Tag Archives: restaurant

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.

From Famine to the Good Life

August 10, 2017 by
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.

The Land of Pharaohs and Omaha Beef Liver

August 6, 2017 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

CAIRO, Egypt—Sometime around 2012, I started going to a sausage and liver cart in the middle-class neighborhood of Dokki where I then lived. I was still new to Egypt, having recently moved from the U.S.

The cart, however, was a longstanding neighborhood fixture. Since 1976, from dusk until dawn, Ezz al-Monofy has been serving spicy sausage and liver meats in vino bread (which is like a less-airy hotdog bun).

On any given night, there are 30 to 40 men of all ages, standing and downing sandwiches for late-night snacks. Steam rises from three frying basins, illuminated by bright fluorescent lights. On the otherwise dark street, the glowing cart becomes a beacon for the nocturnal community of Giza, on the western bank of the Nile opposite Downtown Cairo.

For my friends and I, a visit to Ezz al-Monofy is part of our healing process. The spicy and greasy meat, washed down with some of the saltiest pickles in the Cairo metro, enables our bodies to retain more water. Consequently, the food cart helps our minds to function properly the next day. A long night of drinking Stella—the Egyptian beer, not to be confused with the Belgian brand of the same name—can result in an incapacitating hangover.

I didn’t realize the significance of these late-night food runs until Abou Malak, the cart’s mustachioed cook, who I came to know, asked me where I was from.

“Omaha,” I said.

He stared at me for a second, as if deciding whether I was being honest, or if he should be.

“By the way, this liver is from Omaha,” he replied.

I thought it was some sort of joke.

“Swear on it,” I said.

A bigger man at the cart, with a bigger mustache, gestured at me as if to say, “one second.”

I was afraid I had offended the two men, since I used a more Muslim religious phrase to exclaim my disbelief. For all I knew, they could be Christians, who have had a second-class status in Egypt, and whose security has been threatened (especially recently). He came back with a cardboard box with some blood smudges on it.

The box read:

“GREATER OMAHA

PROVIDING THE HIGHEST

QUALITY BEEF

Produced for Hanzada Company-Cairo, Egypt”

In general, Egyptians love beef liver, and Americans don’t. So by the osmosis of the world economy, Americans tend to sell Egypt liver, and a lot of it.

Egypt is the world’s biggest importer of liver. In fact, Egyptians eat so much American beef liver that there’s a market for American liver near Ramses Square in central Cairo. Meanwhile, American beef producers are actually afraid that they are too dependent on Egypt buying livers, and they have been looking to new markets. But I doubt South Africa, a rising consumer, is up to the challenge. In 2016, 76 percent of all U.S. beef liver exports (68,474 tons) ended up in Egypt.

I’ve been a journalist in Cairo for six years, and it makes sense that the first time I’ve come across a story that really resonates with my American family history—or one that could be written for a hometown publication—has to do with beef.

My grandmother, Frances “Jean” Wheeler, has never seen the mountains or the ocean. My maternal family’s story is one of migration across the Great Plains for various slaughter and meatpacking jobs.

Her grandfather, my great-great-grandfather Emil Peklo from Prague, loaded the family onto a boat and took them to the U.S. According to Grandma, most of the boat’s passengers were sent back, but Emil’s wife gave birth to a son in the harbor, so they were allowed to stay.

When an immigration officer found out Emil was a butcher, he connected him with his brother, who had a meatpacking house in Chicago. The family went west to work there. With the savings from that job, he moved to Lynch, Nebraska, to open a butcher shop.

“Peklo in English is hell. H-E-L-L,” she said. “And he had on his window, “Go to hell for your meat.’”

“Uncle Vic could put on a Sunday dress shirt, roll up his sleeves, put on an apron, and take apart a whole cow without getting a drop of blood on his suit,” Grandma said.

I love my grandmother very much, but she has a tendency toward hyperbole, and the anatomy of a cow makes me doubt this claim. A cow liver can be between 10 and 15 pounds, and anybody who has cut one up knows they’re more slippery than muscle meat.

In the prep area of Ezz al-Monofy, the sous chefs do not have the mind, nor the time, to worry about getting blood on their shirts with a bunch of hangry men around. They cut the liver into pencil thin pieces, which are thrown into 2-gallon pots before being mixed with fried garlic.

After tossing the liver around with a spatula in the oil, Abou Malak adds coriander, cumin, salt, pepper, chili pepper, nutmeg, and more garlic. Another cook slices the vino bread with a box-cutter, slathers them with sesame paste that’s thinned out with lemon juice, and sprinkles that with fresh parsley before passing them to Abou Malak to fill with a serving of liver.

If liver is not for you, the cart also sells home-style sausage and Alexandrian sausage. I’m not aware of the beef sausages’ country—or anatomical region—of origin.

Liver sandwiches are the Egyptian equivalent of the hot dog. They are cheap and probably the nation’s most famous street food. But prices are going up. Recently, a food-ordering service, Otlob, released an infographic warning that the price of a liver sandwich had quadrupled since 2013, and was expected to keep rising.

Rising food prices are a major concern for the Egyptian public. In fall 2016, the government floated the exchange rate, which meant that the price of the Egyptian pound plummeted in comparison to the U.S. dollar. Although Egyptian food prices may seem extraordinarily cheap to American readers back home, the pound’s declining value means it’s increasingly expensive for regular Egyptians to buy anything.

The changing currency dynamics also means American beef has become more expensive to purchase. As a result, the share of liver exports to Egypt from America went down from 82 percent to 76 percent between 2015 and 2016. In 2014, the North African country was the largest importer of liver in the entire world.

The American beef industry uses the term “variety meat” for liver, kidneys, brains, stomach, and such. It’s a beautiful example of an American industrial euphemism. The phrasing implies “choice,” a cornerstone principle in American free-market philosophy. Egyptians use a term that translates to “sweets,” or “fruits of meat,” which sounds more poetic and folksy.

Liver, though, is ultimately a category unto itself, a comfort food of both the rich and poor. When I first encountered liver in Nebraska, I viewed it as leftovers cooked for/by those who couldn’t afford “regular” meat. But a look back into history shows its place in American fine dining, too.

In the heyday of Omaha’s stockyards, liver sometimes enjoyed luxury status. In 1946, Caniglia’s steakhouse had liver and spaghetti on the menu for $3.25. In 2017 dollars, that’s about $42. Macarona Reda in Downtown Cairo’s Bab al-Louq neighborhood has “macarona bil kebda” (spaghetti and liver) for 7 Egyptian pounds (less than 42 cents).

I assumed my grandmother would have eaten liver growing up, being the daughter and granddaughter of butchers and growing up poor.

“Are you kidding? I didn’t like liver,” she said. “When I was pregnant with your uncle John, I had iron deficiency. I had to eat liver three times a week. I fixed liver one time for your grandpa, mom, and uncle Monte. And he said, ‘What’s this? I won’t eat it, and my kids won’t eat it!’”

My grandparents met each other, in part, because of the meat industry. When my great-great-grandfather Emil’s son, Emil Jr. (my great-grandfather), attempted to borrow money to continue his studies at the seminary, his mother said no, according to Grandma.

So, great-grandpa Emil Jr. moved across the state line to Winner, South Dakota, to work at a different butcher. Then, he moved to a meatpacking house in Pampa, Texas, during World War II. Finally, he moved to South Omaha after the Pampa factory burnt down.

My grandmother was a child during the family relocations. Her roots would take hold in Omaha.  She was working at a hide processing company in South Omaha when she met my grandfather. He was working at a truck wash that also serviced the stockyards.

In 1947, when the Peklos moved to Omaha, 2,016,768 cows moved through the Omaha stockyards. By 1955 the stockyards were the biggest meat producer in the world. That superlative lingered over my hometown until 1971.

My mother grew up in Papillion. My father came from Lebanon; he was studying engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when my parents met.

By the time I was born, peak beef production had passed in Omaha. Even so, the remaining Omaha-area meatpacking plants still process huge amounts of cattle today, with slaughter and butchering having become heavily industrialized.

The Nebraska business responsible for supplying my favorite beef liver cart in Egypt—Greater Omaha Packing Co.—processes 14,000 head of cattle a week, almost 728,000 a year, at its South Omaha factory off 32nd and L streets.

When it comes to eating red meat, my time living overseas has brought one major epiphany: Growing up in Nebraska has spoiled me.

I’ve tried hard to replicate some of my favorite Omaha dishes in Egypt—for example, Big Fred’s prime rib sandwich. But I can’t do it.

Cuts of meat just aren’t really the same in Egypt, and the pricing is much closer than one might expect. It’s a double-edged sword: You can get a filet for 80 Egyptian pounds (equal to $4.41 in U.S. dollars) per pound in Cairo, but stew meat can cost 60 Egyptian pounds (or $3.25) per pound. 

The lack of common vocabulary once meant I went home from an Egyptian market feeling pretty excited about an extremely cheap rib-eye, but when I unwrapped it, that feeling turned into confusion. It turned out to be spleen, and I failed miserably at cooking it.

On return trips to Omaha, I relish the city’s renown for beef.

For days leading up to my homecoming, my father and I will message back and forth on the topic of meat cuts that I’d like to eat. He then purchases the beef in bulk from the meat market down the street from our house and freezes the rest.

My first meal after arriving at home is usually a steak, if it’s warm enough to fire up the grill. In the wintertime, it’s usually corned beef (on a Reuben sandwich), since I have yet to come across high-quality deli meat in Cairo.

The absence or presence of food in a particular place can tell you a lot about how local people are connected (or disconnected) to other parts of the world.

Recently, China reopened its country to American beef products, which might be a good plan-B for Nebraskan liver merchants in the event that Egypt becomes a less lucrative market. 

On the face of the global beef trade, the tradespeople (the butchers) are increasingly mobile globally. In fact, many butchers in the United States have come from the Arab world, and they are exporting Nebraska meat back to their countries of origin.

The trend is evident even on the rural outskirts of Omaha. In Lexington, Nebraska, the meatpacking industry employs hundreds of resettled Sudanese and Somalian refugees. The immigrants take apart thousands of cows every day.

With Cairo, Egypt, as a major transit point for refugees, it’s possible that tomorrow’s Sudanese-American butcher is right now eating a liver sandwich from a Nebraskan plant where he might work in the next year.

Then again, with mounting anti-immigration rhetoric in American politics, maybe not.

Visit greateromaha.com for more information about the Omaha-based company that supplied the author’s favorite beef liver cart in Egypt.

Egyptian Beef Liver Recipe

Ingredients:

1 quarter pound beef liver, cut into inch long, pencil thin strips

2 tablespoons cooking oil

4 tablespoons freshly minced garlic, divided

1 teaspoon cumin

½ teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon white vinegar

3 spicy green peppers, chopped

¼ cup tahina (sesame paste)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Chopped parsley for garnish

Hot dog buns, for serving

Instructions:

Heat the cooking oil, then fry 2 tablespoons garlic until just
beginning to brown.

Add the sliced beef liver, and toss until cooked through. The meat should turn a grayish-brown.

Add the remaining seasoning, vinegar, and peppers. Toss.

Taste and adjust seasoning and salt.

Mix the tahina and lemon juice in a bowl, then spread on the hot dog buns, and sprinkle with parsley.

Fill each bun with the liver mix.

Serve with pickled carrots, turnips, peppers, onions, and/or pickled tomatoes.

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

The Big Easy in the Big O

March 17, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

One of America’s great food cities, New Orleans, is steeped in history, culture, and fantastic flavors. From beignets to étouffée, the Southern city’s distinctive cuisine attracts food lovers worldwide. Perhaps the best way to satisfy one’s Cajun and Creole cravings is with a trip to N’awlins. But if that isn’t in your plans, a visit to Herbe Sainte offers a taste of the Big Easy without leaving the Big O.

The Aksarben Village cocktail bar and restaurant, which opened in late October 2016, is the creation of longtime restaurateur Ron Samuelson and his nephews, Aaron and Justin Halbert. For decades, Samuelson co-owned M’s Pub, the iconic Old Market restaurant that was destroyed in a January 2016 fire. His focus is now on Herbe Sainte and other new projects, including a French-focused eatery that he and the Halberts are working on.

muffuletta

For Herbe Sainte, the trio took inspiration from the food and drink of the Crescent City. “New Orleans has a great cocktail culture,” Justin Halbert says. Seafood purveyors from several Gulf Coast states supply the restaurant with fresh shrimp, crawfish, and oysters. Halbert, who used to live in Florida, says seafood from the region, particularly Gulf shrimp, boasts exceptional flavor and texture.

Shrimp is the star of one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, NOLA shrimp. One of a dozen items on the small menu, it features plump, succulent shrimp smothered in a rich, luscious sauce made decadent with cream, butter, and wine. It’s served with crusty French bread to sop up the sauce, which is sparked with a Creole seasoning blend for a palate-tingling heat. I would have liked a bit more spice, but I thoroughly savored each bite.

raw oysters

Executive chef Jeff Owen leads the kitchen, showcasing an appreciation for the nuances of New Orleans cuisine while putting his own twists on the classics. The shrimp roll features boiled shrimp lightly dressed with Cajun remoulade, lettuce, onion marmalade, and cornichon. Lack of breading and frying allows the shrimp’s firm, meaty texture and sweet, clean flavor to shine. We liked the filling but thought the bun needed to be warmed or toasted a bit.

Oysters are abundant in New Orleans and on Herbe Sainte’s menu. They’re available shucked and served on the half shell, as well as broiled. For non-seafood lovers, there’s muffuletta (a signature New Orleans sandwich stuffed with cold cuts, cheese, and olives) and a cornbread and sausage plate. It features sliced boudin (pork-and-rice sausage), mustard, pickles, slaw, two types of cornbread, and honey butter. The restaurant’s boudin has a soft, crumbly texture and was milder than I expected.

Enhancing the dining experience is a stylish interior with local artwork, modern-meets-rustic décor, and an eye-catching bar with custom wood shelving. Several couches, coffee tables, and armchairs invite guests to linger. The high-ceilinged space is intimate enough for date night yet lively enough for after-work cocktails. “We wanted it to be really eclectic,” Halbert says.

The establishment’s name comes from Herbsaint, an ingredient Sazerac cocktails.

The drink menu offers classic New Orleans cocktails, such as the Sazerac. Bold yet balanced, it includes brandy, Peychaud’s bitters, simple syrup, and the restaurant’s namesake, Herbsaint, an anise-flavored liqueur used as an absinthe alternative. The long, spacious bar provides plenty of room to whip up craft cocktails and develop house-made ingredients.

Together with their design team and bar and kitchen staff, Herbe Sainte’s owners have created a delicious, inviting spot to savor a taste of New Orleans and let the “bon temps” roll year-round.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visit herbesainteomaha.com for more information.

NOLA shrimp

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

Destinations

February 22, 2017 by

AKSARBEN VILLAGE

Horse stalls went bye-bye long ago. Now, Aksarben Village is losing car stalls, too. But that’s a good thing, as far as continued growth of the former horse-racing grounds goes. Dirt is overturned and heavy equipment sits on the plot extending north and east from 67th and Frances streets, formerly a parking lot for visitors to the bustling area. That’s because work has commenced at the corner on what will become HDR’s new global headquarters, which opens some time in 2019. The temporary loss of parking will be offset by great gain for Aksarben Village — a 10-story home for nearly 1,200 employees with a first floor including 18,000 square feet of retail space. HDR also is building an adjacent parking garage with room for ground-level shops and restaurants. But wait, car owners, there’s more. Farther up 67th Street, near Pacific, the University of Nebraska-Omaha is building a garage that should be completed this fall. Plenty of parking for plenty to do.

BENSON

A continental shift has taken place in Benson — Espana is out and Au Courant Regional Kitchen is in, offering Benson denizens another food option at 6064 Maple St. That means a move from now-closed Espana’s Spanish fare to now-open Au Courant’s “approachable European-influenced dishes with a focus on regional ingredients.” Sound tasty? Give your tastebuds an eye-tease with the menu at aucourantrestaurant.com. Also new in B-Town: Parlour 1887 (parlour1887.com) has finished an expansion first announced in 2015 that has doubled the hair salon’s original footprint. That’s a big to-do at the place of  ’dos.

BLACKSTONE DISTRICT

The newest Blackstone District restaurant, which takes its name from Nebraska’s state bird, is ready to fly. Stirnella Bar & Kitchen, located at 3814 Farnam St., was preparing to be open by Valentine’s Day. By mid-January it had debuted staff uniforms, photos of its decor, and a preview of its delectable-looking dinner menu. Stirnella (Nebraska’s meadowlark is part of the genus and species “Sturnella neglecta”) will offer a hybrid of bistro and gastro pub fare “that serves refined comfort food with global influences,” plus a seasonal menu inspired by local ingredients. Fly to stirnella.com for more.

DUNDEE

Film Streams (filmstreams.org) made a splash in January announcing details on its renovation of the  historic Dundee Theater. Work began in 2017’s first month on features including:

Repair and renovation of the original theater auditorium, which will be equipped with the latest projection and sound technology able to screen films in a variety of formats, including reel-to-reel 35mm and DCP presentations.

A throwback vertical “Dundee” sign facing Dodge Street.

An entryway that opens to a landscaped patio/pocket park.

New ticketing and concessions counters.

A store with film books, Blu-ray Discs and other cinema-related offerings.

A café run through a yet-to-be-announced partnership.

A 25-seat micro-cinema.

Oh, yeah, they’ll show movies there, too. And Dundee-ers won’t have long to wait—the project should be completed by the end of 2017.

MIDTOWN

In a surprise to many—especially those holding its apparently now-defunct gift cards—Brix shut its doors in January at both its Midtown Crossing and Village Pointe locations. It was not clear at press time what factor, if any, was played by a former Brix employee, who in late December pleaded not guilty to two counts of felony theft by deception after being accused of stealing more than $110,000 as part of a gift card scheme. Despite the closing, Midtown has celebrated two additions of late as the doors opened to the “Japanese Americana street food” spot Ugly Duck (3201 Farnam St.) and to Persian rug “pop-up shop” The Importer.

NORTH OMAHA

The restoration of North Omaha’s 24th and Lake area continues its spectacular trajectory. In January, the Union for Contemporary Art moved into the completely renovated, historic Blue Lion building located at 2423 N. 24th St. The Blue Lion building is a cornerstone in the historic district. Originally constructed in 1913, the Blue Lion is named after two of the building’s earliest tenants: McGill’s Blue Room, a nightclub that attracted many nationally known black musicians, and Lion Products, a farm machinery distributor. The entire district was listed as a federally recognized historic district in April 2016.

According to its website, “The Union for Contemporary Art is committed to strengthening the creative culture of the greater Omaha area by providing direct support to local artists and increasing the visibility of contemporary art forms in the community.” Founder and executive director Brigitte McQueen Shew says the Union strives to unite artists and the community to inspire positive social change in North Omaha. “The organization was founded on the belief that the arts can be a vehicle for social justice and greater civic engagement,” she says. “We strive to utilize the arts as a bridge to connect our diverse community in innovative and meaningful ways.”

The Union will be hosting the annual Omaha Zinefest March 11. Event organizer Andrea Kszystyniak says Zinefest is a celebration of independent publishing in Nebraska. Assorted zines—essentially DIY magazines produced by hand and/or photocopier—will be on display at the free event, and workshops will be offered to attendees.

OLD MARKET

M’s Pub fans had plenty to be thankful for in November following the announcement that the Old Market restaurant would rise from the ashes of the January 2016 fire that destroyed the iconic eatery. Various media quoted co-owner Ann Mellen saying the restaurant would reopen this summer. Construction has been steady at the restaurant’s 11th and Howard, four-story building, but customers weren’t sure M’s would be part of the rebirth until Mellen’s well-received comments. Mellen says the feel—and the food—will be the same. Even if the name may change.

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

Duck Call

February 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

To hear Omahan Dennis Schuett tell it, he has launched a new product that really is … all it’s quacked up to be.

It’s actually an old product—duck fat. The French have used the versatile, golden, subcutaneous deposit for ages, treasuring it for a dense, savory flavor and the crispy coat it adds to meats and vegetables.

What Schuett has done, though, is new. Until now, chefs scooped solid duck fat out of containers. Schuett has put it into a canister that delivers duck fat as a spray.

As far as Schuett can tell, no one else has done that.

“We have the only duck fat spray, we think, in the world,” Schuett says. “It’s pretty cool.”

Dennis Schuett

Their thought is correct. This is not Schuett’s first foray into food. A Grand Island native who moved to Omaha 27 years ago, he once had a career as a food broker. He also has part ownership in the Coney Stop restaurant at Millard’s Boulder Creek Amusement Park, a couple of pizza joints around the metro, and (until this summer) Jackson Street Tavern in the Old Market.

Such experience gave the 54-year-old, self-described foodie a good idea he was onto something with his duck fat spray.

Vegetables sprayed with it, then roasted, “taste like candy,” Schuett says. It also “floats an egg across a frying pan.” Its high smoke point (meaning it doesn’t burn as easily as butter or olive oil), makes it a great searing agent. Schuett says he also has heard from meat smokers who say it creates great “bark” when used as a rub base.

Schuett touts benefits beyond taste. Duck fat has 20 percent less saturated fat than butter and contains unsaturated Omega 3 and Omega 6, two body-essential fatty acids. It’s also high in monounsaturated fat, which can help lower cholesterol, and vitamin E.

To get such wonders into a can as a spray, Schuett bought state-of-the-art packing equipment that forces the fat into a bag sealed inside a canister. Compressed air evacuates 99 percent of the product and precludes the use of fluorocarbon or additives. “Keeping it simple yet as pure as possible,” Schuett says.

Duck fat spray can be used to flavor, and add fat to, a variety of dishes.

This article was printed in the Spring 2017 edition of B2B.

René Orduña

October 13, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

According to René Orduña, a restaurant’s dishwasher is as key as its chef. “He knows what’s coming back,” says the head chef of Dixie Quicks in Council Bluffs. “What people aren’t eating. So if I wanted to work for a restaurant, I’d get a job as a dishwasher and see what’s coming back. And if they’re not enjoying the food, then I wouldn’t stay there very long.”The good chefs, he says, will always check the plates coming back. To this day, a half-empty plate prompts Orduña to ask the waiter if a guest disliked a meal.

Orduña co-owns the Southern-style diner known as Dixie Quicks with his husband, Robert Gilmer. The restaurant has been open in one location or another since 1995. So if Orduña says it’s important to check the plates, he knows what he’s talking about.

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While the chef has worked in a variety of restaurants across the country (New Orleans. Atlanta. San Francisco. New York City), it’s fair to say he’s been in kitchens his entire life.

Orduña was 1 year old when his mother opened Howard’s Charro in South Omaha. He started making tamales on Wednesdays when he was 6. “Spreading the masa, putting the meat in them, putting them in boxes to freeze,” he recalls. As a young adult, he waited tables around town and cooked in a few kitchens as well. “The Golden Apple, worked at M’s,” he recites. From 1971 to 1973, he worked at the French Café in Downtown Omaha before he began traveling.

Today, both he and Gilmer are elbows deep in Dixie Quicks from dawn till dusk. Orduña cooks, serves, buses tables, washes dishes, and Gilmer handles the art of the attached RNG Gallery (“That’s Robert Newton Gilmer,” Orduña clarifies) and the restaurant’s books. “You don’t want him cooking, and you don’t want me doing books,” Orduña says with an emphatic wave of his hand.

Patrons of Dixie Quicks are probably okay with that arrangement. After taking their seats, guests walk over to the gigantic chalkboard menu to decide among Cajun, Southern, and Southwestern options. Orduña says he’s careful about revamping the menu. “Every time I take something off that board, somebody gets …” upset, he says. “It’s almost like I have to open another restaurant to try another menu.”

Do tell?

“Maybe someday,” he dodges coyly. He’s chalking it up to a dream right now, his desire to open several restaurants in one. “A Cajun restaurant. And a barbecue restaurant. And a pizza place. Kind of like a food court.” A place like that, Orduña thinks, would get freshly graduated culinary students used to working in a professional setting. “You can have fine dining anywhere, at any kind of place,” he insists.

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Personally, he favors what he calls the Iron Chef method. “I like going to my refrigerator, seeing what I have, and figuring it out. That’s what I do most days when I go shopping at the grocery store. That’s what usually makes up the menu.”

Has anything new and exciting come out of this experimentation?

“Oh gosh. Just about everything,” he says. “I start playing back there with spices and flavors and textures…” It’s handy that he and Gilmer live just above the restaurant. He could be tinkering in the kitchen at any time of day.

Today, it’s a broccoli cheese soup. “The cheese just looked good,” Orduña says. “And the broccoli was plentiful and gorgeous, and I thought, you know, it’s the perfect day
for soup.”

Article originally published in March/April 2014 in Omaha Magazine.

Update 11/18/2016: After a short battle with Stage 4 cancer, Rene passed away in November 2016. A celebration of Rene Orduna’s Life will b held this Sunday 11/20 at The Max from 4-8 pm

The Matriarch Behind the Scenes

October 12, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The bright flavors and colors of Hidalgo, Mexico, pop at family-owned and operated Maria Bonita Mexican Cuisine. Matriarch and head chef Miriam Lopez authentically re-creates the food she recalls from her native land.

Tropical floral motifs by Omaha artist Mike Giron decorate the 5132 L St. restaurant, as well as the family’s two food trucks.

“The colors not only inspire us and make us remember where we come from but also transmit some of our culture and the way we envision life, which is colorful and positive,” eldest daughter Itzel Lopez says. “Our culture is really within us.”

She and her two sisters help mom continue a proud legacy of strong, accomplished Latinas.

Miriam and husband Miguel opened the eatery in 2011 at 20th Street and Missouri Avenue. Business boomed before Miguel fell ill.

“He was our backbone,” Itzel says. “For us, family’s always been more important than business, so we said, ‘Let’s take a break and get our dad where he needs
to be.'”

miriamlopez1Maria Bonita closed; however, the customers refused to leave. Itzel says, “Our customers really didn’t let us go, but the only way we could continue what we’d started was to go on wheels. So, we acquired our first food truck right in 2011, and in 2014 we acquired our second food truck.”

A new brick and mortar was sought to serve sit-down diners and to prep-host catering gigs. Thus, the former Sizzler site became the new Maria Bonita in 2015.

“Same food, same concept, just bigger,” says Itzel.

They opened it with help from the Nebraska Enterprise Fund. With Miguel recuperating in Mexico, Miriam wants it to be like coming to the Lopez casa for “a home-cooked family meal,” adding, “The kitchen is the home of the home.”

“These are dishes my mom will cook at home,” Itzel says. “Everything my mom does she makes with love. Mom wants to see tables full of families enjoying a good dinner. That’s something we grew up with. Every Sunday after church we come and enjoy our own food here.”

Miriam says she doesn’t use “complicated recipes, processes, and ingredients,” adding, “This is very different—this is simple food the way I remember when I was a kid. My memories are all about food—about my mom all the time cooking for everybody.”

She inherited her mom’s cooking talent, and her folks paid for culinary training. She worked as a line cook in Mexico and America. “All the time I was learning—I learned a lot.” Even though the hours are long, she finds joy. “All the time people ask me, why you work so hard? But I don’t feel like I’m working. It’s special—that’s the difference. They think it’s for the money, but it’s not for the money. It’s passion. I love this. It’s my dream.”

Miriam’s college-educated daughters have jobs and lives of their own, and she wants them to be successful.

“It’s my faith for them. Happiness is everything.”

“We move by faith in our family,” says Itzel. “We’re just hard working women. All we have to do is just follow that.”

Itzel says she admires her mother’s “consistency and perseverance” and how “she molds the family to the same mission.”

“We’re a good team, each with different roles and strengths, all of us guided by Mom and her passion for food.”

Mother and daughter are “proud” their family of “Mexican transplants and language learners” has come so far here.

A rotating traditional Mexican buffet is served daily from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Visit mariabonitaonline.com for more information. Sixty-Plus in Omaha

Decisions, Decisions

March 3, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In the last few years, southern food, including barbecue and Cajun, has been enjoying increased popularity nationwide. Here in Omaha the genre has remained relatively scarce. A little over a year ago, Ryan Ernst opened Mouth of the South: Southern Grub Bar & Grill. I had been hearing lots of great things about this restaurant and had been meaning to make it over there, but never found the time until recently. Now I can share my experience with you.

The restaurant is located in the heart of the historic Florence neighborhood on North 30th Street. It has a nicely decorated fuchsia-colored facade, and once you get inside you see it has a warm, folksy feel with unpolished wood floors, brick walls, and wood table tops. There is also a large counter/bar where guests may enjoy their meals, listen to the blues on the stereo, and watch sports on the TV.

Paying homage to Dixie, drinks are served in jars and the silverware and napkins are in a simple paper bag wrapped in twine. The restaurant has a really comfortable vibe, and on the night I was there it was packed with what I assumed were local people from the neighborhood.

The menu at Mouth of the South has a nice selection of appetizers, soups and salads, sandwiches, burgers, and entrees, and all are nice mixtures of Cajun, Creole, barbecue and soul food. They also offer a soup of the day and several tantalizing specials. The full bar features a very interesting list of southern-themed craft cocktails, an impressive beer list, and a nice selection of wines.

Just like the ambiance, the service is very casual and friendly.

Let me start by admitting my bias toward Cajun food in particular and a love for southern barbecue. I have eaten a lot of these types of foods and my bar is set pretty high for what I consider to be good. On this particular night my dining partner and I started off with gizzards ($7) and the boudin balls ($8). The gizzards were fried cajun-style and coated with a pepper jelly glaze and this yummy combination melted in our mouths. If you’re not familiar with boudin, it is a southern rice and meat sausage. The Mouth of the South’s rendition was formed into balls, breaded, deep fried, and served with an authentic remoulade sauce. It was perhaps the best boudin I have ever had.

Next we shared a bowl of gumbo ($5), and it would be no exaggeration to say that this is the best gumbo I’ve found in Omaha.

For entrees I tried the smoke pit sandwich ($12). This gut-buster of a meal had moist smoked brisket, tangy smoked pork, crisp coleslaw, barbecue sauce, and melted cheddar cheese served grilled on sourdough bread. I can describe this sandwich with
one word—“delicious!”

My partner tried the jambalaya ($13), which was loaded with Andouille sausage and chicken. There was no skimping on the meat with this memorably tasty, hearty plate.

I had no room left for dessert, but sacrificed myself for you, the reader, and ordered the bourbon pecan pie ($7). This homemade pie was crammed with pecans and had a lovely bourbon-flavored custard in a perfect crust. It was served with some very rich vanilla ice cream. Like everything else I tried that night, it also deserves top marks.

If you are getting the impression that I liked the Mouth of the South, you would be correct. Now sufficiently recovered, I’m already daydreaming about going back for more. Maybe the catfish poboy or the smoke stack burger?

Decisions, decisions.

Cheers!

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