Tag Archives: dining

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.

Fancy Food in Historic Buildings

November 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.

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.

Dario’s Nutella Waffle S’mores

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Di Tendenza

This new twist on s’mores is not just for the kids at the campsite—grownups will love them, too. Add some fresh fruit to give a healthful boost to this gooey, delicious campfire dessert.

Ingredients:

  • 12 ounces of packaged frozen waffles (10)
  • 1 cup marshmallows
  • 1 cup Nutella hazelnut spread
  • 1/4 cup chocolate chips
  • Sliced bananas and strawberries
  • Pecans (optional)

Equipment:

  • 5 aluminum pie tins
  • aluminum foil

Preparation

  1. Use a spatula to spread 1-2 tablespoons of Nutella spread on a waffle.
  2. Place a second waffle on top of the Nutella.
  3. Spread another 1-2 tablespoons Nutella spread on the second waffle.
  4. Add about 1/4 cup marshmallows and 1 tablespoon chocolate chips to top.
  5. Place stacked waffles in 8″ pie tin.
  6. Create a tent with the foil, set on top of the pie tin, and seal.
  7. Place tin over hot coals for 8-9 minutes, or until the marshmallows have started to melt and the bottom of the waffle has started to brown.
  8. Remove from pie tin and top with sliced bananas and strawberries.
  9. These are rich, you may want to cut in half to share.
  10. …or maybe not.

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of Family Guide.

In Bloom

April 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Just as bright yellow dandelions emerge throughout the city in spring, Dandelion Pop-Up will re-emerge in the Greater Omaha Chamber Courtyard, adding a dash more culinary color to Omaha (at 13th and Harney streets).

Dandelion creator Nick Bartholomew says the weekly Friday lunch series featuring an ever-changing menu and rotating roster of all-star chefs is slated to return in late March 2017—though, like its flaxen-hued namesake, warmer weather will ultimately dictate its arrival. Bartholomew, who’s also behind beloved eateries The Market House and Over Easy, launched Dandelion Pop-Up in partnership with Secret Penguin so he could still contribute to the neighborhood after the M’s Pub fire put his Old Market restaurant on hiatus. The golden concept allows chefs to satisfy their creative cravings and lets diners sink their teeth into a unique edible experience.

Bartholomew wanted to offer seasoned chefs and up-and-comers alike the chance to break away from their daily bread, so to speak—to get creative, feed their passion, incubate new dishes and restaurant concepts, and have some fun.

“[At Dandelion] chefs can follow their passion with 100 percent creative control,” Bartholomew says. “They can test ideas and try out potentially off-the-wall stuff, then get feedback on their vision and see how it’s received before debuting it on a broader scale. I think the genius behind it is the versatility, which allows creativity, and that’s really engaging to the chefs. When the chefs are this excited, you know the food will be amazing.”

Dandelion began in July 2016 with Chef Tim Maides and his T.R.E.A.M. (Tacos Rule Everything Around Me) team, who started the party with chicken and vegan tacos that sold out early.

“It’s basically like a little playground for chefs to do something different, with a low risk and the chance to try out new flavors,” Maides says of Dandelion. “It’s similar for the people there to eat; it breaks up their normal downtown routine with a temporary option for lots of different flavors from different chefs in one location.”

“Tim is great, and we love doing the creative process together,” Bartholomew says. “The Chamber of Commerce has also been amazing. When we asked them about it, they didn’t think twice; they totally got Dandelion’s potential as an incubator and shared the vision.”

Since the Chamber doesn’t charge Bartholomew, he doesn’t charge the chefs, who keep all food profits. For his part, Bartholomew designs a signature lemonade corresponding with each Dandelion theme.

“For [Maides’ lunch] I did a cucumber-jalapeño lemonade that went great with his tacos,” says Bartholomew.

Next, Dandelion offered a barbecue lunch from chef Dan Watts, featuring his coffee-black-pepper-rubbed brisket. After a short hiatus, while Bartholomew updated the Chamber Courtyard kiosk’s infrastructure, Dandelion returned with lunches from heavy-hitter chefs like Joel Mahr, Jason Hughes, Dario Schicke, and Paul Kulik. Dishes included bahn mi burgers, pork steam buns, cevapi with pita, soul food such as chicken-andouille gumbo and fried green tomato grilled cheese, Parisian street vendor-style crepes, fried rice, bibimbap (a trial run for upcoming Bartholomew venture, Boho Rice), and other mouthwatering items.

Bartholomew is a proud Omaha native, and like his existing restaurants and soon-to-launch Boho Rice, he wants Dandelion to enhance the neighborhood it inhabits. He’s proud to say that the returning Friday tradition brings the often-dormant Chamber Courtyard to life.

“It’s awesome to see the courtyard with this buzz of activity now, and all these people just enjoying a sunny day, a lemonade, and some great food they can’t get anywhere else,” he says. “It’s a testament to Omaha being ready for these ideas and [customers] being loyal to what they like from certain chefs.”

Like the chefs and restaurants it promotes, Dandelion itself is still incubating. According to Bartholomew, there’s ample potential for the venture to grow like a weed in terms of scope and format, and he welcomes feedback from the public and pitches from chefs.

“I can’t always explain exactly what Dandelion is because I secretly want it to be everything,” Bartholomew says. “If anything, the format will just grow now that awareness is growing, and I hope Dandelion becomes something the city is proud of.”

Fittingly, Bartholomew wants to let Dandelion be a bit of a wildflower.

“We don’t want to tag its ear and process it yet because it’s kinda wild,” he says. “One of the things that makes Dandelion cool is that we’re not limiting it.”

Visit dandelionpopup.com for details and to register for updates on upcoming events.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Jason Brasch’s Epic Drink

February 10, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Mary Tudor’s bloody reign over England in the 16th century—when she turned the nation back to Catholicism, burned heretics at the stake, and killed some 300 Protestants—is believed to have inspired the world’s most popular alcoholic hangover cure in the 20th century. But it was not until the new millennium that the drink was perfected by chef Jason Brasch at Report In Pub, located in Omaha’s Bel Air Plaza.

For in a world of concocted stunt drinks, Report In Pub has defied convention to manifest the most complicated and violent Bloody Mary since the Tudor queen herself.

Brasch, like a mad scientist, says he has tried many unusual cocktail recipes over the years.

“I usually try and make things off ideas I see randomly online,” he says. “Many of them I try and fail, but I always like to try them. I was always good at making Bloody Marys, so having a good mix was easy.”

When asked where the idea to make this particular Bloody Mary recipe came from—topped with a cheeseburger, fried pickle spears, onion rings, chicken wings, a non-fried pickle, olives, celery, and bacon skewered together, all levitating above a giant 36-ounce mug—Brasch admits there was indeed more to the story.

“The idea came because we were exploring the attic and storage spaces in the bar when we found the mugs,” Brasch says. “My friend was hungover and loved my Bloody Marys. He wanted a little sampler of a couple of the [menu] items, and a mini burger, because he was too hungover to eat too much of anything.”

Brasch says his groggy compadre told him a hangover special for people with all those snacks would make a great Bloody Mary deal.

“I had seen places do Bloody Marys with a bunch of food online,” Brasch says. “So I found a skewer and used it to make it look fancy. I still have the picture from my friend with the first one on Facebook.”

What started as a joke soon had neighborhood folks coming in droves.

“We made a Facebook post as kind of a joke, and people started coming in for it,” Brasch says. “We get a lot of nurses and people from the neighborhood who have been coming in since the ’60s.”

According to Brasch, he went to college to become a civil engineer, thus explaining how he managed to design a leaning tower of bar snacks that doesn’t tip over when served. Though his reasons for switching from engineering to hospitality are shrouded in mystery, Brasch says the career change has been lucrative.

“My grandmother had always told my mom to invest in alcohol, hair salons, and tobacco because she said they were all recession proof,” Brasch says of some of the legal things people do for money. “I graduated from the University Nebraska-Lincoln with a civil engineering degree in 2009, but my mom and I wanted to get into the bar business because we realized the potential for a neighborhood pub if run correctly.”

It was a good bet. Brasch says they got a “super-good deal” on the bar. With his mother retiring and looking for something new and fun to do, the bar has become a family investment project.

It’s the customers, however, who get a super-good deal—whether they need to deal with a bloody queen or a bloody-wicked hangover.

Visit reportinpubomaha.com for more information.

This article was printed in the Jan/Feb 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Birrieria El Chalan

January 3, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Step inside Birrieria El Chalan, and the sizzle of grilled meat along with the aromatic scents of cumin, chiles, and other spices are the first signs that Mexican food fans are in for a treat. And once they start digging into a plate of tacos, tortas, or tostadas, they will realize this place is not about Tex-Mex, fusion, or modern Mexican. Instead, the focus is on homestyle, traditional food that, for the most part, is flavorful and done well.

Although there is nothing fancy about the outside or inside of the small, locally owned spot near 24th and J streets in South Omaha. The spare, simple restaurant is a fun, casual, and welcoming place to eat.

El Chalan serves many of the classic favorites one would expect at a Mexican restaurant, but it also offers cuisine from the state of Jalisco in west-central Mexico. Dishes such as birria, a spicy, savory stew made with goat or beef are popular among many patrons. For our recent first-time visit to the restaurant, my dining partner and I skipped the specialties and stuck to more familiar fare.

Complimentary chips and salsa are a great way to start. I could have sat there all day munching on the crispy tortilla chips and fiery red salsa. Medium spicy with a hint of smokiness, the salsa is terrific both as a dip and drizzled on nearly everything. Equally addictive is the house-made guacamole. Slightly chunky with chopped onion, tomato, and cilantro, it boasts a salty, spicy, citrusy balance.

The kitchen does amazing things with tacos, too. My dining partner, a former South O resident who has eaten tacos all over the neighborhood, said they are the best he has tried locally. Diners can choose from more than a half-dozen meat options, ranging from marinated pork to beef tongue. We went with carne asada (grilled steak) tacos.

Warm corn tortillas, soft yet sturdy, hold a generous amount of tender, seasoned steak chopped into small pieces, dressed with onion and cilantro. Diners can add accompanying garnishes of sliced radish, lime, and a blistered whole jalapeño for added texture and flavor.

Tortas, a popular Mexican sandwich, are offered with a choice of meat, topped with lettuce, avocado, pickled jalapeño, and other ingredients on an oval-shaped roll with a pillowy interior and grilled exterior. We tried a torta con lomo (pork loin sandwich). The meat was tender and flavorful, but the bun started falling apart under the weight of all the filling before we could finish.

I’m a huge fan of chile relleno—a poblano pepper stuffed with mild white cheese, battered, and then fried until golden brown—but the restaurant’s version missed the mark for me. A zesty tomato-based sauce drowned the pepper, making the breading soggy. And I thought the sauce was too thin and watery. The entree comes with fluffy seasoned rice and creamy refried beans.

The restaurant takes cash only, but you won’t need much. Tacos cost $2; entrees run about $8. Despite the shortcomings, our overall dining experience was satisfying. Those looking for a casual, low-key spot that highlights traditional flavors of Mexico will find it at Birrieria El Chalan.

Rating:

Food- 3.5 stars

Service- 3 stars

Ambiance- 2 stars

Price- $

Overall- 3.5 stars

Visit http://Facebook.com/pages/birrieria-el-chalan/168661723148405 for more information.

This article was printed in the Jan/Feb 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Worker’s Take-Out

April 29, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I was strolling through the wide hallway in the lowest level of the First National Center when I saw a friend waving at me. He wanted to say hello, but he didn’t want to lose his place in line.

He was standing in a line that snakes from a small shop out into the hallway. Signs on the windows say “Scooter’s.” Why is he waiting in a long line for a cup of coffee? I thought.

“I’m waiting for a sandwich,” he said. “They’re good here.”

Here? I don’t see signs of a sandwich shop, I thought. But there is indeed a sandwich shop inside, sharing the space with Scooter’s.

It’s called Worker’s Take-Out, but you wouldn’t know that at first glance. Looking as much as I could, I didn’t see a sign. After walking inside and looking up, I finally spotted an overhead sign that lists sandwiches. On the top of the sign, there’s a small circle with “Worker’s Take-Out” written modestly inside.

WorkersTakeOut4Web

The shop is a pleasant, cozy place where you can sit down and eat or take out. My friend’s time is limited. That day, like most, he had to get back to his job at Union Pacific. So he likes getting a sandwich to go. And he appreciates the prices.

Like my friend, most customers come from nearby businesses within walking distance.  Worker’s Take-Out is on the lower level of the bank at 16th and Dodge streets. (Note that it is not the First National Tower, but the bank building on the north side of Dodge Street adjacent to the DoubleTree Hotel).

The idea for Worker’s Take-Out came to life about six years ago. Chris Machmuller was working at O’Leaver’s Pub on Saddle Creek when he noticed space opening up in a building next door.

He jumped at the chance to open a sandwich shop there in 2008. He named it Worker’s Take-Out. Many customers were blue-collar workers and nearby residents.

He saw his new shop filling some niches “that I thought were missing in the community.”  Chicago-style hot dogs, Italian beef sandwiches, Cuban pork sandwiches. “At the time, there weren’t a whole lot of places serving them.”

Two years later, he moved Worker’s Take-Out downtown to the present location in the lower level of the First National Center.

“I liked the idea of the Monday through Friday lunch-only sort of hours,” said Machmuller, remembering long hours at his first sandwich shop. “We had been open from 11 to 11 at our old location.”

Some customers from the previous location have found him, traveling from Midtown to Downtown, even though locating parking isn’t always easy. There is an adjacent parking garage.

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He shares space with Scooter’s Coffee. Machmuller has what he describes as a “nice, comfortable partnership” with Scooter’s. His sandwich makers work side by side with the baristas.

The sandwich shop offers food made to order. “No one makes pressed sandwiches like we do,” claimed Machmuller. “We actually stay within the traditional Cuban-style pressed sandwich, which is done on flat grills, as opposed to panini style.”

What’s on the menu? For one, Chicago-style hot dogs including the Worker’s Dog on spinach with Texas caviar. Wait. Texas what?

“Texas caviar is a tongue-in-cheek misnomer,” Machmuller said. “Basically, it’s all vegetables.” Vegetarians find something to eat with items such as the Garden Favorite and Veggie Deluxe.

Do you like your sandwiches spicy?  You can’t help noticing that jalapenos are inside the Buffalo turkey pressed sandwich. Each item has a loyal following. The Cuban pork roast, a classic recipe, is popular.

Some of the sandwiches were fashioned by friends of Machmuller. “The ‘Franco’ was created by a friend of mine named Frances,” said Machmuller, who recommends calling in an order ahead of time for faster service.

Machmuller is back to long hours. In 2012, the Council Bluffs native bought O’Leaver’s Pub, the bar where he first spotted that empty space next door.

One thing is missing at Worker’s Take-Out (besides a big sign). A fryer. For Machmuller, it’s a cleanliness issue. “Grease goes everywhere. I won’t pretend our food is the healthiest, but none of it is fried.”

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Brother Sebastian’s Steak House & Winery


April 10, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in March/April 2015 Omaha Magazine.

It’s no small feat for a restaurant to be successful for so much as a decade. Statistically speaking, very few make it that long. It’s even more unusual for a restaurant to make it for multiple decades.

Brother Sebastian’s is quickly closing in on four decades as one of the top restaurants in Omaha, which puts them in a very elite category. It is a generally accepted fact that to survive that long restaurants have to completely reinvent themselves every seven to 10 years to stay relevant. Brother Sebastian’s brings that point to question since very little about the restaurant has changed since they opened in 1978. This makes me think that if you get it right in the beginning there is no need to reinvent yourself. This place instead just relentlessly focuses on doing everything right every day. It seems to have worked for Brother Sebastian’s.

To test this theory I recently visited Brother Sebastian’s for dinner. As I walked up to the front door while being serenaded by a choir of monks singing ancient hymns, I was quickly reminded of the many great experiences that I have had there over the years. It truly is a beautiful restaurant and designed to look like a rustic French abby that has many different cozy, dimly lit dining rooms. My dining partner and I were seated by a friendly manager at a lovely, intimate booth in a small room that had a giant fireplace in the center. From our table we really could not even see any other tables, which made it feel like we were the only ones in the restaurant even though the place was nearly full.

We started off with an order of Escargot ($8.50) and Shrimp Scampi ($9.95). The Escargot was tender and moist served on a mushroom cap with rich garlic butter sauce. The scampi was also served “Escargot style,” but topped with bubbling Havarti cheese and the same garlic butter. Both were delicious. Next we made our trip to the salad bar, which is included with all entrees. In general I am not a big fan of salad bars and would prefer to have the kitchen make my salad, but this salad bar was as nice as any I have seen, with plenty of fresh ingredients to satisfy everyone’s tastes. For entrees I had the Rib Eye Steak ($27.95) and my partner had the Chicken Picatta ($21.50). The rib eye was served as ordered, grilled to a perfect medium rare. It was appropriately seasoned, very tender, and loaded with flavor. In fact, it was so good that I would go so far as to say it was the best steak I have had dinning out in Omaha in the last several years. The Chicken Picatta was equally good, with a pair of tender breasts of chicken breaded and served over angel hair pasta with an outline of sauteed spinach in a tangy piccata sauce. For dessert we tried the Chocolate Cake ($8.95) and Lemon Cake ($8.95), both house-made. Either of these would have been more than enough to share and boasted four or five layers topped by rich butter cream icing. Both were moist, decadent, and very memorable.

Throughout the evening we enjoyed our server and were impressed with her kindness, knowledge, and timing. The manager was ever-visible, making sure that everything was running like clockwork and that all the guests were enjoying the same great food and service that we were. Not once did we want for anything. Beverage service is also strong with a wine list that is incredibly expansive with just about every variety, style, and region well represented. There is also a good selection of fine liquors and beers.

Brother Sebastian’s has proved to me that it has managed to not only maintain its high standards for 38 years, but it may even be getting better with age! Cheers!

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