity and bye-bye to basketball. 

Her inner jock still compelled her to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and become part of Husker nation. As a freshman, she knew she wanted to cheer on the Big Red but wasn’t sure what path to take with art. 

“Before college, I had no clue I needed to open my eyes. I didn’t even know or understand what printmaking was,” Weber says. “I thought of it as ancient graphic design.” 

Ultimately, Weber specialized in printmaking for both undergrad and her University of Kansas graduate degree. In the two years since schooling, however, her career has been more about lunchmeat than lithography.

To save money, she moved into her parents’ West Omaha home, living a suburban life and working behind the Hy-Vee deli counter between artistic residencies. She looks at this idyllic version of Nebraska’s good life as research. 

“I was this depressed meat person, but then I had a change of heart,” Weber says. “I began to think of the deli job as a studio. When I clocked in, it was time to make art.”

What followed were more than 6,000 videos and selfies with slices of ham, some dressed up with smiley faces, of course. A bond with an oven-roasted chicken was also formed. Part performance art and part friendship, she decided to take home this chicken after it had slipped from the slicer onto the floor. Instead of just throwing it away, she showed her bird bud six months of Nebraska nice living. When it was time to part (because, after half a year, meat doesn’t smell so neat), a service was even held in Memorial Park for the chicken.

“I don’t know how she does it, but Ella makes sliced meat look like macro-porn and vintage high-end wallpaper. It’s completely bonkers in the best way,” Damon says. 

She’s just recently finished her seventh residency, teaching video and animation classes in Utica, New York. While there, she also curated a solo show where her suburbia/deli-land research came into play. During it, she showed a video that spliced images of neighborhood walks with a meat slicer, all to demonstrate the banality and repetition of everyday life.

“I’m trying to enable the viewer to see and connect with the absurdities and beauty that surrounds us all,” Weber says. “If your eyes are open to the everyday, you can find humor and hidden meaning in the most mundane and ordinary things—like sliced ham.”

Now home from New York, Weber has a lot on her plate. This summer, she’ll have an exhibition at The Union for Contemporary Art, followed by adjunct teaching of drawing classes for the University of Nebraska-Omaha in the fall. 

When she does find some free time, Weber expects it’ll be eaten up by work on a semi-autobiographical book, titled The Deli Diaries, and potentially more Hy-Vee “research.” 

“Me and the deli, it’s like a bad romantic relationship where my friends will kill me if I go back,” Weber says. “But I might need to refresh my memory, digest it all, and then I’ll be ready to write about deeper things than just ham.”


Visit ellaweber.com for the artist’s personal website. Her exhibition, Sounds Good, will run from July 20 to Aug. 25 at the Union for Contemporary Art. Learn more at u-ca.org.

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

Old School Social Media

August 22, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Today, social media is brimming with food photos. But a pre-digital form of social media has been sharing favorite dishes since the 19th century. It’s probably the only “published” book containing your grandmother’s beloved gingerbread recipe. It’s the church cookbook—a repository of traditional American wisdom, which often comes complete with six variations of the same recipe (for example: lime gelatin salad with pineapple, walnuts, cottage cheese, and maraschino cherries or mandarin oranges).

Long before the invention of the computer, religious and social groups created cookbooks, often as a fundraising tool to pay for upgrades and maintenance on buildings. The first charity cookbook is believed to have been printed in 1864 as a way to subsidize medical costs for Union soldiers. The idea took the country by storm, especially with religious groups. When a church needed to replace the steeple or build an addition, the minister came to the ladies’ auxiliaries, which created cookbooks. Morris Press Cookbooks in Kearney is one of many companies that was created solely for the printing of cookbooks. They have not only printed hundreds of thousands of cookbooks for churches and social groups, but also specialty cookbooks for singer Donny Osmond, Chiquita bananas, Heinz, and others.

Brian Moffatt of Omaha has collected these cookbooks for several years, mostly church cookbooks. He finds them at estate sales and some thrift stores, and his collection includes books from local churches of nearly every denomination.

“Estate sales are huge,” Moffatt says. “I just like to look at all these and see the way people used to cook.”

Estate sales are huge because many of the people who collected—and contributed to—these community cookbooks are dying. Today’s generation shares recipes and photos of dishes on modern social media, often Pinterest.

Moffatt’s collection at one time extended to hundreds of books, which he recently whittled down to the ones he enjoys the most, such as a cookbook produced by the ladies of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church. The charm of this book, for him, is that it features several recipes from an old neighbor, Caren Guillaume.

“The older ones have some odd information in them,” Moffatt says. “A lot of them use lard, and sometimes you run across an ingredient that you just can’t find anymore.”

Other ingredients are vastly different from today’s definition. Gelatin, for example, is today often thought of as a fruit-flavored ingredient packed in school lunches and used in molded salads. Originally, however, gelatin (which was also spelled gelatine) was a jelly obtained by boiling meat on the bone until the collagen coagulated.

There are still church cookbooks being sold, but not nearly as many. While researching for this article, Omaha Magazine reached out to several area churches; none had produced a cookbook in the last five years.

Read on for several classic church cookbook recipes culled from Moffatt’s collection.”

Excerpted from Brian Moffatt’s Collection

Local Church Cookbook Recipes

Delmonico Potatoes

Submitted by Mrs. Carl Swanson for 50th Anniversary Cookbook, printed by Trinity Lutheran Church in 1965.

Dice two potatoes, boiled until just tender. Make 2 cups rich cream sauce seasoned with salt, pepper, and celery salt. Arrange a layer of potatoes in a buttered casserole, pour on half the sauce and sprinkle with 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Add another layer of potatoes, the rest of the sauce, and about 1/4 cup more Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle with paprika and top generously with buttered bread crumbs. Bake at 400 degrees until sauce bubbles and crumbs are brown.

Party Snack Weenies

Submitted by Mrs. Carl Swanson for 50th Anniversary Cookbook, printed by Trinity Lutheran Church in 1965.

6-ounce jar of yellow mustard

10 ounces currant (or grape) jelly

1/2 package whole weenies, cut up, or 1 package of small (cocktail) weenies.

Heat and serve in chafing dish.

Cherry Fluff Salad

Submitted by Karen Hauranek for My Favorite Recipes, printed by St. Mark Baptist Church in 1984.

1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk

1 large carton (8 ounces) whipped topping

1 can (21 ounces) cherry pie filling

1 large can (20 ounces) crushed pineapple, drained

1 cup miniature marshmallows

1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Beat sweetened condensed milk and whipped topping with mixer. Fold in remaining ingredients. Refrigerate. Salad is ready to serve in 30 minutes.

Dill Dip*

Submitted by Joyce Stranglen for From Thy Bounty, printed by St. Bernadette Catholic Church. No publication date noted.

1 1/3 cups sour cream

1 1/3 cups mayonnaise

2 tablespoons parsley

2 tablespoons minced onion

2 teaspoons dill weed

2 teaspoons Beau Monde seasoning

Mix all ingredients together several hours before serving.

*Editor’s note: Three variations of this recipe (from three different women) appear in From Thy Bounty. Mary Olson’s dip omits the parsley; Connie Gauthier’s recipe omits the onion and parsley.

Kahlua Cake

Submitted by Shirley Mackie for A Potpourri of Culinary Masterpieces, printed by Presbyterian Church of the Master in 1983.

4 eggs

1 package (15 ounces) devil’s food cake mix

1 small package (3 ounces) instant chocolate pudding mix

1 pint sour cream

3/4 cup oil*

3/4 cup Kahlua liqueur

1 cup chocolate chips

1 cup chopped nutmeats

Glaze:

2 tablespoons cocoa

3 tablespoons Kahlua liqueur

1 teaspoon water

1 tablespoon oil*

1 tablespoon corn syrup

1 cup powdered sugar

Beat eggs. Beat in cake mix, pudding mix, sour cream, oil*, and liqueur. Stir in chocolate chips and nutmeats. Mix well. Bake in greased bundt pan at 350 degrees for 50 minutes or until cake tests done.

For the glaze: In a small saucepan, combine cocoa, Kahlua, water, oil*, and corn syrup. Cook and stir over low heat until smooth. Remove from heat; immediately beat in powdered sugar. Drizzle over cake.

*Editor’s note: the recipe does not specify what is meant by oil; vegetable oil or canola oil is the likely ingredient.

Joan’s Nutritious Cookies

Submitted by Peg Russell for A Potpourri of Culinary Masterpieces, printed by Presbyterian Church of the Master in 1983.

1 cup shortening—“vegetable shortening and margarine makes it good.”

3/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup white sugar

1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour

1/4 cup wheat germ

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1 teaspoon baking soda

3 1/4 cup quick oatmeal

dash each of cinnamon and nutmeg

3/4 cup raisins, plumped

nuts, if you want them

Mix shortening and sugars. Add sifted flour, salt, soda, and vanilla. Blend in oatmeal and other spices (blending in raisins and nuts last). Make into balls, then flatten a little. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Makes about three dozen.

Coconut Fruit Salad

Submitted by Caren Guillaume for Heartwarmers, printed by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. James Churches in 1994.

1 No. 2 can (2 1/2 cups) pineapple tidbits

1 11-ounce can (1 1/3 cups) mandarin oranges, drained

1 cup mini marshmallows

1 cup Thompson seedless grapes

1 can (3 1/2 ounces) flaked coconut

2 cups sour cream

1/4 teaspoon salt

Combine the first five ingredients. Stir in sour cream and salt. Chill overnight. Serves eight.

Broccoli-Rice Casserole

Submitted by Barbara Kelley for Through These Red Doors, printed by All Saints Episcopal Church in 2003.

1 package (10 ounces) frozen, chopped broccoli, thawed

1 cup cooked rice

4 ounces American cheese sauce

1 onion, chopped

4 stalks celery, chopped

butter*

1 can cream of chicken soup

Sauté onion and celery in butter. Add cream of chicken soup. Mix remaining ingredients together and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

*Editor’s note: The recipe does not specify an amount of butter. Two tablespoons should work.

Scripture Cake

Submitted by Martha Dus for Kountze Kitchens, printed by Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church in 1983. The name of the cake refers to noted Bible verses featuring ingredients.

1/2 cup butter (Judges 5:25)

2 cups flour (I Kings 4:22)

1/2 teaspoon salt (Leviticus 2:13)

1 cup figs (I Samuel 30:12)

1 1/2 cups sugar (Jeremiah 6:20)

2 teaspoons baking powder (Luke 13:21)

1/2 cup water (Genesis 24:11)

1 cup raisins (1 Samuel 30:12)

3 eggs (Isaiah 10:14)

1/2 teaspoon of each: cinnamon, mace, cloves (I Kings 10:10)

1 tablespoon honey (Proverbs 24:13)

1/2 cup almonds (Genesis 43:11)

Blend butter, sugar, spices, and salt. Beat egg yolks and add to mixture. Sift in baking powder and flour, then add water and honey. Put fruit and nuts through food chopper and flour well. Add and beat. (Follow Solomon’s advice in the first clause of Proverbs 23:14—“Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.”) Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. Bake for one hour at 375 degrees.

Refrigerator Shake Pickles

Submitted by Ruth Hickman for Kountze Kitchens, printed by Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church in 1983.

2 quarts sliced cucumbers

2 cups sugar

2 cups vinegar

1/4 cup pickling salt

3/4 teaspoon celery seed

3/4 teaspoon yellow mustard seed

3/4 teaspoon turmeric

Combine sugar, vinegar, and spices. Pour over thinly sliced cucumbers. Refrigerate and shake every day for five days. These keep “indefinitely” in the refrigerator.

Rockbrook’s Hot Chicken Salad

Submitted by Iris Clark for Recipes and Remembrances, printed by Rockbrook United Methodist Church in 1999.

4 cups cooked, cubed chicken

2 cups thinly sliced celery

2 cups bread cubes

1 cup toasted chopped or slivered almonds

1 teaspoon salt plus 1 teaspoon MSG

1 tablespoon minced or chopped onion

1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 cup mayonnaise (“NOT salad dressing”)

2 cans cream of chicken soup

1 cup grated sharp cheese

2 cups crushed potato chips

Combine chicken, celery, bread cubes, almonds, salt, MSG, onion, lemon juice, mayonnaise, and soup. Pile lightly into “Pam’d” 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish. Top with cheese, onion, and chips. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.

Green Vegetable Salad (Pictured above)

Submitted by Kathy Jones for My Favorite Recipes, printed by St. Mark Baptist Church in 1984.

1 head cauliflower

2 heads broccoli

1 container cherry tomatoes, cut in halves

1 jar sliced mushrooms, drained

1 jar green olives, stuffed with pimentos.

Mix the vegetables together in a large bowl. For dressing, combine red wine vinegar, 2 packets Italian dressing seasoning, and 1 bottle of oil/vinegar Italian dressing. Pour over the vegetables.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of 60Plus.

Groovy Gravy

January 12, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

UPDATE (Jan. 12, 2017) : After the publication of the January/February issue of Encounter Magazine, Cask Republic announced that it would no longer sell poutine.

“We realize that the food aspect, especially the poutine, was not financially viable,” says Ryan Frickel, co-owner of Cask Republic. Snacks will soon be available, and the bar allows patrons to bring in food from several area restaurants.

* * * * *

Foodies generally regard the 1950s as the nadir of 20th century cuisine in North America. It brought us TV dinners, jello salads, and tuna casseroles. However, it also brought us a Canadian dish that, depending on your disposition, is either a trinity of salty, starchy, fatty goodness, or a cardiologist’s dream for stirring up new business (in truth, it’s probably both).

Poutine is, essentially, french fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. Like the Reuben sandwich, there’s been a few claims to its origin, but the general consensus is that it came from rural Quebec in the late 1950s. It’s a prominent staple for restaurants downtown (Block 16) as well as Benson (1912, Benson Brewery). For the Cask Republic bar in Dundee, it’s their primary focus.

Co-owners Ryan Frickel and Craig Lundin opened Cask Republic this past summer in the former home of the popular French Bulldog restaurant. Frickel came to the decision to focus on poutine after eating it in Benson last year. Frickel says there have been poutine-focused eateries sprouting up on the West and East coasts for the past few years. Frickel wanted to be the first in Nebraska to have such an eatery.

“Who doesn’t like meat and potatoes in Nebraska?” Frickel says.

poutine1For their version of poutine, the Cask Republic double-fries their french fries to get them crispy enough to withstand the heavy coating of gravy. Their beef gravy (they also have chicken and vegetarian variations) is a combination of homemade beef stock, spices, herbs like rosemary, and some chicken. Finally, their cheese curds, served at room temperature, top the dish. When you bite into one of the curds, it should sound faintly like a dog toy.

“If it’s not squeaky, then people in the poutine world get super pissed off,” Frickel says.

Like other greasy spoon staples such as hamburgers and hash browns, there have been plenty of high-end takes on poutine. 1912 has a variation that includes duck. Block 16’s gravy incorporates a red wine reduction. The Cask Republic has poutines that include burnt ends, and even “seasonal” poutines, including turkey for the holidays. Still, focusing your menu on dish that’s basically french fries and gravy is risky. Frickel, however, compares poutine to other dishes that are now commonplace around Omaha.

“[We] kind of likened it to sushi, where 20 years ago, people in Omaha either didn’t know what sushi was or never tried it. But on the coast, it was starting to explode,” Frickel says.

Of course, if you’re going to clog your arteries with starch, cheese, and gravy, you might as well go all out and wash it down with a brew. That’s where beer comes in at Cask Republic. Frickel and minority- owner Alex Gunhus are both beer enthusiasts; they traveled to breweries throughout the United States to come up with their beer menu. Frickel says he eventually wants to build his own brewery inside the Cask Republic.

“There’s nothing like that in the Dundee area, which blows my mind,” Frickel says. “We want to be the first to do that.”

Visit facebook.com/caskrepublic for more information.

Twenty Minute Taquitos

November 8, 2016 by
Photography by Di Tendenza

This recipe is great for a quick and easy dinner for the kids. Each taquito can also be cut into fourths as an appetizer for those last-minute holiday parties, and the chicken mixture can be spread into bibb lettuce leaves for a healthier option.

Ingredients

  • 1 rotisserie chicken, or 3 cups cooked diced chicken 
  • 3 cups raw spinach
  • 1 cup of diced, roasted red pepper
  • 6 ounces of shredded cheese (a blend of jack and cheddar cheeses is recommended)
  • 8 ounces of cream cheese
  • Salt and pepper to taste (about one teaspoon each)
  • 8 large tortillas
  • Salsa for dipping

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Set aside 1/4 (2 ounces) of the cheese.

  1. Pull all the meat off of the chicken, then chop it to bite-sized pieces, or use diced chicken. Place in a large bowl.
  2. Chop the spinach to bite-sized pieces.
  3. In a large pan, cook the spinach on medium heat until it has released most of it moisture.  Pour into the bowl with the chicken.
  4. Combine the pepper, cheese, and cream cheese with the chicken and spinach. Stir until it is mixed thoroughly.
  5. Season and taste. Season again if needed.
  6. Put two large tablespoons of the mixture on a tortilla. Spread it around, leaving 1 inch on all sides.
  7. Roll the tortilla from one end to the other. Be careful not to roll it so tightly that the sides pop.
  8. Place the roll in a foil-lined 9-by-13-inch pan.
  9. Repeat steps 7-9 until you have used all the tortillas and taquito mixture.

Make sure there is 1/2 an inch of space between each roll.

Cook 10 minutes, or, for an extra-cheesy dinner option, cook eight minutes, add the reserved 2 ounces of cheese, and cook for another two minutes.

Serve the taquitos with the salsa.

This article was printed in the Winter 2016 edition of Family Guide, an Omaha Publications magazine.

Midwestern Umami

October 9, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If you have heard anything about Suji’s Korean Grill, it is probably that the restaurant is “Chipotle for Korean food,” an analogy trumpeted from many a Yelp review and word-of-mouth recommendation.

It’s an accurate assessment of the initial Suji’s that opened near 72nd and Pacific streets in July 2016, but the comparison becomes less apt as the eatery evolves in response to diner feedback.

“I found customers want to see more authentic Korean food and bolder flavors, so we’ve upgraded our menu to meet that demand,” says Suji Park, proprietor of Suji’s Korean Grill. Park is also the founder and “chief inspiration officer” of Suji’s Korean Cuisine, her line of prepackaged Korean meats, sauces, and bibimbap bowls sold at retailers like Whole Foods and Target.

Now, the woman who brought the brunch boom to Korea is working to mainstream Korean cuisine for Americans—and she’s excited to see strong demand for authenticity.

Park originally came to Nebraska to partner with University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Innovation Campus, which lent cutting-edge preservation techniques to the development of her prepackaged foods. The international restaurateur of 12 years then chose Omaha to launch her first stateside eatery.

bibimbap

bibimbap

Park’s something of a culinary babel fish, translating Asian dishes for Americans, and American cuisine like brunch and New York-style deli fare for an Asian market in her Seoul and Tokyo restaurants. Now, the woman who brought the brunch boom to Korea is working to mainstream Korean cuisine for Americans—and she’s excited to see strong demand for authenticity.

Park says meeting that demand means moving Suji’s from a strict fast-casual concept to a hybrid style, where customers still order at the counter but food is freshly prepared in 10 minutes or less. The extra prep time allows for more menu variation, including the addition of dup-bap dishes—hearty meat and vegetables served “over rice”—like beef and pork bulgogi, and dak jjim, a savory, almost stewy, spicy braised chicken thigh with potato, carrot, and onion. 

Park also added japchae, a well-executed traditional Korean noodle dish of thin, stir-fried sweet potato noodles tossed with carrots, onions, scallions, and a choice of marinated beef, chicken, or plump shiitakes. Available as a side or entree, it’s unique and versatile enough to appeal to vegetarians and omnivores alike.

a selection of banchan

a selection of banchan

Another standout dish is the kimchi bacon rice: sautéed rice mixed with the sour bite of kimchi and the salty splendor of uncured, antibiotic-free bacon with an important texture assist from crisp cucumber, spring greens, and scallions. A perfectly cooked soft-fried egg and sesame seeds top the dish, which in total presents like the food equivalent of an expertly struck multipart harmony, the many flavors and texture elements uniting for one tasty whole.

Suji’s offers several flavorful sauces and kimchi varieties that further elevate these dishes, so diners would be wise to add them according to taste—in my case liberally, as I found such additions often lent an important layer of flavor.

Many elements will not change, including original menu items like bibimbap bowls and Korean street tacos, Suji’s inviting communal seating, and Park’s overarching commitment to all-natural ingredients. In her restaurants and prepackaged foods, Park insists on no MSG, binders, artificial colorings, flavors, or preservatives, and a gluten-conscious approach.

“We’ll never change our all-natural mission or authenticity,” says Park. “We want people to fully experience Korean meals, so we’re also introducing banchan, small dishes, like tapas, with a main dish.”

Korean street tacos

Korean street tacos

Park’s mother, Younja Kim, is visiting from Korea for several months to help develop a variety of rotating homemade banchan and kimchi. Suji’s will also host educational sessions, inviting Omahans to learn how to make varieties of kimchi.

“I’m excited to show people what Korean food is about,” she says. “I’m in the food industry because I love people, and food brings people together.”

Visit sujiskoreangrill.com for more information.

sujis1

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).

MysteryReview2

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!

Dumplings, Leopards, and Sherpas, Oh My!

January 9, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Silas and Kimberly West have four children who are actively involved in soccer, ballet and tap, golf, Awana, choir, and a smattering of other hobbies. Those hobbies include taking care of a small zoo: two dogs, a cat, a gecko, a snake, and a coop full of chickens.

Priya, 7, shares about Momo, their small gray dog: “Momo likes to snuggle on the couch, and she likes to sit in the window behind the couch, and she likes to eat cat food.” Momo is named for dumplings that are found in Nepal, where the West family lived for 11 years.

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Next up? “Duma!” Elijah, 9, exclaims. Duma is his leopard gecko. The name means “leopard” in Swahili—Silas spent many of his growing-up years in Kenya. Duma lives in a cage in the boys’ bedroom. “He likes to act dead,” says Elijah. “He likes to stare. He likes to climb in your hair or your neck. And he doesn’t like new people.” That means new people get hissed at.

Then there’s Tiger Lily, the cat. “She’s gray with black stripes,” says Adia, 11. “And when you’re sad, she comes and comforts you—she sits on your lap.”

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Bruno is the corn snake under the care of 12-year-old Jedidiah.

At this point, Kimberly has to laugh. “We have so many pets. Oh my goodness,” she says.

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One reason Jedidiah likes Bruno is because “he can always beat you in a staring contest.” The snake can’t blink because he doesn’t have eyelids.

Sherpa is a Redbone Coonhound. “He’s named after the guides who take people up in the Himalayas,” says Adia.

“There’s so many goofy things about him,” Silas says.

“He likes to dance!” Adia exclaims. “If you say, ‘Dance,’ he will jump up and hold onto your shoulders.”

Sherpa is protective of Priya. “Other dogs aren’t allowed around Priya,” Kimberly says.

“Not even his best friend,” says Elijah of Otto, the Great Dane-mastiff mix who lives next door.

“Only Momo,” says Priya. “She’s the only dog who’s allowed around me.”

“He’s really gentle with the kids, even Avila,” Silas says about the toddler who used to live next door. “She’d curl up on his dog bed with him, and they’d just relax together.”

“Even Tiger Lily,” says Adia.

“Yeah, he loves the cat,” says Kimberly. “And he loves the chickens.”

The chickens are perhaps the most surprising of the pets—the whole family just loves them. Kimberly says, “We decided two years ago that we were going to get chickens. It took me 10 years to convince him.”

“I grew up with chickens on the farm, and they’re stinky and messy and a lot of work. And I didn’t want them,” Silas explains. “But Kim always wanted them, so we got them. And I ended up liking them a lot.”

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The chickens reside in handmade coops and roam free in the garden. Madge is the matriarch of the chicken coop. Elijah says, “She kind of likes to snuggle. She likes to dig and eat bugs.” Madge often squats down when approached and likes to be picked up.

“The chickens are more like pets. They’re like pets that give us something,” 
Kimberly says.

“I never saw chickens that way,” Silas says. “They’ve always just been an animal you have on your farm for a purpose. All of our chickens like to be held and get mad when 
you don’t.”

“We have a proclivity to needy animals, and our chickens fit into the needy-animal realm,” Kimberly says. “Even the Reds are letting you pet them now. An animal comes into our yard, and it becomes needy.”

And, in return, the kids are quite attached to the chickens. They were heartbroken when a Bantam hen died this summer.

“We had a funeral for Penny,” Kimberly says. “She was killed by a possum.”

Adia says, “She’s buried next to the 
possum.”

Country-Style Barbecue Chicken

July 22, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup chopped onions
  • 1 cup ketchup
  • ½ cup distilled white vinegar
  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp dry mustard
  • ¾ tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp pepper
  • 6 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves

Directions:

  • Mix the onions, ketchup, vinegar, brown sugar, dry mustard, salt, and pepper in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C). Lightly grease a baking dish.
  • Arrange chicken halves in the baking dish. Pour sauce over chicken.
  • Bake 25 minutes, or until chicken juices run clear.

Sources: allrecipes.com