Tag Archives: Omaha

Food For Thought

June 23, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When it was my father’s turn to “cook,” during my childhood in Omaha, he usually took us to eat pizza or Chinese food. He taught me to use chopsticks during one of these trips. That skill would come in handy when I was living and working in Hong Kong.

More useful than the ability to eat with chopsticks, however, was the spirit of adventure with which he approached food. Any special occasion was an excuse for the family to try a new restaurant in town.

I feel grateful to have inherited my father’s enthusiasm for eating. Although, as my metabolism seems to slow inversely with my zeal for sampling food and drink, some might see this as a character flaw. Never mind.

Whether you are a foodie, a picky eater, or just a plain ol’ glutton, there are lots of tasty tidbits to sample in the July/August issue of Omaha Magazine.

The entire issue is dedicated to food. From our regular departments and profiles to our long-form features, all of our articles include some angle on food.

There’s an in-depth exploration* of recent, new, and upcoming restaurants titled “Where to Eat Now.” There’s a personal narrative* about the international reach of Omaha’s beef industry, written by an award-winning journalist who lives and works in Egypt. There’s a local hip-hop duo who rap about having lunch with the Oracle of Omaha.

Whatever your appetite, there’s something for you.

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Our journalistic work would not be possible without your support. Subscriptions to Omaha Magazine allow us to deliver award-winning journalism to your doorstep every two months.

In fact, Omaha Magazine recently racked up several notable recognitions at the 2017 Great Plains Journalism Awards in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The magazine received 12 honors—including four first-place finishes—for work produced in 2016.

Bill Sitzmann pretty much swept the magazine photo categories, and he brought home the “Magazine Photographer of the Year” trophy. Congrats to Bill and all the other amazing staff/contributors who were recognized, and thanks to the subscribers (and advertisers) for making this possible.

Winners and Finalists at the 2016 Great Plains Journalism Awards

Magazine Photographer of the Year

Bill Sitzmann

Best Magazine Portrait

First-Place Winner: Bill Sitzmann

Finalist: Bill Sitzmann

Best Magazine Feature Photo

First-Place Winner: Bill Sitzmann

Finalist: Bill Sitzmann

Best Magazine News Writing

First-Place Winner: Greg Jerrett, Sam S. (anonymous), and Doug Meigs (for “Dying for Opiates in Omaha: What does the national crisis of opioid and heroin abuse look like in Omaha, Nebraska?” and “My Battle With Opiates,” a two-part in-depth look at opioid abuse in Omaha.)

Finalist: Doug Meigs (for “Gone Girls: Human Trafficking in the Heartland,” a former prostitute’s narrative story woven into examination of current efforts to combat sex trafficking in the 2016 March/April issue).

Best Magazine Specialty Photo

Finalist (x2): Bill Sitzmann

Best Magazine Cover

Finalist: Matt Wieczorek, Kristen Hoffman, Bill Sitzmann (for the September/October cover of Omaha Magazine. The two-part cover featured English text translated into the Omaha language).

Best Multimedia Project or Series

Finalist: Christopher Marshall, Charles Trimble, Marisa M. Cummings, James Vnuk, and Doug Meigs (for “Omaha Language Revitalization,” a multi-part series in the 2016 September/October print edition, which paired with online translated video of elders speaking Umoⁿhoⁿ and an online-exclusive essay by Omaha-resident Charles Trimble on indigenous language revitalization from his Lakota vantage).

Magazine Column Writing

Finalist: Douglas Wesselman (Otis Twelve), “Not Funny”

Doug Meigs is the executive editor of Omaha Publications.

 

Long Live the Reuben

June 22, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Like a typical Midwestern child, Christian Mackevicius grew up outdoors. He was a daredevil with the skateboard, a leader in sports like football, and a patient angler and golfer.

However, his childhood was different in one aspect. Some of his earliest memories come from his time helping in a bakery.

Christian, 21, is one of many in the Mackevicius family who has worked in the Lithuanian Bakery in South Omaha or the deli located in central Omaha, the Lithuanian Bakery & Kafe.

His grandparents, Stefanija and Vytautas, started the original Lithuanian Bakery in 1962.

After they immigrated and settled in South Omaha, neighbors and friends began asking to buy loaves of bread from Stefanija. She was soon selling 20 loaves a week. Lauri Mackevicius, Christian’s mother, says: “Someone turned her into the health department. ‘That’s against the law,’ they said. You needed to have a permit. That’s when the bakery actually started.” 

The family refers to the original South Omaha location as the “factory,” where bread and pastries are made. The cafe is the place to go for sandwiches and lunch (at 74th and Pacific streets).

“My earliest memories were just coming to work sometimes,” Christian says. He would tag along with his mother, Lauri, to her first downtown bakery; however, that location didn’t last long, only a few years. “I remember going there as soon as she was starting it; I was only 3 or 4,” he recalls.

As he got a little taller, a little stronger, he was tasked with taking out trash or helping out whenever he was in the bakery. By about age 15, he was officially an employee at his mother’s more recent venture, Lithuanian Bakery & Kafe. Christian’s father, Alfonsas Mackevicius, took over the factory with his two brothers.

The wiry young man can be found at the cafe these days, with a friendly smile behind the counter. His slender build belies years growing up with the family’s famous Napoleon tortes being served at every special occasion. “I started eating a lot of torte when I was little. I loved it! As soon as it started being a part of every occasion,” Christian pauses and then smiles, “I don’t eat that much of it, actually.”

Christian started working in the kitchen, learning to make the perfect sandwich and how to properly prepare his mother’s egg salad recipe. It was satisfying to hear the customers’ approval. “I just liked seeing people smile when they got the food,” he says.

The most popular sandwich he serves up is the Reuben, which many consider to be a Lithuanian sandwich. The Reuben is believed to be an Omaha original, created by local Lithuanian-born grocer Reuben Kulakofsky, who introduced the sandwich to regular poker games and eventually the menu at the old Blackstone Hotel.

Christian proudly explains the key to his Reuben is the Lithuanian sourdough rye bread, made at the family’s factory. The Mackevicius family keeps the sourdough culture in wooden containers, a grandfathered practice no longer allowed in bakeries.

He still works in the kitchen, if he’s working in the mornings. There are salads and soups to prep, meat to cut up. When his dad delivers pastries from the factory at 8 a.m., Christian begins readying for the first customers.

His sweet spot at work, though, is in the front of house. He’s a natural when it comes to making the customer happy. He casually chats with regulars; many have been coming to the bakery for years.

Alfonsas Mackevicius has watched his son settle into his own pace at the cafe. He recognizes his son’s laid-back yet outgoing personality helps him connect with customers. “He’s really personable with customers,” Alfonsas says. “He pays attention to their needs.”

Christian juggles work with school. He’s a junior studying for a business degree at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. During the school week, he’ll head to the cafe once his classes are done for the day, arriving in time for the lunch rush. It’s a tough balance, but not due to his job.

“Since I’ve been working here so long, I don’t look at it like a job,” he says. “It’s like clockwork. It doesn’t put that much stress on me.”

After a long day of class and clearing tables, Christian usually can be found fishing at the lake near his parents’ house. It’s almost a daily ritual. “He grew up on water his whole life. It’s just a natural thing to do,” Alfonsas says. “I taught him the basics, and he took off learning stuff on his own.”

Christian may continue working at the family business after he graduates. But he hasn’t decided. Taking over his mom’s deli is an option for the future. He’s the third generation working at the Lithuanian Bakery, but only one of his cousins has taken that path as a career. Most others, including Christian’s brother and sister, punched some time on the clock at the bakery in their youth but have moved on.

“All of our kids have worked in the bakery at one time or another,” Alfonsas says of his and his siblings’ children. He says his daughter, who’s now a nurse, still helps out sometimes when his wife needs it.

Lauri says Omaha’s Lithuanian community was once anchored in South Omaha. Now, the original immigrants’ descendants have moved across the metro area. St. Anthony’s Church used to offer services in Lithuanian when Christian’s grandparents lived in the area. But the pastor, and much of his Lithuanian-speaking population, has passed away.

“There’s still a good sized Lithuanian community. We have a dance group, a women’s club, and a men’s club,” Lauri says. “But in terms of how it used to be, it’s a lot smaller.”

Christian is the youngest of his generational cohort and doesn’t seem concerned about a declining Lithuanian community in Omaha. His oldest cousin is now a parent. “There’s a whole other group coming up in the business,” he says.

Visit lithuanianbakery.biz for more information.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Eat ’Em If Ya Got ’Em

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

To quote Monsanto’s 1970s propaganda: “Without chemicals, life itself is impossible.” The multinational agrochemical/biotech corporation is ostensibly in the business of helping farmers grow food. So, let’s just say, “Without food, human existence goes kaput.”

Okay, we need water, too. Oh, and oxygen. We gotta breathe, right? Food, water, and oxygen are three legs supporting the stool of life for us hunter-gatherers. Yes, we are hunter-gatherers. Although we do sport better clothes and haircuts thanks to the domestication of sheep and the invention of scissors, don’t let it fool you. In the geological sense, mankind has barely stepped from the Paleolithic Age.

You see, in the old days, we humans clumped together in small bands and clans as we wandered from one unmapped rock to another uncharted ravine. Oxygen was plentiful since most of the super-volcano eruptions were distant memories, and thanks to a few hundred-thousand comet strikes, the planet was positively soaked in water. We’d be on the move all day, always on the lookout for a bite to eat. Turn over a mossy rock and, by golly, some tasty bugs were revealed. Perhaps a bit tart, but with a satisfying crunch, they were proto-chips with dip included.

Pull up this scraggly plant and we are rewarded with a high-fiber edible root. Munch on this glistening leaf, add an odd berry and bean, and we’re good to go. Some scaly lizard sunning on a ledge might offer a good target for a well-thrown stone, and meat is on the menu. A scraggly prehistoric chicken could be snared and consumed. “Tastes like snake,” said Ug.

Nowadays, we hunter-gatherers have automobiles, so we can range farther than before, but nothing has fundamentally changed. We breathe—the air occasionally laced with hints of Febreze. We drink water—mostly now from plastic bottles—easier to carry than a tanned animal bladder but harder on our whale friends in the ocean. We eat.

We are no longer wandering blindly. Google Maps can guide us from the now-precise coordinates of the old rock visited by our furry ancestors to that ancient ravine, converted to a food court. Instead of turning over an old rock, we ask our electronic clan-mate Siri, “Where’s the nearest restaurant?” and a long list of eateries scrolls out on the screen.

Some of these locations even have salad bars, so we’re back to foraging leaves (this time from behind a sneeze-guard). More than a few places serve bugs. Well, OK, they serve shrimp. Did you ever look at a shrimp? It’s an underwater bug. There’s no denying it. If you spotted a few shrimp crawling around in your garage you’d call Terminix right away. Me, I’d be thinking, “Where’s the garlic?”

Yes, we modern hunter-gatherers now have a global reach. Thanks to technology, trade, and transportation, my clan and I have eaten bugs (shrimp) from Thailand, roots (carrots) from Canada, leaves (lettuce) from Mexico, and beans (chocolate) from Africa. We’re still on the same daily trek from waterhole to waterhole, only now we read Yelp reviews online. We watch Anthony Bourdain downing a bowl of soba on Okinawa. We are so connected to virtual experience that we are disconnected from real experience.

Here in America, we are in the Land of Plenty. Food is taken for granted by most. We have lost something in the bargain. We no longer experience the simple pleasure of putting something strange in our mouths, chewing, and hoping against hope that it doesn’t kill us. Food has lost a bit of its old sense of adventure.

It’s lonely at the top of the food chain.

This column was printed in the July/August 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Otis XII hosts the radio program, Early Morning Classics with Otis XII, on 90.7 KVNO, weekday mornings from 5 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. Visit kvno.org for more information.

Baseball and Soul Food

Photography by Sarah Lemke

When baseball still ruled as the national pastime, Omaha showcased the game’s still prevalent but loosening black-white divide. In 1947, the year Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, the barnstorming Omaha Rockets began to play. In an era when entire leagues and teams were drawn along racial lines, the all-black Rockets faced both segregated and integrated foes. A few Rockets went on to make history or gain fame. Most faded into obscurity.

Although the Rockets were not formally in the Negro National League, an association of teams made famous by Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil, the Rockets were an independent semi-pro farm club of the league’s famous Kansas City Monarchs.

The Omaha team even trained with the Monarchs. Three former K.C. players— Horatius Saunders, Mack Massingale, and James “Cool Papa” Bell—variously managed the club.

Donald Curry pays homage to this black baseball history at his Omaha Rockets Kanteen. The soul food eatery inside the Lake Point Building (at 24th and Lake streets) is packed with memorabilia relating to black ballplayers and teams. Dedicated menu items include Octavius Cato’s Jerked Turkey Taco, the Willie Mays Soul Wrap, and Birmingham Black Baron Sweet Potato Pie.

Curry’s Southern Pitch soul food truck features the same concept.

The Omaha native operated similar-themed food businesses in Chicago, where he befriended ex-Negro Leaguers. One, Alvin Spearman, informed him of the Rockets. Curry knew Omaha was a stomping ground for the Monarchs. Learning that the city fielded a black team, which enjoyed close currency with the Monarchs, sweetened the pot and provided his current establishment’s name.

Curry says he’s created “a living memorial” to black owners, managers, and players in admiration of “their fortitude” pursuing professional baseball careers despite lacking the talent or opportunity to play higher-level organized ball. He likes the lessons imparted.

“They didn’t cry or complain about the situation,” he says. “Everyone goes through things, and everyone is denied certain things in life. But if you keep your head up and push forward, you can overcome those obstacles and succeed in what you set your mind to. They created their own leagues and styles of ball. Some of them became pretty well-off for that time.”

The vast majority of black ballplayers, just like their white counterparts, never played for a paycheck, but for love of the game. Whether competing for semi-pro, town or company baseball teams, or fast-pitch softball teams, they lived out their diamond dreams. 

Curry hopes to add Rockets’ materials to “the treasure trove” of signed photographs and other lore displayed at Kanteen. He may name some dishes after Rockets. Curry’s collection includes personal scrapbooks of Pittsburgh Crawfords legend Jimmie Crutchfield.

The team’s owner, Will Calhoun, launched the Rockets after he got the “baseball bug.” He rented out flats at 25th and Lake, which he generously called a hotel. Touring black athletes, denied by other establishments, stayed there. The Tyler, Texas, native and World War II veteran got into the game just as minor and major league strictures lifted and the Negro Leagues declined. Calhoun pressed on anyway, boasting, “I’ve got a little money. I know why so many of these teams failed. They tried to get by on a shoestring and didn’t have anything to offer the public.” He promised to “add a little more show to my Rockets.”

The Omaha World-Herald termed the Rockets his “noble experiment.”

The team made Legion Field in Council Bluffs its home park and barnstormed across Nebraska and into Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, and Colorado via its own bus. The club even went into Canada and the Pacific Northwest. Its opponents included town teams and other touring teams, such as House of David.

At least one Rocket, Kenny Morris, claimed local ties. The former standout Boys Town athlete played outfield and third base for the Rockets. Mickey Stubblefield, William McCrary, and Eugene Collins all spent time with the Rockets between moves up and down organized baseball. Stubblefield, a journeyman pitcher, became the first black in the Kitty League and among the first blacks in the Nebraska Independent League. He ended his career in McCook, Nebraska, where he raised a family of 10. He later moved to Atlanta, Georgia. In 2011 he returned as Grand Marshal of McCook’s “Heritage Days” festivities.

Dick “Night Train” Lane was a multi-sport star in his native Austin, Texas. He then moved north to live with his mother in Council Bluffs, where a baseball scout signed him to play for the Rockets. He played one year of football at Scottsbluff Junior College in Nebraska. After entering the U.S. Army and excelling on military teams, he signed with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and went on to a Hall of Fame career.

Teams like the Rockets faded as baseball popularity waned and televised sports cut into attendance. Ever the promoter, Calhoun paired his Rockets with the Minneapolis Clowns in 1950 to try and boost crowds.

The Rockets soon disbanded but Curry celebrates them within larger black athletics history. His Kanteen is now home to Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame displays.

His food, culled from family recipes, celebrates African-American cuisine—collard greens, cornbread dressing, red beans and rice, mac and cheese, candied yams—only prepared healthier. Smoked turkey, for example, replaces ham hocks. Olive oil replaces butter.

Curry takes seriously the Kanteen creed: “Enjoy the food, digest the history.”

“We might as well be a museum serving food,” he says.

Visit omaharocketskanteen.com for more information.

This article appears in the July/August issue of Omaha Magazine.

From Famine to the Good Life

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Aisha Al Ramadan first noticed the subtle shift of the checkpoint guard’s face. She knew whatever happened next would change the lives of her family—possibly forever.

“What? You don’t want to be Syrian?” The guard shouted.

Shaken, scared, and silent, Aisha stared at the broken ID in the guard’s rough hand.

“If that was my intention, why would I drive through a checkpoint?” her husband Hamed asked. “That’d be stupid.”

The guard pulled the family from the car. Hamed explained his ID shattered when he put it in the pocket of his pants. Ignoring him, two of the guards pointed machine guns at them while another inspected and searched the car.

Aisha worried they’d take him, her husband, like so many of her missing loved ones and friends.

The Assad regime never needed a reason, she says. Blindfolded with hands tied behind their backs, people often disappeared at checkpoints, never to be seen again. Just like her brothers and uncles.

“I don’t know if they are alive or dead,” she says, sobbing. “The ones who are gone, are gone.”

Disappearances, usually fighting-age men, became common after the Syrian uprising in 2011. It spreads panic and hopelessness among the opposition. Roughly 85,000 people have been held, tortured, or possibly killed by the regime or ISIS according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

In her mind, Aisha was down on her knees, begging and hoping her husband wouldn’t be next.

Although still early in the war, Aisha lived in constant fear. Each explosion crushed the city she loved, stone by stone. The fighting intensified. The flickering and booming at night drew closer to her village where her family lived, outside the city of Homs. Food became scarce. Flour to bake bread became a luxury.

No gas. No electricity. No water.

The family collected wood to cook on a homemade fire pit. When wood wasn’t readily available, old clothes and shoes burned instead to keep them all warm and fed. The family watched the flames eat the city at night as they gathered together around the pit for a meal of bulgur, the only available grain.

“We’d tease ourselves. If we get hit, we will die all together at least,” Aisha says.

Even these constant threats were not enough to drive the family away.

But at the checkpoint—on the road for the festive occasion of her daughter’s marriage—the horror of seeing machine guns pointed at her children was too much. It was “the end of it,” Aisha says.

“Oh, leave the old man alone. Show mercy,” one guard said. Hamed appeared 20 years older than his age of 46, a lucky occurrence on this fateful trip. The guard ordered Hamed to get a new ID and sent them on their way.

“Pack everything and go,” Hamed said when they returned home. Aisha left behind her friends, family, and the life she had known for 33 years. The United Nations reported more than 5 million have fled their Syrian homeland, and the Al Ramadan family was no exception.

“They are homesick for a year or two years. Most move out of necessity,” says translator* Afra Albassam, a student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

The Al Ramadans moved to Jordan in November 2011, but the hardships continued. Simple freedoms, unfair discrimination, and abuse of workers made life difficult for the migrant family. The decision to move to America was never an easy one, but during June 2016, the family arrived in Omaha.

Nebraska is known as a welcoming state for those fleeing war-torn countries, taking in a reported 1,441 refugees between October 2015 and September 2016 according to Pew Research from the United States Department’s Refugee Processing Center.

Scott Larsen, formerly with Lutheran Family Services and the Refugee Empowerment Center, noticed the Al Ramadan apartment was not up to standards. He, along with girlfriend Paige Reitz, invited the family to stay temporarily in the basement of their house until something more suitable became available.

Since it was during Ramadan, Aisha made amazing family meals and included Larsen and Reitz. They would all sit on pillows, drinking lots and lots of coffee and eating. Communication via Google Translate consisted of iPhones passed back and forth.

Aisha, a mother of seven children, finds pleasure in cooking.

“But what I really enjoy is making meals I really like to eat,” she says, laughing.

Aisha’s hope is to open a restaurant called the Syrian Dish someday, so she could share her culture’s food with others. Reitz started a dinner series called Second Story to turn her dreams into a reality.

Although the family stayed with Larsen and Reitz for only 10 days, all of them feel like family now. The kids leap into Reitz’s lap and hugs are swapped.

Second Story welcomes guests to sample Aisha’s specialties for $25. All proceeds not only help Aisha, but also her sisters who still live in Syria. The men in the family have been captured or killed, so the women struggle with no support.

Aisha, dressed in a blue flowery hijab, is thoughtful about the upcoming meal. She is making maqluba, a moist and sweet chicken. Eggplant, tomato, rice, spices, chicken stock, and chicken are placed on the bottom of a huge pot. After cooking, it is flipped using a plate on top. Maqluba means “upside down” and appears as one large mold, almost looking like a cake, with the rice on bottom and chicken on top. She plans to pair that with a Middle Eastern potato pie. The real star is her baklava.

“It’s the best ever. It is so good,” Albassam says.

She explains it is sweet, but not too sweet. Aisha’s secret is lots of butter, pistachios, cinnamon, and rose water.

While guests enjoy one of Aisha’s dinners for Second Story in late April, each learns about culture and connections. Reitz says initiatives like these and others around Omaha are how barriers get broken.

It wasn’t always easy when the Al Ramadans first came to Omaha. Roukaya, 11, felt isolated at school. The other students feared she was a terrorist. The teacher noticed and brought in the ESL teacher who explained the culture, even playing the song “Rock my Hijab.” Roukaya cried when she talked about her experience, so the other students wrote her letters.

“I’m sorry I was scared of you. I’m sorry about your country,” one wrote.

“I now hang out with everyone,” Roukaya explains. Unlike the adults, the children all speak fluent English now.

Roukaya has aspirations to be a doctor someday to help others, something that would have been unattainable back home since it is hard for the poor to send their kids to school.

Aisha still hears horrifying stories from neighbors and family back home, as conditions rapidly deteriorate in Syria. Cooking here is something Aisha can do to make life better.

“A lot of people don’t realize the simple things matter the most,” Reitz says.

A cup of spicy Turkish coffee and a delicious meal may not seem like much, but the pot stirs together a community.

*Interview translated by Afra Albassam.

Visit secondstoryomaha.com for more information.

This article appears in the July/August edition of Omaha Magazine.

Tim Nicholson

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The career of Boiler Room executive chef Tim Nicholson took off like a Drake song: “Started from the bottom, now we’re here.”

It was 2008, and Nicholson had just graduated from Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for Culinary Arts. His first cooking job was frying fish at the now-defunct Joey’s Seafood & Grill.

“That was my first kitchen job, working for my first real chef,” Nicholson says. “It was my foot in the door and made me aware of the whole industry.”

When Nicholson was younger and contemplating career paths, he couldn’t imagine working in a kitchen. “I never thought [my interest in cooking] would turn into anything—I took a cooking class in high school, sick of math, and ended up really enjoying it,” he says. “I was book smart, but I was drawn to working with my hands.”

Subsequent jobs in hotel and casino kitchens (first at 360 Steakhouse at Harrah’s in Council Bluffs before transferring to Jack Binion’s at Horseshoe) allowed Nicholson to master French cuisine, cooking his way up the hierarchical “brigade de cuisine,” before joining the Boiler Room as sous chef in 2010.

Working closely with the restaurant’s founding chef Paul Kulik, Nicholson thrived. Kulik promoted him to “chef de cuisine” in 2013, and Nicholson earned the “executive chef” title in early 2017.

He strives for what he calls the “perfectly imperfect” in his dishes, a perfect fit for the Boiler Room’s aesthetic. The restaurant consists of a multi-tiered bar and dining area, where high-brow elegance juxtaposes against unrefined details (intentionally) retained during renovations of the 120-year-old Bemis Omaha Bag Building’s former industrial space.

While conceiving The Boiler Room’s Old World, classy menu offerings, Nicholson has worked to regionally ground his take on French cuisine. Ingredients are sourced locally as much as possible.

“It’s kind of awesome,” he says, referring to his communication with local farmers. “We’ll text back and forth about orders all day, and they’ll even come in and try out my dishes. They care about their products, and they care what we’re doing with them.”

This kind of rapport isn’t limited to his sources—he enjoys being able to watch diners from his open kitchen, and frequently goes out of his way to specialize dishes for them, or recreate older meals for return visitors.

“It’s been incredible seeing Omaha’s palate grow over the years,” he says. “I love seeing that look on a diner’s face of ‘where has this been all my life?’”

Because of this, Nicholson believes the Boiler Room has created something wonderful: “There’s nowhere else I’d rather work,” he says. “Every day at 4:45 we have a ‘family’ dinner, to relax and go over whatever we need to keep in mind for the night. When we bring on new chefs, we try to work with their own styles to fold them in with us, instead of pushing against them. I’m really fortunate to have a great staff.”

In 2017, Nicholson was recognized as a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year, a national contest for chefs under 30 and one of the most prestigious awards for American food professionals.

Thinking about the honor triggers an episode of reminiscing, taking Nicholson back to his early days with the Boiler Room: “I remember when I first started here, we were actually invited up to New York City to serve at the James Beard House. I was just a kid still, and I was set loose to track down our ingredients, which we had overnighted to a kitchen I’d never been to. Later, the dinner itself almost turned into a disaster.”

Now, he and the restaurant have come full circle—but he hasn’t let his success go to his head. “I’m glad for the nomination bringing attention to Omaha. We owe a lot to Sam and Vera Mercer, our first patrons. I’m a humble person, so this all seems a little surreal. Every day, I’m still learning, pushing myself and the restaurant forward.”

Visit boilerroomomaha.com for more information.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

A Tale of Two Tacos

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of America, it was the age of Mexico. It was the epoch of fast food, it was the epoch of eating local. It was the season of Taco Bell, it was the season of Dos de Oros Taco Truck. It was “A Tale of Two Tacos,” it was a story of my heritage in food.

Growing up, I was not very aware of ethnic identity. My paternal grandfather migrated to the United States from Mexico—and my mother is half-Mexican—but I was raised two generations removed in South Omaha without much exposure to my cultural roots.

Ignorant of Mexican cuisine, all I knew was American food culture until my pre-teen years. I had no idea that Taco Bell was not “authentic.” A fateful meal at a food truck in South Omaha offered my first taste of real Mexican food. The experience not only opened my taste buds, it broadened my cultural awareness.

Everyone knows tacos are an important part of Mexican cuisine. But their origins remain shrouded in mystery. Professor Jeffrey M. Pilcher of  the University of Minnesota has written extensively on the subject.

Pilcher theorized that tacos gained prominence in the 18th century as a convenient meal for workers in the silver mines of Mexico. His book, Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, explores the taco as a crucible for the legacy of Spanish imperialism, Native identity in food (with corn), and the emergence of post-colonial politics.

Throughout Mexican history, the taco was food for the working class. Over time, with Mexican immigration, working-class migrants brought tacos north of the border. In the United States, they added ingredients, such as cheddar cheese and lettuce. Tex-Mex was born.

Eventually, a man named Glen Bell—who would go on to establish Taco Bell—pre-fried a tortilla in a U-shape shell. Then came the talking chihuahua, the 24-hour drive through, the “Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos,” and the rest.

My grandfather, Jesus Hernandez, was raised on authentic Mexican food. He knows nothing of Taco Bell. I can’t help but find it humorous, considering the importance Taco Bell had in my early understanding of “Mexican” food.

 

 

Grandpa was born in Mexico and grew up as a goat herder. He came to America over the Rio Grande on a tractor tire, hauled by Coyotes (not the animal, the human traffickers). My father was born in America, but he still grew up in Mexican culture because both of my grandparents were very much attached to their roots. Finally, I came along. But we never spoke Spanish around the house, and the closest thing I had to authentic Mexican food was Taco Bell.

I was about 11 years old when I tasted my first “real” taco. When my father picked me up from school—he wasn’t much for cooking—he decided to take me to some place I had never been before. We drove to the Dos de Oros in South Omaha. The name translates to “two [pieces] of gold.”

The truck was unassuming, a generic white van with a menu displayed on the exterior. I had my doubts, as I had never before eaten anything from the parking lot of an automotive parts store.

My father assured me that it would be OK. He explained it was a taco truck. Then, he asked me how many tacos I wanted. My initial reaction was bewilderment: “Tacos not from Taco Bell? This is absurd!” I thought.

So, my father just went ahead and ordered three “tacos de carne asada.” After roughly 10 minutes, I received a Styrofoam takeout box. A tasty scent emitted from within. Still not expecting much, I opened the box, only to be thoroughly surprised to see pieces of steak in the tacos.

I had thought tacos only included ground beef. After one bite, I realized the error of my ways. The taco truck’s fare was by far superior to Taco Bell (with a similar wait time for the food). The cilantro, onion, and other herbs were freshly cut; the corn tortilla was soft and warm; and the steak was real—grilled and juicy—not lukewarm meat granules squirted into edible envelopes, which I was accustomed to enjoying.

Comparing tacos from fast-food chains to local food trucks offered an insight into cultural context. In much of Mexico, historically, people had no choice but to use the fresh ingredients around them. The result was a much better quality end product. From impoverished circumstances, food becomes infinitely more valuable. In America, we are always rushed as we strive for greater efficiency. As a result, we don’t always care about what goes in our foods; we only worry if it tastes “good” (or good enough). Taco Bell fits our needs despite lacking in authenticity or true deliciousness that I found at Dos de Oros.

Dos de Oros Food Truck
3310 S. 24th St.

Food: 4 out of 5 stars
Service: 3 out of 5 stars
Ambiance: 1 out of 5 stars
Price: $
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Stacie Tovar

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

CrossFit is an intense exercise regimen utilizing functional movements and varying workouts (called “workout of the day” or “WODs”). Those who have never participated in CrossFit may regard the workouts with a sense of dreaded apprehension, particularly if they have ever happened to catch a few minutes of the annual CrossFit Games on television. Elite athletes scurry from one fitness objective to another, seemingly unfazed by the punishing tasks.

“Don’t be intimidated at all,” advises Stacie Tovar, seven-time CrossFit Games competitor and owner of CrossFit Omaha. “CrossFit isn’t just what you see on TV. Those games are like the NFL of football—only the smallest percentage make it onto TV.”

Tovar says a wide range of people with varying fitness levels attend her workouts at CrossFit Omaha. Her youngest is 12, and her oldest participants are in their 60s. “Everyone’s goals are different, so it’s individualized. Not everyone’s going to have the same workout,” she says.

When someone new comes to her for help, she typically asks about two things: nutrition and sleeping habits. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, if someone’s having problems with fitness, it’s these two things combined,” Tovar says.

Fit people don’t get fit just by working out, she explains. There is so much more to it than that. She credits nutrition for her success as an athlete. “One hundred percent!” she says, adding that the food people eat can predict “how their body recovers, responds, and reacts.”

It was in 2010 that Tovar started paying better attention to what she ate. “I knew I could be better,” she says. Her results were swift. “I felt a tremendous difference after about eight weeks—I had more energy, I felt good, and my mobility improved.”

Nowadays, she doesn’t eat processed food and hardly ever eats sugar. “When you bring stuff like that back into your diet, you feel gross,” says Tovar, who also avoids alcohol because it can promote inflammation.

She rarely goes out to eat because of her self-imposed nutritional guidelines. “I must be the most annoying order ever,” she laughs. “I probably seem super picky because I ask so many questions about the food preparation, and I have to ask for very specific things.” She wants to know how many ounces her meat will be and how, exactly, it was prepared. When she does decide to indulge in a meal out in Omaha, she usually heads to one of three places: Mahogany Prime Steakhouse, Railcar Modern American Kitchen, or Pitch Pizzeria. They have options at all three places that she likes, and they’ll work around her requests.

She still continues to tweak her diet to match her nutritional needs. “I toy with different things,” she says, adding that she gets her blood drawn every six months to monitor her LDL and HDL cholesterol levels. “It’s like a little science project; I’m constantly testing and trying things.”

Tovar admits that diet changes can be difficult for people. “It’s not easy. I wish I could tell them it’s like the ‘magic pills’ on TV, but it’s not. But there are so many perks—you feel great, you look great, you have more focus at work, and you’re more confident. I wish everyone could get a taste of what it feels like, but you have to want it.”   

“The nutrition aspect of getting fit is harder than working out,” Tovar says, urging beginners to realize they are a “work in progress. Start small; if you drink a bunch of Coke throughout the day, drink one less. Take it one day at a time. You are worth it. You’ll feel better and you’ll live the longest life you can.”

“I’m happy to help anyone,” she adds. “They don’t even have to CrossFit.” The people who do attend CrossFit Omaha quickly realize that Tovar practices what she preaches. If her enviable washboard abs aren’t proof enough of her commitment to a fit lifestyle, then her Memorial Day weekend appearance at the regionals for the CrossFit Games certainly served as proof of her dedication.

She says CrossFit Omaha has an atmosphere of encouragement: “There’s always someone willing to go the distance with you. People aren’t alone.” She includes nutritional challenges right alongside physical challenges because she feels nutrition is such an important aspect of a well-rounded lifestyle.

There is a saying in the fitness community: “Six-pack abs are made in the kitchen.” What people put into their bodies is just as important—if not more so—than the workouts they do. Tovar is proof that a combination of good nutrition, ample physical activity, and adequate recovery is the “magic pill” for a fit and healthy life.

Visit stacietovar.com for more information.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Obviously Omaha

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For many food lovers, there’s nothing like a good steak. A steak with plentiful marbling and a ton of flavor. A steak perfectly cooked with a seared crust and tender, juicy center. While local gourmets and gourmands have embraced an influx of new restaurants, many still crave the city’s long-standing steakhouse tradition. For a timeless dining experience, it’s hard to beat a classic steakhouse dinner at one of these 10 spots (listed in alphabetical order) exclusive to the Omaha metro.

Anthony’s Steakhouse
7220 F St.
402-331-7575
anthonyssteakhouse.com

The family-owned-and-operated business has been satisfying steak lovers since 1967, when the late Anthony “Tony” Fucinaro Sr. opened the restaurant. A giant fiberglass steer hangs out front. Inside, diners savor tender, flavorful cuts of Nebraska beef, which the restaurant expertly dry-ages and hand-cuts. Pasta, seafood, chicken, and pork are also on the menu. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Anthony’s gets better with age.

Brother Sebastian’s Steakhouse & Winery
1350 S. 119th St.
402-330-0300
brothersebastians.com

Opened in 1977, this West Omaha eatery boasts some of the best rib-eye steaks in town, as well as an extensive wine list and classic steakhouse sides. Skip the baked potato and get the mashed spuds—they’re ridiculously good. Adding to the restaurant’s appeal is its monastery theme. Gregorian chant music echoes in the parking lot, and servers wear monk-inspired garb. The dark interior is divided into multiple dining rooms warmed by fireplaces and adorned with casks, bottles, and books.

Cascio’s Steakhouse
1620 S. 10th St.
402-345-8313
casciossteakhouse.com

The sons of Italian immigrants, brothers Al and Joe Cascio opened the steakhouse south of downtown in 1946, and a third generation of family members runs it today. Cascio’s uses certified Angus beef that’s hand-cut and aged. High-quality steaks, scratch-made soups and salad dressings, breadsticks baked on-site, and spaghetti sauce simmered for hours have kept the local landmark filled with faithful diners for decades.

The Drover
2121 S. 73rd St.
402-391-7440
droverrestaurant.com

Generations of steak lovers have walked through the heavy wooden doors of this rustic, cozy central Omaha spot. It opened as a Cork ’N Cleaver in 1969 and became the Drover in the late ’70s. Featuring cowboy/Western decor, the restaurant is known for its whiskey steaks, which are soaked in a secret whiskey-based marinade for 15 minutes. A warm loaf of bread and a trip to the salad bar, complete with chilled metal plates, prime the appetite.

Farmer Brown’s Steak House
2620 River Road Drive
Waterloo, Nebraska
402-779-2353
farmerbrowns.com

Located on Omaha’s outskirts, this popular Waterloo steakhouse has been wooing diners with slow-roasted, tender, and flavorful prime rib since 1964. That’s when Charles and Daphne Stenglein opened the steakhouse, which their sons now run. Customers love the no-frills, homey atmosphere and menu of comfort foods. For several decades, Daphne Stenglein and her identical twin, Dagmar Luenenburg, were fixtures at the restaurant, lending a hand and greeting guests. The sisters were inseparable and died 10 months apart in 2001 and 2002. A second Farmer Brown’s operated in Papillion for a number of years before closing, but the original is still going strong.

Gorat’s
4917 Center St.
402-551-3733
goratsomaha.com

A meat lover’s mecca since 1944, Gorat’s is among Omaha’s old-school Italian steakhouses. Louis N. Gorat Jr., known as “Pal,” the son of founders Louis and Nettie Gorat, sold the business in 2012 to Gene Dunn. The beloved midtown spot—one of Warren Buffett’s favorite local restaurants—continues to attract locals and out-of-towners, including Berkshire Hathaway shareholders who dine here during the company’s annual shareholder weekend in May.

Jerico’s Restaurant
11732 West Dodge Road
402-496-0222
jericosomaha.com

Diners have been sliding into the button-tufted booths and digging the old-school vibe at Jerico’s since 1978. For many Omahans, this is the go-to spot for prime rib. There’s also New York strip, filet mignon, rib-eye, porterhouse, and sirloin. Bacon-wrapped shrimp makes a great starter, and a slice of house-made chocolate, banana, or coconut cream pie is the perfect finish.

Johnny’s Cafe
4702 S. 27th St.
402-731-4774
johnnyscafe.com

An Omaha landmark, a time capsule, and one of the city’s oldest independently owned restaurants, Johnny’s has been operated by the Kawa family since the early 1920s. Guests love the succulent steaks, well-made cocktails, and kitschy décor, such as saddle-shaped bar stools. The longtime dining destination was featured in Alexander Payne’s 2002 filmAbout Schmidt.

Omaha Prime
415 S. 11th St.
402-341-7040
omaha-prime.com

An Old Market fixture since 1995, this upscale spot offers USDA Prime beef, the highest rating. Operated by local restaurateur Mahmood “Mo” Tajvar, Omaha Prime features an extensive wine list, attentive service, and an elegant ambiance. From the second-floor dining room, guests can enjoy their meal while taking in lovely views of the Old Market Passageway below. Seafood, chicken, and lamb are also on the menu, but steaks are the star. The restaurant’s star clientele includes Oracle of Omaha Warren Buffett and retired New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez, who dined here together in 2006.

Pink Poodle
633 Old Lincoln Highway
Crescent, Iowa
712-545-3744
pinkpoodlesteakhouse.com

It takes a bit of a drive to get here—about 20 minutes from downtown Omaha—but diners don’t seem to mind. Steak lovers of all ages have been coming to the Pink Poodle for more than 60 years. The casual, independently owned spot offers unfussy food in a modest setting. The longtime Crescent restaurant is known for its slow-cooked, deeply flavorful prime rib, but there’s also rib-eye, sirloin, seafood, chicken, and numerous side dishes. While waiting for a table, take a few minutes to check out the décor—an eclectic collection of dolls, pianos, knick-knacks, and, of course, pink poodles.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Lunch With Buffett

June 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

With food-inspired songs such as “Charleston’s,” “Medium Rare,” and the album’s title track, the duo displays a penchant for sweet-sounding beats and aspirations to dine with Omaha’s most affluent resident, Warren Buffett.

They speculate that arranging lunch with the local billionaire would be easier than getting airplay on local radio stations.

“We want to be heard,” Big Tate says. “The radio DJ abides by guidelines that [forbid] touching the streets. They are afraid to challenge the norm.”

“Radio is stagnant,” Absolut-P adds. “It isn’t as influential as it once was. If we want to make an impact, we’d be better off putting together a lunch with Warren Buffett and creating a buzz from that.”

Or maybe just make up a song about having lunch with Buffett.

Big Tate

That sort of creative thinking would be the driving force behind Absolut-P (aka Stevin Taylor) and Big Tate (aka James Buckley) collaborating on the album.

The idea came from another friend’s fateful encounter with Buffett at a now-closed Omaha steakhouse known to be one of Buffett’s favorite local restaurants.

“A friend of mine happened to be eating at Piccolo Pete’s when she called to tell me that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates were sitting across from her,” Big Tate recalls. “I told her that I needed her to get a picture of them by any means. I’m always thinking of ways to promote our music with imagery and catchy choruses. I was sure that I could come up with a song for that image.”

Big Tate was familiar with Buffett’s history of auctioning off a “power lunch” for charity. In 2016, an anonymous bidder paid $3,456,789 for the experience, with the money going to benefit the Glide Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless and underprivileged residents.

For months, Big Tate continued to stew over his idea. Later in 2016, he partnered with local producer Absolut-P (the P stands for “Perfection”), and they were able to create an infectious melody.

The song’s music video even featured a faux cameo by Buffett (thanks to a cut-out photograph of the billionaire’s face pasted over one of their friends).

They consider it an homage to the wealthy hometown hero.

“We’re from the north side of Omaha, and you don’t see those types of people on the north side,” Big Tate explains. “Other than Bud Crawford, it’s hard to relate to anyone on such a big stage. It’s good to look up to self-made men.”

Absolut-P

“As independent artists, Warren Buffett’s entrepreneurial spirit gives us a sense of self-pride,” Absolut-P says. “He shows us that by investing in ourselves we can reap big rewards.” 

One such investment involved professional mastering for the album by Rick Carson at Make Believe Studios. Absolut-P and Big Tate hope the song resonates with fans of hip-hop, Omaha, and Buffett alike. They released the album Dec. 31, 2016 (with a parental advisory warning for explicit content).

“The album-making process was so organic,” says Big Tate, explaining that hip-hop works best when pursued in a natural, fun way. “We just made songs about what we like; everyone likes to eat at a nice restaurant and order a good prime rib. That made us think of Charleston’s; they have some of the best steaks in Omaha. I like my steak well-done, but I’ve heard that they are very good medium-rare.”

When asked where they would like to take Buffett for lunch, both agree that Time Out Foods or The Taste’s of Soul Cafe would be a good place to accommodate them.

“I’m sure Warren Buffett is used to eating at the finest establishments,” Absolut-P says. “I’d want to give him a taste of our roots with some good food for the soul.”

Find Big Tate on Twitter at @BigTate402 and Absolut-P at @IAmAbsolutP. Both musicians frequently release new songs on social media. Their respective Soundcloud accounts are soundcloud.com/big-tate and soundcloud.com/absolut-p. Lunch with Buffett is available on iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Spinrilla, Google Play, and YouTube. Copies are sold at Homer’s in downtown Omaha.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

*Editor’s note: The printed edition misspelled Taylor’s first name as Steven.