Tag Archives: Mula

Michael Sanchez’s Inspiration

June 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Lowbrow Pop Culture Maven

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If it wasn’t for Bugs Bunny, Ren and Stimpy, or Johnny Bravo, we may never have gotten to know Dan Crane, artist extraordinaire. One of Omaha’s rising contemporary creators, Crane credits his formative years watching Cartoon Network as much as his degree in printmaking from the Kansas City Art Institute for his unique visual perspective.

“That pre-internet, pop culture aesthetic that animators were doing at the time was so particular. It never really left me,” Crane says.

Dan-Crane-1One look at his work and that’s astoundingly clear. A hybrid of commercial and fine art, his pieces range from fartsy to artsy: one of his printed t-shirts displays a butt in mid-squat, while large abstract paintings fill his studio with inviting neon-hues.

Equal parts kid-at-heart and all-grownup, Crane has built an impressive professional portfolio. He has lent his eye-popping visual perspective to the Omaha Creative Institute, and Scout Dry Goods & Trade, and has helped to establish B&G Tasty Foods’ creative brand.

“We try hard to have interesting and unique signage at B&G, and Dan has really helped with that immensely,” says Eddie Morin, restaurant owner. “The most important work he has done for us is designing our new mascots, Louis Meat and Louise Frenchee. We’re using those guys all over the place now.”

Crane recently completed a gig for Mula where he had been commissioned to design, and print t-shirts. The finished shirts feature a monster holding a basketball and a taco with peace signs for eyes. The characters might seem unnatural for a Mexican kitchen and tequileria, but they are representative of Crane’s kooky and bold signature style.

Dan-Crane-2When Crane’s not cooking up art for local eateries, he spends time at the Union for Contemporary Art. As a previous fellowship recipient, he has a small temporary studio at the Union. During his fellowship, which lasted from November 2015 through April 2016, he helped North Omaha school kids transfer their small drawings onto much larger pieces of plywood. The finished products were installed in Habitat for Humanity yards as pop-up public art.

“The Union is all about spreading positive social change through art,” Crane says. “Can I just say that I am so f***ing grateful for them?”

Yes, Crane’s language is commonly peppered with swear words. He’s also got a penchant for Atlanta trap music and once lived in an 1,800-square-foot Blackstone District storefront that was notorious for all-night raves. Nothing Crane does is by the book. And he’s just fine with that.

“The whole art with a capital ‘A’ thing really bugs me,” Crane says. “I’m not motivated to do something unless it’s super-approachable and can be related to on a real level.”

Crane often slips into episodes of nostalgia. Whether he is recalling childhood summers spent copying doodles inside libraries or the two weeks he served pad thai from a truck at Coachella (so he could quit the food industry and focus on art), he’s all about the journey. Not the destination.

“I still feel like I’m in my infancy stage as an artist,” Crane says. “I’m loving what I’m doing now and taking it one day, one project at a time.”

Visit therealweekendo.tumblr.com for more information. Omaha Magazine

Blackstone

September 4, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in the Sept./Oct. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine.

Brandeis-Millard House owner Mark Maser moved to the Blackstone neighborhood more than 25 years ago, drawn to its “old houses and quiet streets.” Recent growth dotting the area’s periphery—and now in its very heart—has made the Blackstone neighborhood a destination hot spot and a hip new (in the “old is new again” way) place to live and work.

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“Nationally, there is a movement towards moving back to the urban areas of cities,” says Rhonda Stuberg, Blackstone Neighborhood Association president and member of the Blackstone District board. “A new generation has arrived who seems to think that old buildings are pretty cool and likes living where a lot is going on in a smaller area.”

Indeed.  Blackstone, which encompasses Leavenworth to Dodge streets and 36th  Street to Saddle Creek Road, may be small in terms of square miles, but it teems with activity and attractions. Consider these highlights: a former historic hotel credited with creating the rueben, the headquarters to one of Omaha’s Fortune 500 companies, a craft beer lover’s dream strip, several stately mansions renovated for both private use and public events, a nationally-ranked hospital, and an old-time business strip newly resuscitated by a handful of young entrepreneurs.  This is a mere surface scratch.

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Stuberg and her husband moved to the neighborhood in 2007 when they discovered Creighton University put an historic home in its possession up for sale. Fans of old neighborhoods (“neither of us has ever lived west of 72nd Street”), the Stubergs decided to buy and restore the home.

“When we moved in, we had no idea that Midtown Crossing was being built or that the Blackstone District would resurge like it has,” Stuberg confesses.

Resurged it has.

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Maser attributes the new growth, in part, to the Nebraska Medical Center’s investment in the area and the Midtown Crossing development, both of which created an exciting ripple effect of restoration. GreenSlate Development is at the forefront. Partners Jay Lund and Matt Dwyer steered the reinvention of the west Farnam corridor at the corner of 40th and Farnam streets. A mix of retail, service, and dining businesses, not one chain store lies in the mix. “It is all about locally owned and operated businesses, most of which are completely original concepts,” states Lund. “These business owners decided to take a chance on our [GreenSlate’s] vision, and the result has been an organic resurgence of this neighborhood that has exceeded all my expectations.”

Grab a New York-style slice at Noli’s Pizza for lunch, then pop next door for a quick trim at The Surly Chap Barbers. Or try a tequila and taco at Mula. Settle into one of the seats at Archetype Coffee with your laptop and a cup of joe. Want to relax with a pint of beer or glass of wine post-work? Consider Scriptown Brewing or the Corkscrew’s newest location along Farnam.

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The corner of 40th and Farnam has historically been a hub of commerce. Lund feels its latest reinvention is just another life cycle in a strip that once housed such long-time notable businesses as the Admiral Theater and Kaufmann’s Pastry Shoppe.

Kleveland Clothing shop owner Katie McLeay Cleveland says her mom remembers popping into Kaufmann’s when she was a child. Now the daughter is the next generation of shop owners along Farnam. Kleveland Clothing carries a mix of eclectic, affordable, new and vintage clothing and accessories. Local artists create much of the jewelry available.

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The boutique’s unique merchandise fits the non-homogenized Blackstone vibe. “My store needed a specialty location,” says Cleveland. “It’s not a strip mall business. And the developers are invested in the neighborhood to make it work.”

“Development that is in context with the overall neighborhood” is what Lund, also president of the Blackstone Business Improvement District, feels the area needs. That means converting old row houses into updated townhomes or incorporating new construction seamlessly into its environs. It also means attracting young, forward-thinking business owners who have the energy and vision to make something old new again.

Thus far the Blackstone neighborhood has balanced revitalization with regard for the past. As Maser puts it, “The houses are still old and the streets quiet, but now, with more retail shops and restaurants flourishing, we have all the excitement of a modern city within walking distance.  It’s the best of both worlds.”

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