Tag Archives: restaurant

Midwest Meets Northwest

October 1, 2018 by
Photography by Bil Sitzmann

When Seattle-area transplants Darrell and Laura Auld opened Twisted Cork Bistro in 2008, the cozy restaurant near 107th and Pacific streets accommodated just a couple of dozen guests and was open only at lunch. The owners have since added dinner service and Sunday brunch, made changes to the kitchen staff, and expanded the space. 

What hasn’t changed, however, is Twisted Cork’s commitment to showcasing the bounty of what the Midwest and Pacific Northwest have to offer. The motto on its website states, “Always natural, always wild,” and that’s still a big part of the bistro’s appeal a decade later.

Wild Alaskan sockeye salmon

Open daily, the restaurant focuses on natural, locally sourced food. The menu emphasizes fresh produce from area growers, handmade cheeses, and locally raised meat from Nebraska and Iowa farmers and ranchers. The eatery also embraces ingredients from the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, including fresh seafood and a lengthy list of wines exclusively from Washington and Oregon. 

The paper menu, which folds like a map, boasts several salads, soups, sandwiches, small plates, and larger entrees. Burger fans may want to try Twisted Cork’s beef-and-pork-based burger, which Food Network Magazine listed in its “50 States 50 Burgers” in 2009. 

Pistachio-encrusted Hawaiian ahi tuna sashimi

For our weekend dinner visit, my dining partner and I took our taste buds on a culinary trip that started in Nebraska with a selection of locally produced cheeses and ended in British Columbia with a chocolatey dessert based on a classic Canadian treat.

Perfect for sharing, the bistro’s cheese board features a trio of artisanal cheeses from Branched Oak Farm in Raymond, Nebraska, along with sliced baguette, sesame crackers, and a variety of accompaniments. Visually appealing and full of textural variety, the cheese plate is arranged with thinly sliced pears, honey, fig spread, mixed nuts, and a cluster of grapes.

Other scrumptious bites can be found among the small plates, like the Whidbey Island Shrimp—four perfectly cooked jumbo shrimp served with sliced avocado, grapefruit segments, and a drizzle of sauce similar to Thousand Island dressing.

Falling into the would-order-again category, a scallop entree featured three plump sea scallops that arrived beautifully seared, tender, and moist. Accompanied by lemon beurre blanc and sriracha, the sweet, buttery scallops were topped with a zesty gremolata—a condiment made with fresh herbs, citrus, and nuts—that cut through the richness of the seafood. 

A side of charred Brussels sprouts and a scoop of jasmine rice, both excellent, accompanied the scallops. Cooked in vegetable stock, the rice was so good I could have eaten a bowl of it. Don’t let it go untouched.

Piedmontese rib-eye from Nebraska with potatoes and asparagus

We also sampled a Piedmontese rib-eye from Lincoln. The grass-fed, pasture-raised beef is leaner than its grain-fed counterpart due to less marbling, but it’s still flavorful. Perfectly cooked to the specified medium rare, the hand-cut, 14-ounce steak is seasoned with a house rub and served with roasted potatoes and asparagus.

Diners who save room for dessert can choose from several decadent sweets, all made in-house. With its smooth, luscious filling, a slice of caramel pistachio cheesecake was rich but not heavy. Chocolate lovers will want to try a Nanaimo bar, a quintessential Canadian treat named after the city of Nanaimo, British Columbia, just north of Washington. The bistro’s version of the three-layered bar features a nut and wafer base, a middle layer of creamy custard, plus chocolate ganache on top. It’s super-rich, fudgy, and gluten-free.

Peaches and cream cheesecake

Twisted Cork’s combination of talented chefs, eclectic fare, and warm, welcoming service make for an inviting dining experience that highlights the best of land and sea. 


Visit twistedcorkbistro.com for more information.

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

Fruit and cheese board

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.

Don Hilpipre

August 12, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Stella’s Bar & Grill is paradise for burger-lovers. So, it should come as no surprise that the Bellevue eatery’s most loyal regular has been eating at Stella’s for more than 60 years. 

It’s not just any burger joint. On one wall there is the Wall of Fame, covered with photos of the rare conquerors of Stella’s signature food challenge, “The Stellanator” (a 4.75-pound burger stacked with six patties, six eggs, 12 pieces of bacon, peanut butter, and a host of other toppings all pinned between buns with a skewer). And of course, there is also the Wall of Shame for those unable to complete the monstrous burger with a side of fries within 45 minutes.

Confronted with the burger joint’s legendary reputation, a newcomer could easily overlook another of the restaurant’s famous staples—an elderly gentleman perched on the same black barstool day after day. His name is Don Hilpipre, better known as Stella’s most loyal customer.

Often wearing a baseball cap with statements like “U.S. Navy Retired,” the 92-year-old Hilpipre returns to the restaurant like clockwork—usually around midday, then again in late afternoon. Stella’s place in his daily routine has remained unchanged for a decade. 

“I’ve been coming up here every day for about 10 years now,” Hilpipre says, beaming with pride. “But I first came here around 1953. I remember Stella [aka Estelle Francois Sullivan Tobler, the restaurant’s original owner] making her hamburgers. Really, just the old-timers can say that.” 

Hilpipre, a native of Minnesota, discovered his love for burgers and the city of Omaha after moving here in the mid-1950s. Before his move to “The Beef State,” Hilpipre proudly served six years in the U.S. Navy and then went looking for his next adventure. 

His search for adventure led to the state of Nebraska. He worked as a postman in South Omaha for 28 years and treated himself to an occasional burger during his lunch breaks. That’s how his bond with Stella’s was born. 

He became a twice-a-day regular 10 years ago, upon moving into Harmony Court Retirement Apartments in Bellevue. Since then, he’s rarely missed the chance to sip a cold beer, nibble on a burger, and keep employees company. 

“He comes in normally twice a day,” says Stella’s co-owner, Pam Francois (the great-great-niece of the original Stella). “In the afternoons, he orders two Budweisers, gets hugs from all the girls, and then gets handshakes from all the guys.” 

If for some reason the loyal customer doesn’t show up, Stella’s staff will call him or check with his assisted living facility to make sure everything is OK. 

Overall, Hilpipre estimates he has eaten just about everything on the menu. He enjoys the burgers, chicken strips, and even the chili, but acknowledges that he does have a regular order: one Stella Staple Burger, no bun. 

But he has never tried the Stellanator challenge. Hilpipre says he doesn’t want to lose, and he knows he can’t eat that much.

While he’s quick to admit he loves the food, that isn’t the only thing that keeps him coming back. 

“I love everything here, but especially the girls,” he says with a grin. “They like me and I like them. I’ve got to give every one of them a hug before I leave.” 

For Hilpipre and those associated with the restaurant, being at Stella’s is as much about the food as it is about the family atmosphere. Overall, Hilpipre is just as much a part of Stella’s as the grease on the grill. 

“He’s part of the family,” Francois says. “He’s a reminder that you have to sometimes slow down and be that special person in someone’s life.”  


Visit stellasbarandgrill.com for more information about the restaurant.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha. 

Dinner, Drinks, and a Show At the Holland

July 23, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Dinner and a show is essentially the “little black dress” of nights out on the town. The combo is always relevant, always in style, and it looks great on everyone. 

Since opening in 2005, the Holland Center has offered a wonderful venue for enjoying a performance or concert; the deal is even sweeter now that they also welcome audiences for dinner, drinks, and even a pre-show performance on some occasions—all under one roof.  

“Zinc is our full-service restaurant and Ovations is our bar in the lobby,” says Danyel Siler, vice president of marketing and communications for Omaha Performing Arts. “They’re both located right in the Holland Center, so you can plan an entire night out here, park once, and visit Ovations for drinks and an appetizer or go to Zinc for an excellent meal made by a local chef with fresh, seasonal ingredients. We also offer valet parking to make the experience complete, so people can just come once, have a nice meal or drinks before the show, and then enjoy a night of entertainment.”

Zinc, which opened in 2015 and is helmed by chef Diana Browder, is open two-and-a-half hours before all Omaha Performing Arts performances, as well as all Omaha Symphony shows except their family series. Siler recommends making reservations via OpenTable or by calling Ticket Omaha, as Zinc fills up fast. 

Foodies will find that Zinc offers creative, flavorful cuisine—from flatbread appetizers, to sandwiches and salads, to entrees—on par with some of Omaha’s best dinner destinations. Dishes feature flourishes and elements that elevate the menu; one of those attributes is the fact that Zinc is an environmentally conscious restaurant.  

“Zinc’s menu changes with the season to ensure freshness,” Siler says. “The menu features fresh, organic, seasonal, locally produced food. We also feature grass-fed, free-range, hormone-free meat and sustainably caught and handled seafood.” 

If you’re just in the mood for drinks or perhaps a smaller bite, the Holland’s lobby bar, Ovations, has you covered. Ovations, which opened in 2012, is open for all Omaha Performing Arts and Symphony performances. 

“Ovations offers a variety of drinks and some great small plates and appetizers,” says Siler, noting that the bar menu rotates frequently. Some of her recent favorites have included mini Asian tacos, stuffed tater tots, and a charcuterie board with specialty jam, mustard, pickled vegetables, and lavosh.  

“They’re just really nice, easy bites to eat while you enjoy a drink before you go see the show,” Siler says.  

Adding another layer to the experience, Omaha Performing Arts added a cover-free, pre-show happy hour performance series in 2017, adjacent to Ovations. After sporadically offering them in the past, they hosted five happy hour performances throughout the 2017/2018 season, and plan to double that for the 2018/2019 season due to the great response they’ve received. Siler says the new lineup will be announced in September, closer to the start of the season.   

“Our happy hour performances encompass all ages and genres of music, and we help spotlight our community partnerships and education programs,” Siler says. “For example, this year right before the Hot Sardines performed in the main hall, we featured Sophie & Evan [a group consisting of Sophie Keplinger and Evan Johnson] from the Blues Society of Omaha’s BluesEd youth artist development program. It’s an opportunity to enjoy the Holland in a different way, and it brings the lobby to life with great atmosphere. There’s plenty of space to gather with friends, to visit and enjoy each other, but then also enjoy the music.”

While the Holland offers a great one-stop-shop for folks with tickets to the main event, Siler says that everyone is welcome to visit Zinc, Ovations, and happy hour performances even if they don’t have a ticket to the main show. 

“We really encourage everyone to come to a happy hour or for dinner and drinks at Zinc or Ovations,” Siler says. “It’s an amazing experience that we want to share with as many people as possible.”


Visit omahaperformingarts.org for more information.

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

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.

Chase Thomsen

April 14, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A former Dundee-area eyesore is now one of the hottest places in Omaha to scarf down eggs and waffles.

For years, a decaying, vacant service station sat near the roundabout that connects Seward, Happy Hollow, and 50th streets. But this past summer, the building began to undergo a metamorphosis. The exterior got a slick, black lacquer-like paint job. The 5-foot hole inside the building was filled in. And for a final touch, a hot pink neon sign boldly displayed four letters: SCBC.

Today, visitors to the Saddle Creek Breakfast Club can expect at least two things: a sweet or savory breakfast in the $10 range, and about a one-hour wait. The breakfast-themed restaurant is the vision of executive chef Chase Thomsen and his wife, Niki. The restaurant serves up high-end takes on standard greasy spoon fare: biscuits and gravy, chicken-fried pork, as well as sweet offerings such as banana pancakes or a waffle that’s topped with candied macadamia nuts. They also have a vegan menu, which, like their primary menu, is seasonally adjusted.

Chase’s restaurant experience came at an early age. His godfather, Malcolm Thompson, was the former owner of Taxi’s Grille and Bar. Chase took his first job at age 15 at the now-closed Yo Yo Grille, which was located around 120th and Pacific streets. Then he went to the University of Nebraska-Kearney to study graphic design, but dropped out to work full time as a chef.

In 2007, he worked at Taxi’s. In 2009, he was in charge of that restaurant’s back-end kitchen. He later went to work at Plank, then, after returning to Taxi’s for a brief time, he worked at The Market House. While at The Market House, Chase worked with executive chef and fellow Millard North alum Matt Moser, who now co-owns Stirnella.

“Chase is an extremely talented and hard worker,” Moser says. “I can see why he’s getting the press and reviews he is getting.”

Both chefs’ culinary careers took a radical shift on Jan. 9, 2016, when an early afternoon explosion ripped through M’s Pub. Chase had a dinner shift at The Market House, which was adjacent to the beloved Omaha institution. On that frigid afternoon following the fire, he thought they’d be closed for dinner at most.

“We were still thinking that he may have to work the next day,” his wife Niki says. “Obviously, by the next morning, there was another story.”

Sitting at one of the tables at SCBC, Chase ran his fingers down one of the strings in his dark-blue hoodie and recalled the first thing he thought after hearing The Market House was damaged beyond repair. “I have to find a job,” he says with a laugh.

He took a job as a food consultant at a senior living community to pay the bills. During that time, his son, Lennon, was born. Throughout 2016, Chase and Niki began to come up with the concept of a breakfast-themed restaurant. Niki knew contractor Jeff Hubby, who ended up turning the old service station into what is now an eating hot spot on the northeastern edge of Dundee. The entire construction process took less than five months, Chase says.

Niki worked on the interior theme. Some of the inspiration for the design came from stuff she saw on Pinterest. When she heard the tile work for one of the walls would cost more than $20,000, she went to tile stores to get the white, black, and grey diamond-style design she wanted.

“Every decision we made was honestly dictated by budget,” Niki says.

Doing a breakfast-themed restaurant serves two needs for Chase. First, it gives him the opportunity to focus on his favorite meal. Second, it provides the opportunity to be at home in the evening for his family. With half a year into operation, he’s still trying to fulfill that second need. For the first few months after its October opening, he found himself getting home after midnight, even though service stops at 2 p.m.

“Our son is 1 now. I’m thinking, ‘Get this place open, become a morning person, and be able to have evenings at home,’” Chase says. “We’re not quite there yet.”

Saddle Creek Breakfast Club is located at 1540 N. Saddle Creek. Visit @scbcomaha on Facebook for more information.

 

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

West African in West Omaha

March 1, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Chaima Dan-merogo Maradi often gets asked for the story of why she left Africa for the United States 15 years ago, but her answer is usually just three words.

“I followed love,” she says, referring to her move following the man of her dreams.

And her now-husband, Boubakar Souleman, followed love in turn when, in 2012, he helped his wife realize her dream of opening her namesake restaurant—Chaima African Cuisine. (Chaima is pronounced “shy-ma.”)

“He knew how much I loved cooking, how passionate I am, how much I talk about it,” Maradi says. “He wanted me to be happy. He said, ‘I don’t quite understand it, but I’ll jump on board with you.’”

Restaurant ownership is a huge commitment, Maradi says, with six-day workweeks and days that begin with morning prep and run through lunch and dinner service ending at 9 or 10 p.m. In addition to operating the restaurant near 108th and Q streets, last year Maradi bought a food truck, which appears at festivals and events throughout the city. Meanwhile, they are raising a family that includes two busy teenagers, a 6-year-old, and a 4-year-old.

“Sometimes I’m in here from time A to time Z. It’s a long day,” Maradi says. “It’s a lot of work.”

Chaima Dan-merogo Maradi

But it’s work she fully embraces because it makes the business she loves thrive.

“It’s an everyday life, and it’s a normal American life. When I read or listen about successful entrepreneurs, I’m like, ‘There’s nothing I’m doing wrong here. I should be proud of myself,’” she says. “This is what it takes…I have to keep pushing.”

Maradi still remembers her earliest days in the kitchen as a 9-year-old in her native Togo.

“The very first-ever thing I created was crepes,” she recalls. Her efforts were so successful that her crepes became a family tradition for Eid, a principal Muslim festival. At an age when most children can barely make toast, Maradi began experimenting with food, recreating fare she’d sampled elsewhere, trying out recipes from magazines, and even concocting new dishes.

“I just liked to get into my own corner and duplicate what I’d seen,” she says. As a young newlywed in the U.S., she turned to cooking to help her acclimate to American culture.

“When my husband was at work, I watched television. Food Network—that was my friend!” she says. “Emeril, he was the star of the show at that time. So that’s what I would do, watch Food Network, try to understand what they mean by everything because some of the vegetable names and things were completely different.”

Sometimes the food wouldn’t turn out the way she wanted, but Maradi would try again, and she had far more hits than misses.

“I would cook and then dish it, portion it into plates, and look for people who were actually willing to taste it,” she says. It took little persuasion for her husband’s friends and colleagues to become taste-testers, and word traveled quickly.

“Everybody loved her food—everybody,” Souleman says.

It wasn’t long before people began suggesting that Maradi open her own restaurant. She “wasn’t ready” at first, but Maradi says her confidence and customer service skills increased through employment as a grocery store cashier and later in a nursing home, which also helped sharpen her English. Eventually she leased space in a commercial kitchen, which ultimately led to the launch of Chaima at the repeated urging of friends and acquaintances.

“I heard it so many times: ‘I love your food and you’re so good at what you’re doing.’ At some point I said, ‘Maybe I should,’” Maradi says.

Chaima has supported fundraisers for the Muslim Student Association at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and Maradi, who’s proud to call herself a feminist, has also supported organizations like Congokazi, which advocates for Congolese women, and Global Partners in Hope, which assists impoverished communities around the world. She says her restaurant is another means of sharing culture and fostering understanding.

“Food always starts a conversation and brings a group of people to a table,” she explains. “People pushing, and trying to bridge the gap between fellow Americans and myself, that was my recipe of starting a restaurant in Omaha.”

Maradi’s business instincts are as good as her cooking. Chaima is the only West African restaurant in the area, so Maradi’s menu features photos of each dish and descriptions of ingredients to help Midwesterners ease into a new cuisine.

“I figured out that you eat ‘with your eyes’ first. So if it looks good, it’s going to appeal to you, you’re going to take the chance to read what it is,” she says. 

Peanut butter lamb stew with side of fufu

Maradi shops at two African groceries in the city and a fruteria in South Omaha, but also purchases supplies at warehouse stores “like anybody else.” Many ingredients will be familiar to Americans, Maradi says, like chicken, beef kebabs, cabbage, tomato, tilapia, noodles, and rice. She even offers French fries and chicken wings on an appetizer menu. Entrée names are a combination of French—the official language of Togo—and “Mina,” a language predominant in southeastern Togo. Dishes with Togo origins are most prevalent, but the Chaima menu also features cuisine from Ghana, Nigeria, Benin, and Ivory Coast.

“Once you make it in here, we want you to stay,” Maradi says, so she has placed Midwestern-friendly dishes on the first page of the menu. “That’s what I tell people; if you want to be in the ‘OK zone,’ you can’t go wrong with anything in the top four here,” she says. A noodle dish called Spaghetti Creole, Riz au Gras and Poulet (chicken and rice), and Amadan (fried plantains, noodles, veggies, and meat) are among the dishes leading the listings. Riz Creole, which overtook Riz au Gras as Chaima’s top seller soon after its introduction, appears at the very top. But diners won’t find it on the menu of any other West African restaurant anywhere, because it’s a one-of-a-kind dish invented by Maradi.

“I like playing with flavors,” she says. Maradi has made concessions to the American palate and cultural expectations, for example, using lamb in dishes that would usually call for goat, or presenting her hot sauce and fried tomato sauce on the side. But she enjoys answering questions from curious guests and is happy to make recommendations. Diners who want to try something new can look further into the menu for novel ingredients like African yams—“more like potatoes than American yams”—or fufu, a starchy staple made in part from cassava, a root vegetable.

Chaima continues to evolve, and Maradi is always working on new offerings, like gyros and a plantain-based veggie burger. For fellow Muslim families, she’s developing versions of American fare like hamburgers and chicken nuggets that comply with Islamic dietary rules. Maradi has also begun bottling and distributing her popular pineapple citrus drink.

“We never gave up regardless of how hard things were getting; we kept pushing and pushing. Customers, friends that believe in us, and all of those good reviews on Yelp mentioning how good the food is kept me going,” Maradi says. “To see someone try my food and go, ‘Oh. My. God,’ that’s rewarding for me right there. It just makes me happy.”

To learn more, visit Chaima African Cuisine on Facebook at @chaimaafricancuisine.

Atieke Boisson Braise (tilapia with onion, tomato, and bell pepper) with sides of cassava couscous and fried plantains

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

Monarch Prime & Bar

December 22, 2017 by
Photography by Joshua Foo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A real treat, you might say.

monarchprimeandbar.com 

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

 

Skeet’s Barbecue

December 5, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I was convinced that they were out of business.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Umami

October 18, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

My first thought when I saw the crowd of customers waiting to be seated at Umami: Good thing I made a reservation. Diners occupied every table, booth, and bar stool at the city’s latest and most talked-about sushi restaurant, which opened in Bellevue in February.

The restaurant’s popularity shows that many local diners are hooked on sushi, and they’re willing to drive across town and endure long waits to get their fish fix. It also shows that Chef Keen Zheng made a good move when he left behind sushi-dense New York for Nebraska. Zheng has realized his dream of opening his own restaurant and helped fill the void of sushi spots in the Galvin Road area.

Zheng’s culinary background includes a stint at Sushi Nakazawa, one of New York’s top sushi establishments. The restaurant is run by Daisuke Nakazawa, a former apprentice of Jiro Ono, a world-renowned sushi chef in Japan and subject of the acclaimed documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Umami’s vast menu features a variety of delicately prepared nigiri (seafood gently pressed over seasoned rice) and high-quality sashimi (thin slices of fish such as tuna or salmon served without rice). Also available are sushi rolls, known as maki, made with raw or cooked fish, vegetables, nori, rice, and other ingredients.

Those with seafood allergies or aversions to raw fish shouldn’t let that deter them. The menu includes sushi prepared with cooked ingredients, as well as teriyaki and hibachi dinners, noodle dishes, fried rice, soups, or Thai and Chinese entrees.

My dining partner and I both liked the pink lady roll, named for the pink soy paper that holds shrimp tempura, avocado, cream cheese, and asparagus. Those who don’t care for nori (seaweed wrappers) may prefer the soy paper alternative. A slightly spicy sauce drizzled on top lends a nice heat that’s not overwhelming. There are excellent versions of tiger shrimp sushi and inari sushi. The latter consists of marinated and fried tofu pouches stuffed with rice.

We also enjoyed the spicy mango shrimp roll, filled with cooked shrimp, mango, tempura flakes, and just enough spice to perk up the palate. Less successful, the coconut shrimp roll—crispy shrimp and Fuji apples topped with avocado and coconut flakes—has an appealing blend of creamy and crunchy textures, but coconut sauce on top dominates and is a little sweeter than we’d prefer.

Vegetarian options include a fresh and light farmer’s roll with slivered cucumber, asparagus, bean curd skin, lettuce, avocado, squash, and oshinko (Japanese pickled radish). Zheng is an expert at preparing sushi, each item well-crafted and beautifully presented. Diners who nab seats at the sushi bar can watch as he and his team hold command.

The staff is friendly and knowledgeable, but service can be slow, especially during prime dinner hours. Our server had a packed house to deal with the night we dined, resulting in long wait times to place and receive our order. Still, I’d happily return to try more of the menu. It’s hard to pass up quality, reasonably priced sushi executed with Zheng’s level of skill.

Rating:

food: 4 stars

service: 3.5 stars

ambiance: 4 stars

Price: $$

Overall: 4 stars

Visit umamiasianne.com for more information.

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