Tag Archives: dining

Choo-Choo-Choosey Sushi

May 28, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Who needs a menu with pictures when the actual dishes are floating past your table on a carousel conveyor belt?

Yamato Sushi Train & Grill leaves little to the imagination with Omaha’s only sushi train.

If you like what you see, just grab a dish. It’s a fun sushi experience that was first developed in Japan and has become popular in my hometown of Hong Kong.

I visit Yamato Sushi Train & Grill for a Thursday date night. As the steady stream of sushi plates make their way down the conveyor belt, a waitress explains that the color of each sushi plate indicates its price: black plates cost $5, purple costs $4.5, red costs $4, orange costs $3, and green costs $2.5.

Dancing Eel

Tongue-tied? Don’t worry. You don’t even need to know the name of what your heart desires. But be careful that you don’t grab too many items. The final bill adds up quickly with a stack of empty plates on the table.

Desserts are available on the sushi merry-go-round on Fridays and weekends, in addition to the otherwise daily train of maki rolls (where all ingredients are rolled into a sheet of seaweed), gunkan maki (where a strip of seaweed wraps around the rice ball leaving room for toppings), uramaki (where the seaweed holds fillings in the inside and the rice is on the outside), sashimi (slices of raw seafood), and appetizers (such as seaweed salad and edamame) for lunch and dinner service.

We snag a plate of uni (sea urchin) followed by salmon roe gunkan maki to start things off. Fresh sea urchin tastes sweet and creamy with bright and vibrant shades of yellow-orange. Yamato’s sea urchin is decent and pairs well with the juicy, red-orange salmon eggs bursting with saltwater flavor.

We wait and watch for the next plate to tantalize our grabby fingers. We catch octopus sashimi with lemon ponzu sauce, spice-rubbed seared ahi tuna sashimi, seaweed salad, inari sushi (rice ball wrapped in a tofu puff), Omaha roll (with spicy lobster, cucumber, avocado, imitation crab, and mango sauce on top), eel cucumber roll, and a Naruto roll (avocado, salmon, and tuna wrapped with a slice of cucumber).

We also order miso soup and a bowl of pork ramen noodles with tonkatsu (a pork bone-based) soup from the waitress.

California Roll

Tuna and octopus sashimi plates are highlights of the meal. Rubbed with Nanami seasoning (a seven-chili pepper mix), the ahi tuna sashimi was seared on the outside and rare on the inside. Drizzled in lemon ponzu sauce, the octopus tastes light and refreshing with slices of lemon placed between the slices of sashimi.

When asked about the most popular dish in the restaurant, both waitresses and the shop manager boasted a wide variety of menu options. The waitress recommends the bento box for its value—at $11.95, diners can select a chicken, beef, shrimp, salmon, or tofu main dish to go with side dishes including California roll, shumai, miso soup, salad, and rice. Shop manager Alex Walker says the fried rice at Yamato Sushi is “addictive” and also suggests the lo mein and pad thai.

Walker says Yamato receives shipments of seafood from both coasts three times a week. Although Yamato’s owner also runs the La Vista restaurant Dragon Café (serving Chinese and Japanese cuisine), also with sushi on the menu, the two venues are very different from a design standpoint. Contrary to Dragon Café’s traditional Chinese-inspired interior design, Yamato is going for a decidedly Japanese vibe with simplified, modern décor.

Hygiene and efficiency are a top priority in any establishment dealing with raw ingredients. Yamato does not disappoint. The sushi train is even enclosed with a clear roll-top lid (a feature not typical at the sushi trains I’ve experienced in Japan and Hong Kong). Walker says the train is cleaned two to three times every day.

Although dishes on the sushi train were sometimes lacking in their presentation—some rolls were not as tightly rolled as they should have been—this restaurant is a must-try for local foodies or folks looking for an entertaining, fast, and convenient bite to eat.

Assorted nigiri and Omaha Roll

Sushi Train from Japan to the World

In Japan, Yoshiaki Shiraishi is credited with inventing “rotation sushi” to solve his staffing problem in 1958. He was inspired to deliver “no-frills sushi” on a conveyor belt after visiting the Asahi Brewery. Dubbed “sushi innovator” by The New York Times, Shiraishi perfected the art of sushi train operation at a speed of 8 centimeters (approximately 3 inches) per second to ensure safety without sacrificing efficiency. The concept was an instant hit at the Osaka World Expo in 1970. His restaurant, Genroku Sushi, expanded rapidly between the 1970s and 1990s.

Genroku Sushi was introduced to Hong Kong—where I was born and raised—in the early 1990s, a time when Japanese pop culture was taking Asia by storm. Marketing its sushi at HKD $10 (approximately USD $1.28) and HKD $15 (USD $1.91) per plate, Genroku Sushi was a popular hangout for high school and college students as well as local families seeking inexpensive foreign food.

Unlike traditional Japanese restaurants, rotation sushi was accessible to the mass public with a price point comparable to fast food. Sushi train chains mushroomed across Hong Kong as my generation grew up playing video games from Japan, watching J-Drama, listening to J-Pop, buying Japanese fashion and cosmetics, and learning to speak Japanese. Genroku Sushi contributed to introducing the culinary art of Japan, inspiring many to pursue travel, study, or work in Japan.

Although Genroku Sushi has lost its international footprint and can only be found in Japan today, the conveyor belt sushi concept it pioneered has gained popularity around the world. And in the fall of 2017, a sushi train finally arrived in Omaha in the form of Yamato Sushi Train & Grill.


Visit yamatosushitraingrill.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

The pictured sushi platter was plated by chefs at Yamato Sushi Train; it was not selected off the establishment’s sushi train.

May the Swartz Be With You

March 2, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

After being offered a third helping of matzo ball soup, Marilyn Monroe once famously quipped, “Isn’t there any other part of the matzo you can eat?” While the classic Jewish soup may not be everyone’s thing, when it’s done right—like it is at Swartz’s Delicatessen & Bagels in Omaha—it’s hard to turn down. I’d happily eat a bowl of the restaurant’s matzo ball soup any day.

Swartz’s house-made matzo balls (round, bread-like dumplings) have just the right texture: not too dense, not too soft. The broth is just as good. It gets its deep, savory flavor from a whole chicken boiled with carrots, onions, and celery. The mixture is strained, leaving a clear, aromatic broth that’s light yet flavorful. It’s that extra effort, along with quality ingredients and time-honored recipes, that makes the dish a menu highlight.

Swartz’s Delicatessen owner Shervin Ansari calls the soup “Jewish penicillin” for its ability to cure whatever ails you. Since opening in fall 2016, the restaurant has become a popular spot to savor not only soup—in addition to matzo ball, there’s chicken noodle and chicken with rice—but other Jewish deli staples such as pastrami on rye, bagels with cream cheese and lox, potato latkes, knishes, and more.

Ansari grew up in Maryland, graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, and later owned a deli on the East Coast. He moved to Omaha and spent 15 years working as an executive at Kiewit Corp. After noticing a lack of traditional Jewish deli fare in the city, he opened his own place in Countryside Village at 87th and Pacific streets. Business is strong, and the restaurant is already slated to expand. Ansari plans to open two additional locations in Dundee and Aksarben Village by late 2018/early 2019.

In true Jewish deli fashion, the menu includes heaping sandwiches stuffed with corned beef, pastrami, and other meats prepared in-house. Most are offered in three sizes: JV (small), regular, and piled high. Highlights include corned beef on rye that, when ordered Reubenized, comes grilled with tangy kraut, melted Swiss, and a slathering of sauce. Also good is the pastrami sandwich with chopped liver: a generous stack of lean, thinly sliced pastrami and a rich, smooth spread made with beef and chicken liver.

The deli uses fresh bread from Rotella’s Italian Bakery in Omaha (except the light rye, which is imported from back East). Bagels are shipped from New York and then baked in-house. Deli salads, including egg, tuna, chicken, and whitefish, are made fresh each day. Meat sourced from Nebraska and Iowa farms is cured, smoked, and cooked in-house. “There’s no preservatives, no nitrates,” Ansari says. “It really makes a big difference.”

Avocado burger with side of coleslaw and pickles

Prices are higher than a typical sandwich shop, but portions are generous, and the food is made in small batches using fresh ingredients, Ansari says. Guests order and pay at the counter, and there are a few stools with a view of the kitchen. The dining area is stylish and inviting, with black-and-white flooring, globe light fixtures, subway tile, spacious booths, and tables with French-style bistro chairs.

Like many Jewish delis, Swartz’s isn’t fully kosher but does offer some kosher items. Customers can order kosher sandwiches, which the staff prepare using designated cutting boards and separate knives. The kitchen knows its way around Jewish comfort food classics such as potato latkes and sweet noodle kugel. And there are modern touches, too, including more healthful options, brunch specialties, and online ordering.

The deli case up front is loaded with brisket, lox (cured salmon), potato and spinach knishes, assorted salads, and other specialties. But save room for dessert. A big slice of carrot cake—ultra-moist layers full of warm spices, nuts, and cream cheese frosting—is the perfect sweet finish.

Visit swartzsdeli.com for more information.

Western Omelet (with onions, green peppers, brisket, and tomatoes), with a side of hashbrowns and toast

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Legendary Legacy

February 11, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Despite his retirement from a long, fruitful career in the restaurant business, Chuck Caniglia can still be found doing what he loves best.

“You caught me with my hands full. I’m making homemade Venice Inn pizza,” says Caniglia, washing up and settling in to tell the story of his tenure serving up warm hospitality alongside great food. 

The Caniglia family famously lit up the Omaha restaurant scene for decades, with local favorites like Caniglia’s Pizzeria (which introduced pizza to Omaha after World War II), Caniglia’s Italian Steakhouse, Mister C’s Steakhouse, Al Caniglia’s Drawing Room, Palazzo ’Taliano, Luigi’s, Top of the World at Woodmen Tower, and others. A longstanding cornerstone of this culinary empire was Chuck’s father Eli Caniglia’s Venice Inn at 69th and Pacific streets, which opened in 1957. 

Caniglia started pitching in at his father’s restaurant at age 13, and his younger brother Jerry later followed in his footsteps. When Eli passed away in 1983, the brothers took up the mantle and ran Venice Inn until it closed in 2014. Caniglia was there until the bittersweet end; he locked the doors for the last time on the restaurant’s final day of business. 

“I never worked anywhere else,” Caniglia says. “That was our life, we felt honored to continue Dad’s work, and we enjoyed our customers so much. I miss interacting with them the most. We had very loyal customers and got hundreds of letters before we closed telling us , ‘Congratulations and best wishes, but we don’t want you to close.’ It was very bittersweet. But we’re happy now, even though we do miss it.” 

Around Chuck’s 70th birthday, after decades in the demanding, labor-intensive restaurant business, the Caniglia brothers decided it was time to retire and spend more time with family. With all their children already invested in their own careers, there was no one to pass the restaurant on to — and that’s when another family entered the picture.

Brothers Jamie and Nick Saldi expressed interest in the site, and that’s when Chuck and Jerry analyzed things and decided the time was right to close Venice Inn and sell the land. The Saldis own Legends Patio Grill & Bar locations in Omaha’s Cherry Creek and Lincoln’s Haymarket. 

“It’s kind of cool that our property has been sold to the Saldis, because they’re two brothers also,” Caniglia says. “So, those two brothers will carry on the legacy of our family property.” 

The Saldi brothers are on track to open their third Legends location on the old Venice Inn grounds in March 2018. The development, dubbed Aksarben Pointe, will house two additional, yet-to-be-named tenants.  

“We both went to UNO, so we’re familiar with the Aksarben area and had been seeking an opportunity in the area for a long time,” Nick says. “When the Venice Inn spot became available, we jumped on it right away and we’re excited to be there.”

He describes Legends as a “sports-themed restaurant.” 

“I try to avoid using the term ‘sports bar’ because it really is family friendly,” Nick says. “Most of our clientele [at the original Legends] is the neighborhood, family crowd, and we have many repeat customers. As a customer, you have a thousand places you could go to get a burger and a cold beer, but what sets us apart is that we try to create the right culture and experience for each customer and employee.”

Caniglia says that same sense of focus on customer experience is what facilitated Venice Inn’s longevity. 

“If you have a good restaurant, you serve good food at a reasonable price, you treat your customers well, and you’re always there to greet them, you can’t miss,” Caniglia says. “That’s what my father taught me.” 

The Venice Inn was so successful at creating that sense of community and loyalty that people still approach Caniglia with stories of how the restaurant was an important backdrop for their first dates, family celebrations, and other milestone events.  

“People love to share their memories of occasions at Venice Inn,” Caniglia says. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, we had our prenuptial dinner there,’ or ‘We had our anniversary party there,’ and that makes me feel good.”

Soon, the Saldis will welcome neighbors to make new memories at Legends. Although they are building a new restaurant structure, the brothers maintain a special reverence for the past.  

“In our Legends concept we have party rooms, and it’s a big theme of what we do as far as hosting receptions, birthdays, and special events for people,” Nick says. “So, I told Chuck I’d like to name one of our party rooms ‘The Venice Inn Room’ and do a memory wall there. He agreed to share some memorabilia that will let us create something to keep that building, that was so iconic in Omaha for so long, alive on one of our walls.” 

“I’m very honored that they want to do a Venice Inn memory wall in their place,” Caniglia says. “The Saldis are the nicest people, and they were great to work with. We made the best choice selling our property to them. There’s nobody else I’d have rather sold to than the Saldis.” 

The feeling is mutual. Jamie says their families connected while sharing their stories, and they enjoyed getting to know the Caniglia brothers throughout the sale process.

“When we first created a relationship with the Caniglias, we hit it off right away,” Nick says. “We talked very little about real estate and the property, but a lot about restaurants. We’re a very different concept than they had, but it’s remarkable how much their core values and ours align in the sense that they take care of their people and their customers, and we aim to do the same.”

Visit legendsomaha.com for more information about the restaurant concept coming to
Aksarben Pointe.

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Frankly Delicious

January 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Its offbeat location next to a gas station may make some first-time visitors to Finicky Frank’s a little apprehensive, but diners shouldn’t be dissuaded. The small, locally owned cafe in Omaha’s Florence neighborhood has a hidden-gem quality and offers well-made, thoughtful fare with homespun style. Dishes are prepared from scratch with a focus on seasonality, and many ingredients are locally sourced; some come from as close as owners Brian and Kesa Kenny’s 11-acre Ponca Hills home.

The Kennys opened the first incarnation of Finicky Frank’s in 2007 in Ponca Hills. The following year, the restaurant moved to its present location at 9520 Calhoun Road, just northwest of North 30th Street and Interstate 680. The eatery is named after a neighbor who always turned his nose up at whatever Kesa was cooking. His usual response: “Oh, God, don’t make that. Don’t do that.” “Frank is very particular, very finicky,” Kesa says.

During the last 10 years, the family-friendly spot has acquired many loyal customers from the surrounding area as well as other parts of the city. The restaurant rises above its nondescript, next-to-a-gas-station setting with a welcoming patio entrance surrounded by decorative wrought-iron fencing and lots of flowers and plants.

Inside, the space is warm and inviting with a classic black-and-white checkered floor, artwork, a spacious bar, and a charming “European flair,” says Kesa, who previously ran the former Center Street Cafe near 35th and Center streets, which closed in 2002. Though not a trained chef, she’s an enthusiastic, self-taught home cook who enjoys experimenting with new recipes and putting her own spin on dishes. “I’m always thinking, ‘What can I make next?’ I love to try everything,” Kesa says.

Finicky Frank’s Reuben

She sticks to a “keep it fresh, never frozen” philosophy and uses local ingredients whenever possible. That could mean seasonal produce from the nearby Florence Mill Farmers Market or vegetables grown on her land, which is cared for by a husband-and-wife gardening team. During growing season, an abundance of garden goodies—everything from radishes to bok choy—winds up at the restaurant.

Though just one page, the menu features a craveable lineup of salads, sandwiches, soups, and daily specials. On a recent visit with a dining companion, we sampled several dishes and found the food just as comforting as the ambiance. A pair of crab cakes off the appetizer list pleased with their plumpness, plentiful lumps of crab meat, crispy exterior, and tender center.

Another popular menu item is the Reuben sandwich. Two slices of marble rye hold a heap of lean, thinly sliced corned beef and melted Swiss cheese. Sauerkraut brings brightness and tang, balanced by a pleasant sweetness from the housemade Thousand Island dressing. It’s served with onion rings or fries.

Onion rings get a soak in buttermilk to make them tender before being coated in a batter of flour, egg, and salt. They’re fried until golden brown and served with a dipping sauce made from stoneground mustard, mayo, and honey. The rings seemed slightly undersalted, but that’s far better than the opposite.

The special that evening was chicken roulade stuffed with ham and cheese, served with a rich, luscious artichoke cream sauce. A side of wild rice satisfied with its nutty, earthy flavor and pleasingly chewy texture. The dish was quite good, but without a vegetable, the entree felt incomplete. A small salad included with the special featured mixed greens—no sad iceberg lettuce here—tossed with mozzarella balls, yellow bell pepper, crispy croutons, and cherry tomatoes, all perfectly dressed with housemade herb vinaigrette. 

 

FINICKY FRANK’S
9520 Calhoun Road | 402.451.5555
Food: 4 stars
Service: 3.5 stars
Price: $$
Overall: 4 stars

Visit finickyfranks.com for more information.

Grilled teres major steak with wild mushrooms, au jus, and mashed potatoes

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Venezuelan Street Food

December 28, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The most common misunderstanding new customers have when approaching El Arepón is that they’re going to walk away with a platter of tacos or some other Mexican fare.

“South American food is not the same as Mexican food,” explains Richard Mendoza, the Venezuelan food truck’s co-owner. “It’s not spicy—we focus on the flavor base and not on how hot it is. Our food is fresh and tropical rather than spicy.”

Mendoza doesn’t mind needing to educate customers about Venezuelan food; in fact, he’s happy to do it. “We have to teach people that not every food truck in Omaha is a Mexican food truck,” he says.

Customers who walk up to the truck expecting tacos typically walk away with a dish of empanadas or pabellón criollo (Mendoza’s favorite) with a side of fried plantains—and they usually wind up coming back. “It starts with curiosity and then they become faithful customers,” he says.

Arepas are a popular South American dish of ground corn flour patties topped with various ingredient options: meat, eggs, tomatoes, salad, cheese, and more. Arepas give Mendoza’s food truck its name, and the dish is a cornerstone of the diet in his native country. Arepas in Venezuela could be breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a snack in between. At least they used to be—until the country’s food shortage became a full-blown crisis in recent years. 

  The food truck is Mendoza’s gift to the Omaha community that welcomed and embraced him upon his arrival in 2000 from Venezuela. It’s his hope that offering Venezuelan cuisine will help Omaha understand that Venezuela is “full of good people,” he says, adding a political opinion about the nation’s crumbling economy: “The government in Venezuela is a joke. It’s not who we are as a country, and we deserve better.”

Mendoza says that the people currently living in Venezuela—including his friends and family—are all at risk. “Nobody is safe there. My people suffer every day. They don’t even have basic necessities like toilet paper,” he says.

Venezuela’s ongoing food crisis inspired his food truck’s launch in May 2017. Mendoza wants to show his adopted home that Venezuela should be known for more than just Miss Universe; there’s also “the good culture and food and traditions that we can bring to people. This is what I can do to offer to our city’s diversity.”

Although he dreamt of opening a restaurant or food truck upon arriving in the United States, it was a trip to Venezuela with co-owner and business partner Jose Miguel Garcia in 2013 that put the plans solidly into motion. Originally from Mexico, this was Garcia’s first trip to Venezuela.

“He found Venezuela beautiful and fell in love with the people and the food,” Mendoza says. “He said that if we sell this food in the United States people will love it.” Since they didn’t have the budget to open a restaurant, they opted for the food truck instead. They figured a food truck was a safe investment and less expensive than opening a restaurant.

What he didn’t realize is that the food truck would become a mutual meeting ground for various South American populations within the city. “I didn’t know there were so many South American immigrants in Omaha!” He says that the food truck provides a place for the South American community to meet and socialize. “Some of my Colombian customers meet up at the food truck and organize outings together.” He’s pleased that his food truck helps bring people together.

He attributes the success of the food truck to a few different aspects: the people of Omaha have taken to the Venezuelan food eagerly, the food is delicious and carefully prepared while fresh, and Mendoza’s motto for the food truck: “The food has to be great, but the service has to be the greatest.”

The food served at El Arepón is authentic and fresh. “It’s all made from scratch,” Mendoza says. “Inside the truck there are no cans and nothing from preservatives.” He says everything is gluten-free and there are vegetarian and vegan menu options available, making it a welcome addition to Omaha’s food truck roster for Omahans with dietary restrictions.

For now, the El Arepón food truck can be found in the Kohl’s parking lot on South 72nd Street, right across from Nebraska Furniture Mart. The truck is also available for special events. As the days grow shorter in the colder months, their operating hours will vary. Their Facebook page (@elareponomaha) provides updated hours.

“Omaha is my home,” Mendoza says. “I’m thankful for Omaha, and I’m grateful to America. It’s the home I was looking for. I’ve learned so much from this city. This is what I can offer to them and give back a little of what I received from Omaha.” 

Visit elareponomaha.com for more information.

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Monarch Prime & Bar

December 22, 2017 by
Photography by Joshua Foo

Perhaps it’s fitting that downtown’s newest dining establishment, Monarch Prime & Bar, opened on Halloween weekend.

First, there was a trick—flipping the space used by the two previous restaurants with the event space to call Hotel Deco XV home.

Then when the doors opened, there definitely was a treat. Lots of them, in fact. But perhaps none so tantalizing as the 60-day-aged, 45-ounce Wagyu tomahawk chop cut of beef encompassing the ribeye and filet served still on a “flintstone.” It will feed a whole table, and even at $150 its sales are brisk.

“We sell out of them every day,” says Monarch partner Ethan Bondelid. “It’s very popular.”

Just as the steakhouse is becoming in its brief tenure. “The opening has been good,” Bondelid says. “We have been slowly ramping up night by night. The reviews have been positive.”

That hasn’t come easy. Monarch occupies space in Hotel Deco (316 S. 15th St.) once filled by other tenants. Bondelid and his team along with Aparium Hotel Group reimagined the space and “flipped the whole property around.” The kitchen was completed first, earlier in 2017, to serve hotel needs.

When Monarch opened, the kitchen served up Chef Patrick Micheels’ eclectic menu focused on dry-aged “meats from the grasslands” procured through Micheels’ relationships with Midwest farmers. The tomahawk stars, of course. But there’s also a 14-day aged duck breast, a 30-day-aged, 8-ounce bison strip loin, and elk.

“The chef and his team are doing great,” Bondelid says. “Knocking it out of the park.”

From the dining room, customers can see it all aging in the finishing locker. There’s lots more to the menu, which features two pricing tiers (the tomahawk being the top level). Also available is the Monarch Burger topped with lamb bacon, short rib meatloaf, striped bass, pork shoulder, and starters, including chicken pate, potato and trout, seasonal soups, seared maitake mushrooms, and more.

Bondelid—who owns Victor Victoria, Laka Lono Rum Club, and Maven Social—helped create Berry & Rye, Wicked Rabbit, and Via Farina. He says Monarch is his most ambitious project to date.

“We’ve been working on it a long time,” he says. “It’s good to see it come to fruition.”

A real treat, you might say.

monarchprimeandbar.com 

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Encounter.

 

Fancy Food in Historic Buildings

December 17, 2017 by
Photography by Michael Langfeldt

When Jennifer Coco and business partner Tom Simmons started thinking about opening a new restaurant somewhere in town, they considered a historic building in Dundee.

After all, the local celebrity chef’s namesake, J. Coco (at 5203 Leavenworth St.), has flourished in the charming ambiance of a location rich with local history—for 74 years, the space housed Omaha’s oldest grocery store, Wohlner’s.

“Everybody’s got stories about this building,” Coco says, adding that many customers will reminisce about how they used to get candy on grocery store visits with parents or grandparents in the structure that J. Coco currently occupies alongside Legends Comics.

J. Coco at 5203 Leavenworth St.

The concept of the new restaurant was to be quite different from J. Coco, with a more casual, grab-and-go feel. “The loose concept was a late-night lounge with food during bar hours,” Coco explains.

But buildings appearing on the National Register of Historic Places require special consideration as far as what changes can be made to the structure, and the limitations can be daunting to would-be business owners at these locations.

Coco says that she and Simmons were aware of what they were getting themselves into with a historic building. They did their due diligence with research and went through all the proper channels.

“The plans were drawn and submitted, and the state had approved them,” she says. “It was federal where it got hung up.”

Before receiving final approval for renovations, she heard back from the state that city codes had changed again. So, if she wanted to move forward, she was essentially back at stage one.

“The whole process is not made easy. If it were easier, we’d see a lot more businesses around [in historic buildings],” she says.

Though frustrated, Coco and Simmons surely did not want to upset the Dundee neighborhood in which the building is located. “We just hit a wall, so we said let somebody else have their dream here,” she says of the location at 4949 Underwood Ave.

At another historic location downtown, Flatiron Cafe manager Joe Jamrozy agrees that historic buildings have their challenges. But he insists that the charm of a heritage-rich space outweighs the drawbacks.

Flatiron Cafe

“This building has an extremely fun history,” Jamrozy says. “Tom Dennison opened the Flatiron Hotel and used it as a safe house for mobsters from Chicago and Kansas City who got in trouble. He was never mayor of Omaha, but he had his hands in everything.”

Jamrozy admits that they have to deal with “old building problems” such as plumbing and the upkeep, but without hesitation he says that he would never trade the wedge-shaped edifice for a newer, state-of-the-art facility.

Among the issues facing historic buildings are the shadows of the past that never quite seem to disperse. “Anybody who has been here long enough will say we have ghosts. There is an energy here late at night in the basement; it doesn’t always seem like you’re alone,” he says.

With the building’s colorful mob history, Jamrozy says he sometimes wonders what the basement walls have seen over the years. His voice trails off: “If these walls could talk…”

Sarah Wallace, general manager of 801 Chophouse, says that she sees ample benefits to their historical location in The Paxton downtown. “The building itself draws people in,” she says. “It’s a cool place for Omaha to have. Older people come in and remember attending dances in the ballroom when they were younger.”

Because of The Paxton’s historical significance, a board oversees the building and approves or denies any requests for changes to it. Wallace sees this more as a benefit than a hurdle. “If there were not a board in place, the building might lose character quickly because nobody’s looking out for the building.”

She remembers the long process of trying to get additional signage on the exterior of The Paxton for 801 Chophouse—the board was deeply involved and offered ample guidance. “The board must approve everything,” she says, adding that she is grateful for the care they take in making decisions.

A fan of old buildings and art deco architecture, Wallace feels right at home at The Paxton. “We’re lucky to be in a building that people seek out for the nostalgia factor,” she says. “When storms roll through, we all joke that we’re safe in such a strong building.”

801 Chophouse staff and guests claim their ghost is a tall gentleman in a suit, rumored to be a man murdered in the lobby of the hotel by his mistress. Wallace says the ghost has never been mischievous or caused any problems as far as she knows, so she doesn’t pay the matter much mind.

Like Jamrozy of the Flatiron Cafe, she says that she wouldn’t trade 801 Chophouse’s location for a newer building. “The building itself is a benefit to us,” she says.

Visit J. Coco (jcocoomaha.com), 801 Chophouse (801chophouse.com/omaha), and Flatiron Cafe (theflatironcafe.com) to learn more about the historic dining locations.

This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine.

Skeet’s Barbecue

December 5, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I was convinced that they were out of business.

Skeet’s Barbecue’s small internet footprint consisted of several online reviews and an unofficial Facebook page for “Skeet’s Ribs and Chicken.” The listed phone number was disconnected, and their opening hours were a mystery.

The restaurant sticks out like a sore thumb at the intersection of North 24th and Burdette streets. Across the street from the new, bright, and shiny Fair Deal Village MarketPlace, Skeet’s resembles an old shack.

The white paint on the side of the roof is almost completely chipped off, and the rest of the building is in desperate need of a face-lift. A pair of ragged signs proudly proclaims that “Skeet’s Carry Out” is “Omaha’s Finest Barbecue.”

Skeet’s has been a community landmark in North Omaha since 1952. In that time, the restaurant has gained renown for perfecting its sauce recipes and meat-smoking techniques.

They are open for customers when I drop by for lunch with a friend on a recent Wednesday.

Walking inside, we discover a bare-bones establishment. The atmosphere seems a bit like a food truck, but indoors. A sliding glass window separates customers from employees. The menu, printed on crisp white paper, is taped to the glass. Main entrées don’t venture outside of pork, ribs, or chicken. Side dishes introduce limited additional options (smoked beans, potato salad, macaroni salad, and extra bread).

An older gentleman walks out of the back room, looks at us, turns around, and returns to the back room. Five minutes later, he comes back to take our order.

Immediately after we order, he goes over to the prep station and puts together a half chicken dinner with a side of macaroni salad and a three-bone rib sandwich with a side of potato salad.

He grabs our meat selections out of their respective containers and paints a thick dark red sauce on top, drops the barbecue on two slices of Wonder bread, and sets the orders into white styrofoam to-go boxes. He tops each sandwich with an extra piece of bread. The macaroni and potato salads also come in white styrofoam containers. He packages the meals in separate plastic grocery bags and hands them off through the sliding window.

Back at my friend’s office, we unpack the bags. It is a magical, barbecue-slathered moment. Opening the take-out containers releases a succulent, smoky aroma that fills the room. We sample the mild and spicy sauces, and the meat easily falls off the bones.

The spicy barbecue sauce cloaks the chicken. Its flavor is so intense that our taste buds need a moment to regroup after a few bites. The mild sauce covering the ribs uses a ketchup base, which is subtle enough that the meat taste still comes through.

The potato salad’s strong mustard flavor balances against potatoes, onions, and other ingredients. But the macaroni salad is more palatable to my preference, with a slightly sweet sauce coating the noodles.

Skeet’s offers its customers a great deal on good barbecue. The portions are large, and the cost for our two meals is just over $15.

Overall, Skeet’s staff pour all of their attention in producing good quality barbecue at a reasonable price. Although the service, ambiance, and the appearance of the building are questionable, the food is delicious. At Skeet’s, it is all about good old-fashioned barbecue.

SKEET’S BARBECUE
2201 N. 24TH ST.
Food: 4 stars
Service: 1.5 stars
Price: $
Overall: 4 stars

This article was printed in the November/December 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

David & Diane Hayes

September 28, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Over the past 30 years, “Hayes” has become a big name in the local restaurant and bar scene. With wife Diane now behind him as his partner and “most avid supporter,” Hayes has owned some area favorites including The Winery, Monterey Café, Jams, Bebo’s, Block 16, and several Egg and I locations. He currently owns V. Mertz and is active in numerous industry organizations. He was even inducted into the Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame last year.

Despite all their ventures, the Hayeses felt Omaha lacked a particular kind of establishment they came to know and love from their visits to the Midwest’s largest metropolis.

“We really enjoy some of the cocktail lounges as we go through Chicago. But we couldn’t find the same thing here,” Diane says. “We felt like there was a market here for this type of concept.”

The couple opened Trio Cocktails and Company last December in the Sterling Ridge development near 132nd and Pacific streets.

“Trio is an upscale, midcentury modern cocktail lounge. It’s sophisticated, yet it’s warm and inviting,” Diane says. “We purposely made a small, intimate setting where people feel comfortable whether they’re in jeans or dressed up. It’s welcoming to any situation and a broad range of people.” 

Designed by award-winning architect Lori Krejci of Avant Architects, Trio is “a beautiful setting,” Diane says. “I think it brings a sense of sophistication.”

A focal point is the 600-bottle chandelier that stretches the length of the bar and changes colors throughout the evening. “It’s absolutely gorgeous,” Diane says. Not only is it a work of art, it was a labor of love.
Krejci designed the chandelier, and, after the spotless new bottles arrived from the manufacturer, the Hayeses helped her assemble the delicate fixture.

No detail was overlooked. “Check out the restrooms,” David says. “They’re beautiful.”

“We wanted to create an environment that was unusual and beautiful, and when you couple that with the drinks, I don’t think there’s any other place in Omaha that offers that combination, that environment, that experience,” Diane says. “Our bartenders make really good cocktails. They make the classics, but they use the best ingredients and people appreciate that. You’ll find Old-Fashioned cocktails, Manhattans, and martinis made in an exceptional way.”

Trio also offers more than 80 bottles of wine, 15 wines by the glass, and three rotating tap beers. It opens at 3 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, closing at midnight except Friday and Saturday, when it closes at 2 a.m. Guests can indulge in a happy hour from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. weeknights, and patio seating when the weather is nice.

“Omaha is a big restaurant community. There have been some exciting new restaurant concepts opening in this community, but this is something that is a little different. Trio is as fine as any cocktail lounge you’ll see in Chicago or New York,” Diane says. “It brings a different level of sophistication to Omaha. This is a destination in itself.”

Another plus? “Impeccable” service.

“Our manager at V. Mertz is also managing Trio. The level of service you see at V. Mertz, you will also see at Trio,” she says. “From the welcoming smile when you first walk in the door to the wonderful drinks you receive, the service is top-notch, and you will see that in all of Dave’s restaurants.”

Visit triococktails.com for more information.

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

La Famiglia di Firma

August 8, 2017 by
Photography by Contributed

Like a good book title, the names of the Firmature brothers’ bars and restaurants could almost paint a picture of what awaited customers.

At The Gas Lamp, you could savor a prime rib and listen to a live ragtime band from your marble-top table (provided you wore a suit or a nice dress during its early years of operation). A Sidewalk Cafe offered diners a chance to people-watch at Regency while they ate a crab salad. The Ticker Tape Lounge gave downtowners a brief respite from work and prominently featured an antique stock market ticker tape. And if you really had a rough day, you could always drop by Brothers Lounge, get a cocktail, and flop down on a couch or a rocking chair.

With the exception of Brothers Lounge at 38th and Farnam streets, none of these places exist anymore. When Robert Firmature turned Brothers Lounge over to current owners Trey and Lallaya Lalley in 1998, it ended nearly 70 years where the Firmature family had a major presence in the Omaha restaurant community.

In the early 1930s, Helen and Sam Firmature opened Trentino’s, an Italian restaurant, at 10th and Pacific streets (which would later become Angie’s Restaurant). The restaurateur family also consisted of Sam’s brother, Joseph, and his wife, Barbara, along with their three sons: Robert “Bob,” Jay, and Ernest “Ernie.”

Ernie cut his teeth bartending at Trentino’s and at a motor inn (The Prom Town House, which was destroyed in the 1975 tornado) before he opened The Gas Lamp in 1961. He also briefly managed a club called the 64 Club in Council Bluffs.

Located in the predominantly middle-class neighborhood of 30th and Leavenworth streets, The Gas Lamp was a destination spot for anniversaries, promotions, and proposals. Flocked wallpaper, antique lamps, and Victorian velvet furniture was the décor. Live ragtime was the music. Prime rib and duck à l’orange were the specialties. In an era where female roles in restaurants were still primarily as waitresses and hostesses, The Gas Lamp had two women with head chef-style status. Katie Gamble oversaw the kitchen. And Ernie and Betty’s son, Steve Firmature, and daughter, Jaye, were routinely corralled to help with clean-up—the cost of living in a restaurant family.

The Italian family name was originally “Firmaturi.” A popular account of the spelling change involves a bygone relative trying to make their name more “Americanized.” After researching family history, Steve suspects the name changed as a result of a documentation error—a mistaken “e” in place of the final vowel. Steve says those style of errors were common back then (due to errors in ship manifests or as depicted in a scene from the movie The Godfather: Part II).

Before she was even a teenager, Jaye Firmature McCoy was tasked with cleaning the chandeliers and booths. While cleaning, she would occasionally dig inside booths for any money that may have accidentally been left by a customer. At 10, she was promoted to hat check girl. At 14, she was the hostess. Steve did everything from bus tables to help in the kitchen.

“Back in those days, we didn’t have titles for people that cooked. Today, I think we’d call them a sous chef and a chef. We had two cooks,” Steve says with a laugh.

In the early ’60s, Ernie enforced a dress code for customers.

“When we first started, a gentleman couldn’t come in without a coat and tie. A woman couldn’t come in wearing pants [dresses only],” Jaye says.

The dress code (which eased in the late ’60s) may have been formal, but the restaurant retained a friendly atmosphere where some patrons returned weekly.

William and Martha Ellis were regulars. Speaking with Omaha Magazine over the phone from their home in Scottsdale, Arizona, they recalled going to The Gas Lamp almost every weekend. They became good friends with Ernie, to the point where all three of their children eventually worked for the Firmature brothers (mainly at A Sidewalk Cafe).

“Ernie wanted you to think he was this sort of tough Italian mobster, but he was really sort of amusing,” Martha says.

The Gas Lamp came to an abrupt end in 1980 when a fire destroyed the restaurant. It was ruled as arson, but a suspect was never caught. Instead of rebuilding, the family decided to “transfer” some of the signature dishes of The Gas Lamp to A Sidewalk Cafe. The Firmature brothers had purchased the restaurant from Willy Theisen in 1977.

Along with the three brothers, another Firmature, Jim (Helen and Sam’s son), was also a partner in owning A Sidewalk Cafe. Bob spent much of his time managing Brothers Lounge. Ernie managed A Sidewalk Cafe until he retired. Jim and Jay also helped manage the place. Jay (who is the only surviving member of the three) primarily worked in the business area. He was brought in by Ernie from Mutual of Omaha.

“He always said, ‘I should have stayed at Mutual,’” Steve says with a laugh.

Though not as formal as The Gas Lamp, A Sidewalk Cafe was still a destination spot. Located in the heart of the Regency neighborhood, the cafe aimed to pull in people who may have assumed Regency was out of their price range. Still, the cafe maintained an upper-end dining experience. DJ Dave Wingert, who now hosts a morning show on Boomer Radio, would routinely take radio guests to the Sidewalk Cafe in the ’80s. One guest was comedian and co-host of the NBC pre-reality show hit Real People—the late Skip Stephenson.

“I remember the booth we were sitting in, and telling him about being shot at Club 89,” Wingert says.

Since A Sidewalk Cafe closed its doors in the late ’90s, Omaha’s food scene has only grown in regard to available dining options and national recognition. Wingert says A Sidewalk Cafe would fit with today’s culinary landscape. Jaye agrees.

“It was probably the one [restaurant] that was the most survivable, I think,” she says.

Jaye has left the restaurant business. She is now owner and president of FirstLight Home Care, an in-home health care business. Though the industries are vastly different, Jaye says much of her experience with the restaurants has carried over to health care.

“Restaurants and bars are something that get into your blood,” she says. “It’s about the people and taking care of people.”

Find the last remnant of the Firmature family bar and restaurant empire at @brothersloungeomaha on Facebook.

From left: Ernie, Robert “Bobby”, and Jay Firmature

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