Tag Archives: food

Ling’s Namesake in West Omaha

November 12, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kim Ling, proprietor of Ling’s Asian Cuisine, has a difficult time staying away from the restaurant business. 

After successfully running China Road in Bellevue for 27 years with her family, Kim decided the time had come to retire. After all, she wanted to enjoy her gardening, walks around the lake, and relaxing while watching movies at home. It sounded like the perfect retirement for Kim and her husband, Justin (who was content with spending his days golfing). 

The bliss of retirement lasted for nearly a year before Kim started to feel antsy. “I felt like I wanted something to do. My passion has always been the food business,” she says, adding that after successfully running both China Road in Bellevue and China Inn in Lincoln for so many years, she found herself missing the customers. As for Justin, he was willing to put on the chef apron again and set aside his golf clubs—for now. 

When the Lings noticed a Vietnamese restaurant in their neighborhood was up for sale (at 6909 S. 157th St.), they started seriously considering coming out of retirement. “We wanted something that was a good, small size,” Kim says. This place fit the bill. The interior is small yet welcoming—more like a dining room in a home than a bustling restaurant. “I do enjoy a smaller restaurant,” Kim explains. “We spend a lot of time here.”

Since moving to the U.S. from Taiwan, Justin and Kim Ling have managed several restaurants in eastern Nebraska.

When they decided to purchase the restaurant, they did it with one caveat: the previous owner had to walk them through the process of how things were done there. The Lings wanted a seamless transition for the existing customers, so while they were absolutely going to put their own spin on the dishes served, they knew that they weren’t going to completely overhaul the menu. 

The menu is unusual for an Asian restaurant in the sense that it isn’t jam-packed with items. “Some restaurants have over a hundred items on their menu, but we don’t want to do that,” Kim says. 

First-time customers should try the general’s chicken or the lo mein, she says. Return customers love the pad thai (a Thai noodle dish) and the classic Vietnamese selections—including vermicelli rice noodles and pho—legacies from the restaurant previously named “Vietnamese Cuisine” before its sale to the Lings. 

After reopening the location, the veteran restaurant owners added a Taiwanese beef noodle soup to the menu, offering a delicious taste of a famous Taiwanese culinary delight. Commenting on the menu, Kim says, “Nothing is too crazy spicy.”

Online ordering for takeout is popular at this restaurant, but those who choose to dine in enjoy the laid-back atmosphere while waiting for homemade dishes that Justin pulls together with fresh ingredients. “He likes to create, and he’s good at it,” Kim says. “He has a passion and always thinks about quality. He has a chef’s attitude and listens to what people say.” As a matter of fact, a running joke among regular customers is to ask Justin, “Hey, what’s different today?” He isn’t afraid to try new things and tweak his recipes a little to better suit his customers’ palates. 

Justin started cooking right out of school in Taiwan. He married Kim before she came to the United States in 1981, but he had to wait to join her as he finished up his mandatory two years of military service. They worked for other people for a few years until Kim’s sister, Judy Thomas (who she refers to as “The Leader”), declared the family ready to own their own restaurant. That’s when they all came together and started China Road in 1990. “It was our first time running a family business—there were five of us,” Kim says. 

Some of the family has since moved back to Taiwan, and though Kim used to visit her family in Taiwan annually, she doesn’t have the opportunity to visit as often anymore. “I do miss Taiwan,” she says of the island (which governs itself as a sovereign nation but is claimed as a territory of the People’s Republic of China). “It’s my home. But this is my home now, too. I raised two daughters here. Nebraska is perfect for me. The people are nice and there’s a slow pace.”

Her feelings are echoed in the dining area of the restaurant, where Asian décor mingles with “I love the USA” decals on the window. “I love my job and I like to deal with people. I want people to have a good time,” Kim says, adding that Ling’s Asian Cuisine is very much a family-friendly eatery. She loves when customers bring their kids along to enjoy a meal. Sometimes she’ll fashion little umbrellas for the kids to play with while they wait for their food. 

She intentionally wants families to feel welcome, not only because the restaurant is located within a neighborhood full of families, but also because she wants everyone who steps through the door to feel at ease and comfortable. “We have lots of regular customers; they’re more like family. I see them more than I see some of my family,” Kim says. 

The feeling seems to be mutual. Customers don’t balk at the 8 p.m. closing time. “They understand this takes a lot of energy,” says Kim, who doesn’t appear to be running out of energy anytime soon.  


Visit lingsasiancuisine.com for more information.

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Banh mi is a Vietnamese sandwich, a legacy menu item from the restaurant preceding Ling’s Asian Cuisine

Staying Current with Au Courant

October 24, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If beets are on the menu, I’m ordering them. A beet dish I tried during an August dinner at Au Courant Regional Kitchen was the best I’ve had in a long time. The plate of roasted and marinated beets, thyme aioli, and thin-sliced speck (a smoked ham) was made even more delightful by the juicy sweetness of cantaloupe—bright orange, glistening cubes of compressed cantaloupe with the most sublime texture and flavor. 

Other dishes my dining partner and I sampled, from starters to mains, were equally impressive, well-executed, and beautifully presented. And they reflected the restaurant’s commitment to offering diners the best of what’s in season. 

“We’re sourcing the absolute best products we can get our hands on,” says chef and co-owner Benjamin Maides, who works with area farmers and producers to find the freshest ingredients. “Our menu changes weekly so we can really adapt to what’s available locally. I need to be really in tune with what’s coming out of the ground.”

black bass

The Swiss-born, Omaha-raised chef has worked at a number of local restaurants as well as establishments in Italy, Colorado, and California (including the award-winning Bouchon in Yountville, California). Maides and local restaurateur Carlos Mendez opened Au Courant in November 2016 in the former España spot near 61st and Maple streets, in the heart of Omaha’s Benson neighborhood. The warm and welcoming space—with wood floors, high ceilings, a plethora of plants, and walnut tables built by Maides—combines rustic and elegant elements.

The restaurant’s dynamic menu is divided into four sections—amuse-bouche, aperitif, pasta, and protein. My favorite amuse, the Chovie’s egg, is a soft-boiled egg with a creamy, satiny yolk. The halved egg was set atop crisp, tender green beans with crème fraîche and topped with crispy purple potato chips. Think of it as a deviled egg, but exponentially better.

 

cantaloupe tartare

Both the egg and a slightly briny and sweet Beausoleil oyster from New Brunswick were perfect little bites to prime the palate. Another amuse featured local organic potatoes—crispy, golden-brown wedges served with dijonnaise, bits of bacon, and julienned green apple.

The kitchen also excels at pasta, all made in-house. Mushroom gnocchi with braised oxtail, heirloom tomatoes, and shaved pecorino Romano was perfectly pillowy and tender with a melt-in-your-mouth texture. A plate of agnolotti (a small, stuffed pasta similar to ravioli) with taleggio, roasted and pickled corn kernels, and pistachios was rich without being heavy. Pickled ramps added bright acidic notes that balanced the sweetness of the corn.

agnolotti

The night we dined, octopus and black bass were among the protein options. Served alongside chorizo and potato, the octopus was tender, delicately sweet, and slightly smoky. The black bass filet—flaky and moist with super-crispy skin—arrived atop a bed of yellow squash, zucchini, and some lovely tiny yellow tomatoes.

Guests who can’t decide what to order may want to consider the chef’s tasting menu, a six-course meal for $55 per person that highlights some of the staff’s favorite dishes. 

Maides says he’s pleased with the response from the community since Au Courant opened its doors two years ago. The goal isn’t to be the best restaurant, but to offer the best food at the best price. “We want to get rid of the notion that a quality dining experience has to be really expensive,” he says.

An inviting atmosphere, well-made cocktails, and top-notch service are all reasons enough for repeat visits to Au Courant, but the refined yet approachable menu is the real draw. 

Au Courant Regional Kitchen
6064 Maple St. | 402-505-9917 

Food: 4.5 stars
Service: 4 stars
Ambiance: 4 stars
Price: $$$$
Overall: 4 stars


Visit aucourantrestaurant.com for more information.

This dining review was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Chovie’s egg

Goodbye, Mother India

September 14, 2018 by
Photography by Doug Meigs

Mother India Restaurant is permanently closing this weekend.

Saturday, Sept. 15, will be the restaurant’s last day of business, says Preethi D’Souza. The restaurant is open noon-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m on its final day.

“My father is retired,” she says. “We can’t keep running the business because my dad has Parkinson’s, and we can’t find enough people in the kitchen. We’d like to thank all our customers for supporting us all these years, being there for us, loving us, and loving our culture.”

Even though Preethi works with her parents (father Joseph and mother Eppie) at Mother India, running the restaurant has been so overwhelming that they found it difficult accommodate quality time together.

The family had been trying to take their breaks together when the restaurant’s bustling activity slowed enough that the family restaurant’s other two employees could manage things.

A painting of Mother Teresa decorated the side of Mother India Restaurant’s modest building.

They were making up for lost time. For nine years, Preethi stayed behind in India with her aunt while her parents moved to the United States to start building a life here. The couple arrived in America with less than $50 in their pockets. Joseph was summoned to Omaha to be the chef at Indian Oven. “It was Omaha’s first Indian restaurant, and they wanted an authentic Indian chef,” Eppie says. “We were very happy and the restaurant was very successful, but we started looking for a small restaurant of our own.” They opened Mother India in 2010.

In the meantime, Eppie and Joseph were fervently trying to get approval from U.S. Immigration to allow Pretthi to join them. Pretthi was eager to reunite with her parents, too. “I heard so many stories about America,” Pretthi says. “We lived in a very poor neighborhood and moving to the United States was a dream that was impossible for some.”

Three times their requests to bring Pretthi over were denied. Unwilling to give up, Eppie made an appointment with an Indian lawyer in Omaha. But when the time came for the appointment, the lawyer was sick and the D’Souzas were assigned to another lawyer at the same firm.

For some people, getting assigned a different lawyer for such a crucial family matter might be annoying. But Eppie soon realized fate had allowed the switch.

“Do you remember me?” asked Matthew Morrisey, the attorney assigned to assist Eppie in getting her daughter permission to come to America. Though she tried to recall his face, she couldn’t remember how she might have known him. It turned out that Matthew, as a child, was babysat by none other than Eppie herself. She didn’t recognize him as an adult.

“God sent angels for me from Heaven,” Eppie says.

Morrisey took on the task of getting Pretthi permission to join her parents in Omaha with determination. “He worked very hard,” Eppie says, and permission was eventually granted. “He’s in our hearts. All of his family is in our hearts. We keep in touch.”

The experience of someone becoming like family to the D’Souza family is not rare. “Our regular customers are like family,” Eppie says.

“We’re lucky to have loyal customers,” agrees Pretthi.

“They’ve joined our family,” Eppie adds, gesturing toward the dining room of Mother India as though it was the dining room of their home. On the Friday before closing for good, a line of waiting customers stretched out along the sidewalk.

The family atmosphere of Mother India is undeniable. When Pretthi isn’t at the University of Nebraska-Omaha studying international business management, she’s at the restaurant helping things run smoothly while trying to sneak in time to do her homework.

She reluctantly agreed to learn how to cook, but quickly discovered that she really enjoys working alongside her father and learning how to prepare Indian dishes. “I didn’t want to cook,” she admits. “But a person was needed, and I liked learning from my father.”

Pretthi’s business degree could have put her in a position to eventually run Mother India, but she was not sure she wanted the obligation. “I don’t want to work 15 hours a day,” she says. “My mom and dad always encourage me in my studies. I’ll see where my path takes me and what opportunities I’ll have in the future.”

Although the family is happy and business has been good, the labor expense proved too much for the family restaurant. Although, they have noticed many new customers since The Conrad apartment community opened in 2017. Pretthi says the age demographic of customers has changed, too: “They used to be older, but now they’re my age.”

People have been drawn to Mother India’s reputation for authentic Indian food. “My dad’s been cooking Indian food for 55 years,” Pretthi says. “He’s cooked Indian food in many different countries.”

An impressive collection of “Best of Omaha” awards and designations displayed at the entrance of Mother India tell the story of a tiny restaurant that managed to capture the hearts of the locals.

The day before closing, Eppie wants the family’s many loyal customers to know that they have captured her heart, too. Or, in her own words: “Make sure to tell the customers how much we love and appreciate them.”

Mother India is located at 1908 Leavenworth St. and can be reached by phone at 402-763-2880.

A line of lunchtime customers stretched outside on Friday, Sept. 14, the day before Mother India closed for good.

Food for Thought

August 5, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A couple months ago I was in Copenhagen.

No, I did not see the “Little Mermaid” statue in the harbor. I know everybody goes to photograph it when they visit the city. But I remember that this Little Mermaid is based on the Hans Christian Andersen version, not Disney’s romantic feature film.

In the original telling, the mermaid does not get to marry the prince of her dreams and live the happily ever after. Instead, the young scion is married off to a genuine princess, the daughter of a neighboring king. Yeah, turns out the fix was in even before she gave up her fins.

Her mer-sisters offer a nice, sharp knife to gut the prince—a chance to void her contractual deal with the sea witch (which had stipulated marriage to the prince or death). But instead of stabbing her beloved, the mermaid dives into the waves, turns into sea foam, and becomes a creature of the air. The prince never realizes how close he came to being assassinated.

Fairytales are often a bit darker than we choose to remember them. I mean, for accuracy’s sake, shouldn’t the poor heartbroken thing have a knife in her hand?

Whatever, I skipped the obligatory visit to the scorned gold digger’s monument. 

I was in Copenhagen for food.

I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel here and there around the globe, and my first goal is always food. I believe you get the best idea of what a country is all about by discovering what the natives eat.

In Italy, the Mediterranean diet rules with divine pasta, fresh vegetables, and seafood. I’ve had the best roasted lamb in Trastevere, great liver (yes, liver) on the Via Sistina, and Genoese salami to die for.

Germany is where a Midwesterner can go for comfort food. Schnitzel is basically chicken-fried steak, and potatoes and gravy are everywhere you turn. At a street fair in Cologne, one booth specialized in deep-fried bacon. I felt like I was at the Iowa State Fair.

In Hong Kong, I recommend you try the spicy chicken feet or the hairy crab. Or grab a fish from one of the tanks at the street market and hand it to the woman in the next stall who will kill it, clean it, and turn it into the freshest fish stew you’ve ever eaten.

In Japan, everything is good—everything from street vendor yakisoba to Okinawa-style soba. Everything is good except the natto. Do not eat the natto. Just don’t (unless you enjoy munching chunky booger goo).

I wish I could time travel, because (according to Reddit) archeologists recently discovered the oldest ever recipe on a tomb wall in Egypt. It’s for a soup that includes hippopotamus and sparrow, two delicacies I have never had the opportunity to try.
I suspect the dish represents our primitive ancestor’s first attempt to deal with leftovers.

So anyway, there I was in Copenhagen, skipping the unarmed Little Mermaid statue, looking for good food. And what did I find?

Well, during my short stay, I had great Italian food, some of the best sushi this side of Osaka, along with fish and chips that beat anything in London.

I even found a Neolithic restaurant serving only what our hunter-gatherer forebears might have found while walking from here to there (basically plants and prehistoric roadkill). I skipped that place.

I did try the frikadeller and rugbrød with gherkins. Meatballs and bread. It wasn’t bad.

But here’s the point of the column. If you’re in Copenhagen, try the Danish.

Which, for accuracy’s sake, should be called “Austrian.” The pastry was originally introduced to the country by Austrian bakers when their Danish counterparts went on strike in 1850. After more than a century of acceptance, the pastry has become genuinely Danish. Kind of like an American, Disneyfied version of the Little Mermaid. But more delicious, and you don’t need a knife.


Otis Twelve hosts the radio program Early Morning Classics with Otis Twelve on 90.7 KVNO, weekday mornings from 5-9 a.m. Visit kvno.org for more information.

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

Omaha Offers a Travel-Worthy Food Experience

July 26, 2018 by

There are numerous reasons why visitors travel to Omaha. Some are in the city for business or a convention, while others come for an extended weekend getaway to see attractions like the zoo and museums. But there is another reason Omaha is growing in popularity—our food.

In every corner of the city, you’ll find authentic cultural culinary creations that make Omaha quite the foodie destination. You can eat pizza certified by the Italian government at Dante in West Omaha and savor a steak prepared by a James Beard Award nominee at The Grey Plume in Midtown. In North Omaha, nobody does soul food like Big Mama’s–just ask the folks at the Travel Channel. And, despite a culture of fast food, in South Omaha you’ll find the Lithuanian Bakery, where bakers take three days to make a mouth-watering old-world Napoleon torte. 

 Having restaurants that offer such unique cuisine is the cornerstone of building Omaha’s travel-worthy reputation, an equally important component is letting visitors know about our great food scene. In April of this year, Visit Omaha hosted a Foodie Blogger tour to see how many bloggers would be interested in telling Omaha’s story—25 bloggers expressed interest. Out of those 25, Visit Omaha selected four bloggers with the most impressive audience numbers and invited them to enjoy Omaha’s food scene on us. 

The bloggers traveled from Missouri, Iowa, Ohio, and Minnesota. They visited Monarch Prime and learned how the restaurant dry-ages its steaks in-house. They took a culinary class at Provisions by The Grey Plume and experienced making their own pasta. The bloggers also enjoyed samplings at half-a-dozen foodie hot spots on an Omaha culinary tour. They did not leave disappointed; each was impressed with their Omaha dining experience and now plans to share Omaha’s story with a hungry audience of more than 357,000.

 The economic impact when visitors explore Omaha’s food scene is huge. Research shows that out-of-town guests spend $304 million every year on food and drinks while visiting our city. Those dollars help keep people in our community employed. These people—from wait staffs, to chefs and their kitchen staffs, to the drivers delivering the supplies to the restaurant—all have jobs thanks, in part, to all the tourists spending their money here. 

If it has been a while since you have had an evening out, give Omaha’s food scene a try. Omaha Restaurant Week (Sept. 14-23) is a great opportunity to try a new restaurant, or a new dish at an old favorite. After all, if people are traveling from places like Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, and Ohio to sample the flavor of Omaha, it’s definitely worth the trip outside your neighborhood. 


Visit omaharestaurantweek.com for details.

This letter was printed in the August/September 2018 edition of B2B.

Keith Backsen is executive director of the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Whispering Roots Takes Root

July 10, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Highlander Village on North 30th Street between Lake and Cuming is a dramatic new development meant to revitalize the depressed neighborhood surrounding it. The center of this community (planned by 75 North Revitalization Corp.) is the Accelerator. The 65,000 square foot, Z-shaped building serves as a Creighton University and Metropolitan Community College-led health-education hub. An event venue and a ground floor coffee shop will be joined by established eateries and entrepreneurial startups. 

But what most grabs the eye is the Accelerator’s futuristic-looking urban agriculture facility for nonprofit tenant Whispering Roots. A see-through greenhouse sits majestically atop floors dedicated to education and production—all centered on aquaculture, aquaponics, and hydroponic growing. As Whispering Roots founder and executive director Greg Fripp explains, nearly everything at the $4.2 million, 18,000-square-foot green site is designed for the next generation. Like the rest of Highlander, he says the custom design and construction, plus elevated location, are meant to raise people’s expectations in a high-poverty environment.

Slated to open by late summer, the facility is built on years of seeds sown by Fripp and company in inner-city public schools and neighborhoods. Whispering Roots teaches students how to build and maintain aquaculture systems that grow fish—tilapia or steelhead trout—for consumption. Fish waste is used to fertilize crops grown in the same system. The closed system’s water is naturally cleaned and recirculated. Floating raft crop, drip irrigation, and raised bed techniques are taught. 

The new digs will allow Whispering Roots to expand learning opportunities for youth and adults around organic agriculture, healthy cooking, and nutrition. It will refer participants in need of human and social services to on-site partners.

“We focus on growing, feeding, and educating,” Fripp says. “We’re touching different aspects of the community to address where the gaps are. By working with different folks and actually being out in the community and listening to the feedback—what’s working, what’s not working—it allowed us to design a facility that meets the needs of the community.”

Fripp says residents of the community have said they need more locally produced food, hands-on experiential learning, and STEM education, “and that’s what we do.”

To help address the community’s lack of access to fresh, local healthy food, Whispering Roots will sell the fish and vegetable crops it harvests on-site at farmers markets and select stores and to neighboring Accelerator food purveyors. 

Fripp sees this as just the start.

“The model is what matters—the techniques and how we build them and improve them in underserved communities—and then taking that model and replicating it at whatever scale makes sense for a community,” he says. “Where a lot of people make mistakes is they try to force a model and scale in a community that’s not ready to deal with it. The community’s overwhelmed.”

Fripp’s interest in urban ag and aquaculture goes back 20-plus years, to high school. After a U.S. Navy logistics career, he worked in the corporate world. He left an executive human resources position at TD Ameritrade in Omaha to follow his real passion full time.

He founded Whispering Roots in his home garage and basement lab with his own savings, and in less than a decade it’s now supported by major philanthropic players such as the Sherwood, Weitz Family, and Suzanne and Walter Scott foundations.

Funders bought into his vision, allowing it to ramp-up from micro to mega level. In learning to build and operate aquaculture systems, grow, harvest, package, market, and sell food, students will acquire portable skills.

Whispering Roots already has a presence as far away as Haiti and Madagascar and as near as Iowa and Missouri. It’s currently building a facility in Macy, Nebraska.

On the planning table is a full-scale commercial production facility that would supply food in quantity and create jobs.

“We not only want to replicate what we’re doing here but also to do economic development by developing this pipeline of kids and adults from the community who can then work in or run those facilities,” Fripp says.

Fripp and his team are much in demand as consultants.

“We’ve become subject matter experts for other communities that would like to do the same around the country. We have people calling from Kansas City, Minneapolis, wondering how we’re pulling this off in Omaha,” he says, adding that the model is what’s interesting to them. It challenges the way people view urban agriculture, hands-on experiential learning, and STEM in underserved and impoverished communities.

“We’ve been able to navigate government and policies and work on the community side, in schools, and to figure out how all these pieces work together,” he says.

From concept to completion, he says, “One of the biggest challenges is helping people understand the vision because it’s so new. When I started my organization in 2011 and said we’re going to put fish and plants in classrooms to teach kids about science, people thought that was crazy. They said, ‘It’s never going to work, kids aren’t going to be interested.’ Now our problem is we don’t have enough bandwidth to handle all the requests we get from the schools. But when I started, no one believed this was even possible.” 

Even after capturing the attention of kids—who started winning science fairs—and making converts of educators, he says, “In talking about where we were going to build our new facility, we had people questioning why we wanted to go into the inner city and offering us free land to build in rural areas. But the goal was to do it in an underserved community to prove it’s possible to go into the toughest areas, build this thing, and show it can work. That’s not easy because you run into a lot of roadblocks. There’s a lot of preconceived notions about what education looks like in an underserved community, what people will tolerate, what will work. What we’re trying to do is change that view.”

On a recent tour of the new Omaha facility, a woman who resides nearby told Fripp, “I’m glad that you are here. This is close to my heart. It needed to be here. This is such a beautiful and good thing that the community will protect you.”

“That feedback,” he says, “tells me we’re on the right path. The key is that you are a part of the community so that people feel like they have ownership—this is their resource. That’s what we want. We want that community base. If it’s just a community place and there’s no connect, people don’t care. They’re like, ‘That’s not ours anyway.’ But if it’s community-based, then, ‘It’s ours.’”

Part of that buy-in, he says, is “trying to build our own pathway and network of students who then become the experts who teach and train.” The goal is creating self-sufficiency so that communities can feed themselves. 

Having an African-American at the head of it all is a powerful symbol.

“When intersecting with the African-American community, students need to see people who look like them doing this work,” Fripp says. “Then they can internalize it by saying, ‘Me, too.’ They need to know this is a goal that is achievable.”


Visit whisperingroots.org for more information

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

Greg Fripp teaches aquaculture, aquaponics, and hydroponic skills to the next generation.

#OmahaMunchMadness 2018

July 6, 2018 by and
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

For the main feature article (read it here) in Omaha Magazine’s July/August issue, we determined there are 49 zip codes in the Omaha-Council Bluffs metropolitan area. 

We worked with a freelance food writer and a team of foodie-influencers on Instagram to assemble a list of one dish for every zip code.

Once we compiled the list, writer Sara Locke, editors, and the Instagrammers collaborated on narrowing the list down to the 32 most popular dishes in the zip code guide. 

Why did we narrow the field to 32?

Because it is time for Munch Madness! 

Munch Madness is Omaha Magazine’s take on March Madness (but with dishes representing zip codes). And instead of one month, this contest will span July and August.

We will announce the date pairings in this initial Round of 32 zip code picks at our July/August magazine launch at the Florence Mill on July 8. Zip codes will be randomly paired for the Round of 32. The subsequent round of Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four, and Championship will be determined by polls on Facebook.

Come back to this page for updates on the bracket and times. We will update the bracket as Munch Madness progresses. Each pairing will have 24 hours before a winner is declared.

Voting will take place on Facebook at @OmahaMagazine. We will tag each poll with the hashtag #OmahaMunchMadness to make the polls easier to find on Facebook.

Do you disagree with our team’s selections for each zip code? If you disagree with any zip code picks, let us know on Instagram at @OmahaMagazine by following these steps; we will repost your alternate zip code pick to spread the love:

  • Upload a photo of the dish you think is more worthy to Instagram.
  • Check in at the restaurant.
  • Write the name of the dish along with the hashtag #OmahaMunchMadness in the caption of the Instagram post.
  • Tag us at @OmahaMagazine

Most of all, we hope Munch Madness makes you hungry. Whether you agree or disagree with our zip code picks, don’t forget to vote in the Best of Omaha contest here: http://omahamagazine.com/best-of-omaha/.

Updates

Round of 32

July 9th
Azteca Burrito Supreme (68138) vs. Crispy Mushroom Sandwich (68028)
WINNER: Azteca Burrito Supreme (68138)

July 10th
Bolognese Bianco (68132) vs. Whole Catfish Dinner (68110)
WINNER: Bolognese Bianco (68132)

July 11
Oven-Fried Chicken (68111) vs. Hummus with Beef Shawarma (68114)
WINNER: Oven-Fried Chicken (68111)

July 12
Stuffed Eggplant Papoutsakia (68134) vs. Barbacoa Short Ribs (68106)
WINNER: Barbacoa Short Ribs (68106)

July 13
Negi Hamachi Roll (68164) vs. The Mia (68118)
WINNER: Negi Hamachi Roll (68164)

July 15
Pan-Seared Salmon (68046) vs. Pizza Rosso (68122)
WINNER: Pizza Rosso (68122)

July 16
Beef Bulgogi (68127) vs. Diavolo (68131)
WINNER: Diavolo (68131)

July 17
Thai Salmon Salad (68154) vs. Omakase (68005)
WINNER: Omakase (68005)

July 18
Wings with Habanero Sauce (68007) vs. Chicken Tikka Madras (68144)
WINNER: Chicken Tikka Madras (68144)

July 19
Classic Gyro (68130) vs. Flaming Saganaki (68105)
WINNER: Flaming Saganaki (68105)

July 20
Tonkotsu Ramen (68104) vs. Whiskey Steak Sirloin (68124)
WINNER: Whiskey Steak Sirloin (68124)

July 23
Croque Garcon Burger (68102) vs. Menudo (68107)
WINNER: Croque Garcon Burger (68102)

July 24
Tacos (51510) vs. Fried Ice Cream (68069)
WINNER: Fried Ice Cream (68069)

July 25
Pop Tarts (68135) vs. Country Sunrise (68137)
WINNER: Country Sunrise (68137)

July 26
Prime Rib (51526) vs. Egg Yolk Raviolo (68108)
WINNER: Prime Rib (51526)

July 27
Lust (68123) vs. Vermicelli Rice Noodles (68136)
WINNER: Vermicelli Rice Noodles (68136)

Sweet Sixteen

July 31
Azteca Burrito Supreme (68138) vs Bolognese Bianco (68132)
WINNER: Bolognese Bianco (68132)

August 1
Oven-Fried Chicken (68111) vs. Barbacoa Short Ribs (68106)
WINNER: Oven-Fried Chicken (68111)

August 2
Negi Hamachi Roll (68164) vs. Pizza Rosso (68122)
WINNER: Pizza Rosso (68122)

August 3
Beef Bulgogi (68127) vs. Omakase (68005)
WINNER: Beef Bulgogi (68127)

August 7
Chicken Tikka Madras (68144) vs. Flaming Saganaki (68105)
WINNER: Chicken Tikka Madras (68144)

August 8
Whiskey Steak Sirloin (68124) vs. Croque Garcon Burger (68102)
WINNER: Whiskey Steak Sirloin (68124)

August 9
Fried Ice Cream (68069) vs. Country Sunrise (68137)
WINNER: Country Sunrise (68137)

August 10
Prime Rib (51526) vs. Vermicelli Rice Noodle Bowl (68136)
WINNER: Prime Rib (51526)

Elite Eight

August 14
Bolognese Bianco (68132) vs. Oven-Fried Chicken (68111)
WINNER: Bolognese Bianco (68132)

August 15
Pizza Rosso (68122) vs. Beef Bulgogi (68127)
WINNER: Pizza Rosso (68122)

August 16
Chicken Tikka Madras (68144) vs. Whiskey Steak Sirloin (68124)
WINNER: Whiskey Steak Sirloin (68124)

August 17
Prime Rib (51526) vs. Country Sunrise (68137)
WINNER: Prime Rib (51526)

Final Four

August 20
Bolognese Bianco (68132) vs. Pizza Rosso (68122)
WINNER: Pizza Rosso (68122)

August 21
Whiskey Steak Sirloin (68124) vs. Prime Rib (51526)
WINNER: Prime Rib (51526)

2018 Munch Madness Championship

August 24
Prime Rib (51526) vs. Pizza Rosso (68122)
WINNER: Prime Rib (51526)

Choo-Choo-Choosey Sushi

June 25, 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.

A Cathedral for Cooking

June 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Most first-time attendees at Crème de la Crème instructional cooking events enter chef Paula Dreesen’s home as if they are crossing the threshold of a church. Perhaps overly aware of their guest status, they edge in on padded feet and speak in hushed whispers, the kind usually reserved for the gentle echoes of a house of worship.

“They may enter as strangers,” the gregarious Dreesen says with a broad smile, “but they leave as friends. That’s what good food and good conversation does. It draws people together.” 

But the night I became a parishioner at Crème de la Crème was different. And loud.

It was Dreesen’s 150th event, and all the other cooks-in-waiting were repeat guests, longtime disciples with as many as five previous evenings under the belts of their aprons. The only icebreaking required this time around involved that which was needed for a decidedly less than pious procession of mojitos which ushered in the evening.

Teaching, now so seemingly natural for the outgoing Dreesen, was an evolutionary process paralleling the arc of her life in food.

“My mom started me in the kitchen when I was a little girl,” the chef says, “and I worked in and around the restaurant industry for 35 years. Cooking has always meant so much more to me; so much more than just food.” 

After years of being asked by friends for help or advice in the kitchen, she began informal instructional sessions in her previous home, then launched her Crème de la Crème business plan three years ago in the sprawling 1,000-square-foot kitchen of a new home that was designed specifically for such group culinary gatherings.

“People always ask me why I never opened a restaurant of my own,” the chef says, “but I don’t think I have that in me, the seven-day commitment and endless hours that go into making a restaurant work. What I do have is a husband [Dr. Adrian Dreesen], five kids, and a dog. Crème de la Crème is the perfect fit…the perfect way to find and express my creativity and share it with others in a fun, social environment.”

Several globetrotting themes are available for Crème de la Crème soirees and, taking the farm-to-table philosophy to its logical extreme, Dreesen rotates her menus based on the availability of bounty from her expansive backyard vegetable gardens and fruit orchards perched high on a hill overlooking the Elkhorn River in West Omaha.

Crowd favorites include such Mexican menus as “Casa de Crème” and “A Tale of Two Tacos.” Italian is also popular with her “Pizza Party” and “Cozy Italian” evenings. 

And, in tribute to Dreesen’s culinary idol, Julia Child, there’s even a more highbrow “French Crème Countryside” menu for pilgrims in search of new frontiers.

Dreesen also offers the “Crème Conquest,” a hit with corporate clients that use the experience as a team-building exercise. Groups are split into teams and given a set of selected ingredients, but no recipe. The challenge is to guess the secret recipe from which the ingredients are derived. Even if the food sleuths fail to solve the underlying mystery, they get to battle it out, Iron Chef-style, in devising and preparing a delicious meal to be shared by their co-workers.

But it was the “Grillin’ Cuban Style” menu on tap for the night I attended, where anxious students took turns in preparing pineapple mojitos, mojo-grilled chicken with black beans and crispy sweet plantains, all followed by a decadent tres leches cake.

Although I was present as a journalistic observer—and my culinary prowess is pretty much limited to melting Velveeta—I was also invited to participate.

My assigned task, perhaps mercifully, was to blend the tres leches ingredients into a velvety symphony of num-num-numiness ready for the oven. Based on the baking, cooling, and refrigeration time called for in the recipe, I had accurately surmised that Dreesen had prepared a cake, the one we would later be eating, a day in advance, but I was still resolved to approach my job as if I were engaged in the sacramental rite of turning flour and eggs into manna from heaven. My apron, not to mention my nascent reputation as a capable hand in the kitchen, emerged unscathed. High fives all around.

Dreesen is often asked to take her show into other people’s homes, but now it’s her turn to speak in hushed, reverent tones.

“It’s doing it here that makes it meaningful for me,” she explains. “Cooking right here. Cooking with family helping me. Not just in any kitchen but in my kitchen. It just wouldn’t be the same anywhere else.”


Visit cremedelacremeomaha.com for more information.

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

The Spice Of Guatemala on South 24th Street

May 5, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The proprietor of the city’s only Guatemalan restaurant says things have gone so well at Chiltepes that—barely a year after opening in South Omaha at 4833 S. 24th St.—she is already considering opening a second location in Lincoln.

That’s a lofty goal for a restaurateur new to Nebraska’s dining scene. But make no mistake; Floridalma Herrera is no novice to the food industry. She has been sharpening her business acumen since she was in elementary school.

The mother of five remembers breaking down 100-pound bags of beans and sugar into 1-pound packages as a schoolgirl in her native Guatemala City, where her father ran a grocery business as the country’s decades-long civil war raged around them. Once she finished her primary schooling at about 14 years old, Herrera set up shop in a local market, blending and selling juice by the cup.
Her seed capital? Earnings from a cow her father sold to get the fledgling business on its feet.

“I bought two blenders, a food processor, and cups,” Herrera says, noting that 10 percent of every day’s earnings went to pay her father back.

Within about two years, the consummate entrepreneur had grown the business to require a refrigerator and freezer, and she had six employees churning out juice concoctions made from papayas, strawberries, bananas, and beets.

Still, Herrera wanted more, and her next step would cost her some emotional capital.

Herrera endured six months of silence from her father after he learned his only daughter had suddenly left her native Guatemala to pursue a better life in the United States. She was 17 years old.

“My dad finally asked why,” Herrera says, “and I explained that I wanted to learn English and help the family more. I wanted more for him.”

Since then, Herrera has gotten what she wanted, and then some.

She’s realized her dream of opening her own restaurant. And she also gets to spread the cultural influences from her childhood in Guatemala, making her a sort of local ambassador to a pocket of Central American culture.

Immigrants from Central American countries like Guatemala comprise about 10 percent of Omaha’s Latino population, compared to about 81 percent who claim Mexican heritage, according to a 2015 analysis of U.S. Census data by the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Office of Latino/Latin American Studies.

Though greatly outnumbered by their former neighbors to the north, immigrants from the region are the second-largest group of Latinos living in the city.

As a Guatemalan immigrant immersed in South Omaha’s sea of Latino culture, Herrera only had to look down the South 24th Street corridor to realize a restaurant like Chiltepes has a place in the community.

“On every single corner, there’s Mexican food, but there’s none from [Guatemala],” Herrera says. (Although, Omaha does have a few Central American restaurants serving Salvadoran cuisine.)
Kenia Andrade, Herrera’s 19-year-old daughter who is also on staff at Chiltepes, says her family carefully renovated the space—previously home to a Mexican taqueria—so they, too, could feel at home there.

“We couldn’t see the future in the little space, so we had to remodel everything,” Andrade says.
If financial performance is any indicator, the community has enthusiastically embraced it.
The business plan conservatively projected Chiltepes to pull in about $7,000 a month when it got off the ground in December 2016. It did more than $50,000 in business through its first two months.

Business took off so fast that by the end of the third month, Herrera had to forego hand-cranking the traditional sausage that accompanies Chiltepes’ signature dish, churrasquito chapin.

The charbroiled beef platter served with sides of rice and black beans doesn’t seem to have suffered any from the substitution, however; Herrera says the restaurant sells 60-85 servings of the dish on any given day.

It’s a “dream come true” for Herrera, who came to Omaha in the mid-’90s after spending about five years in Los Angeles. There, she studied for eight months in culinary school before the financial pressure and risk of being an undocumented immigrant forced her to cave on that pursuit.

So Herrera took to working in a hodgepodge of L.A. restaurant kitchens featuring Thai, Indian, American, Italian, and Mexican food. With two children in tow, she eventually left for Nebraska, where better opportunities for her young family beckoned.

Although Herrera detoured into gigs on the lines at packing plants and as a personal chef before running the office for her husband’s construction company for a few years, she held tight to influences from her native culture.

Dishes, such as churrasquito chapin, feature Mayan influences and Guatemalan staples that include avocados and small, thick tortillas made of masa (a traditional corn dough).

“I do this because not many people know our culture,” Herrera says. “You can come in here and eat and…hear the music, see the decorations. I want to know that people understand our culture and experience a different kind of food.”


Visit Chiltepes’ Facebook page for more information at @chiltepesrestaurantomaha.

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