Tag Archives: Reuben

Long Live the Reuben

July 16, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit lithuanianbakery.biz for more information.

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

Obviously Omaha

May 25, 2017 by
Photography by Contributed

Food and drink are an important part of summertime festivals and cultural events. Celebrations across Omaha’s diverse communities ensure a wide selection of new and interesting things to try. Here are a few options to explore.

Dancers at Omaha’s beloved South Omaha festival

Cinco de Mayo
May 5-7
South 24th Street, from D to L streets

Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexico’s victory at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1962, during the Franco-Mexican War. But in the United States, the holiday has become a general celebration of Mexican culture. Chalupas—small tortillas lightly fried and topped with salsa, onion, and shredded chicken or beef—are a common dish in Puebla. During the festivities in South Omaha, there will also be plenty of tacos, tortas, and other treats (Mexican ice cream, horchata, and specialty drinks). 
cincodemayoomaha.com

Taste of Omaha provides food choices for everyone.

Taste of Omaha
June 2-4
Heartland of America Park and Lewis & Clark Landing

Taste of Omaha is a must-try on the city’s culinary calendar. The three-day food and entertainment extravaganza celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2017. Taste’s smorgasbord gives people a chance to try foods from India, various parts of Africa, Japan, Mexico, and elsewhere, along with several local farm-to-fork options. Taste of Omaha’s signature alcoholic drink, “River Breeze,” is made from coconut-flavored vodka mixed with cranberry and pineapple juices.
showofficeonline.com/TasteHome

Cool off on a hot summer’s night with Italian gelato

Santa Lucia Festival
June 8-11
Lewis & Clark Landing

Founded in 1925 by Grazia Bonafede Caniglia, this festival emulates the traditions of the Santa Lucia Festival in Carlentini, Sicily. Italian food is one of the festival’s highlights. Favorites include sausage or meatball sandwiches and Sicilian-style pizza by the Pizza Boys of Santa Lucia. Pasta lovers can carb-load on fried ravioli, mostaccioli, and much more.
santaluciafestival.com

Shaved ice is a favorite among kids at Omaha Summer Arts Festival

Omaha Summer Arts Festival
June 9-11
Farnam Street, 10th to 15th streets

Gator on a stick, anyone? In addition to traditional festival favorites—cotton candy, funnel cakes, and fresh-squeezed lemonade—the Summer Arts Festival also boasts seafood dishes, noodle bowls, and other foods to satisfy artistically inspired hunger. Snow cones help kids cool down, while adults can enjoy watermelon/grapefruit shandy, vanilla cream ale, black cherry hard soda, or a hard sparkling water.
summerarts.org

Take us out to the ball games, where you can chow down on traditional favorites as well as unique eats.

College World Series
June 16-27/28
TD Ameritrade Park

Each year brings new treats to Omaha’s favorite baseball event. Last year’s lineup of concession offerings at CWS included foot-long taquitos for $18; “mangia fries,” french fries coated in Italian seasoning and topped with cheese sauce, pepperoni, banana peppers, and diced tomatoes; and the “Reuben sausage,” a tubular version of Omaha’s favorite deli meat topped with sauerkraut and dressing served in a pumpernickel bun. Starting in 2016, the NCAA allowed beer and wine sales at the event. Cheers!
cwsomaha.com

Pack a picnic and come to the green for theatrics, and theater.

Shakespeare on the Green
June 22-July 9 (weekends)
Elmwood Park

Nebraska Shakespeare is putting on dinner and a show with its annual Shakespeare on the Green. Several local food trucks will dish up their fare at this free event. In true Shakespeare fashion, pizza vendors will have a variety of cleverly named dishes relating to the night’s performance. This event allows spectators to pack their own picnics, including beer or wine if desired.
nebraskashakespeare.com

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Groovy Gravy

January 12, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

UPDATE (Jan. 12, 2017) : After the publication of the January/February issue of Encounter Magazine, Cask Republic announced that it would no longer sell poutine.

“We realize that the food aspect, especially the poutine, was not financially viable,” says Ryan Frickel, co-owner of Cask Republic. Snacks will soon be available, and the bar allows patrons to bring in food from several area restaurants.

* * * * *

Foodies generally regard the 1950s as the nadir of 20th century cuisine in North America. It brought us TV dinners, jello salads, and tuna casseroles. However, it also brought us a Canadian dish that, depending on your disposition, is either a trinity of salty, starchy, fatty goodness, or a cardiologist’s dream for stirring up new business (in truth, it’s probably both).

Poutine is, essentially, french fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. Like the Reuben sandwich, there’s been a few claims to its origin, but the general consensus is that it came from rural Quebec in the late 1950s. It’s a prominent staple for restaurants downtown (Block 16) as well as Benson (1912, Benson Brewery). For the Cask Republic bar in Dundee, it’s their primary focus.

Co-owners Ryan Frickel and Craig Lundin opened Cask Republic this past summer in the former home of the popular French Bulldog restaurant. Frickel came to the decision to focus on poutine after eating it in Benson last year. Frickel says there have been poutine-focused eateries sprouting up on the West and East coasts for the past few years. Frickel wanted to be the first in Nebraska to have such an eatery.

“Who doesn’t like meat and potatoes in Nebraska?” Frickel says.

poutine1For their version of poutine, the Cask Republic double-fries their french fries to get them crispy enough to withstand the heavy coating of gravy. Their beef gravy (they also have chicken and vegetarian variations) is a combination of homemade beef stock, spices, herbs like rosemary, and some chicken. Finally, their cheese curds, served at room temperature, top the dish. When you bite into one of the curds, it should sound faintly like a dog toy.

“If it’s not squeaky, then people in the poutine world get super pissed off,” Frickel says.

Like other greasy spoon staples such as hamburgers and hash browns, there have been plenty of high-end takes on poutine. 1912 has a variation that includes duck. Block 16’s gravy incorporates a red wine reduction. The Cask Republic has poutines that include burnt ends, and even “seasonal” poutines, including turkey for the holidays. Still, focusing your menu on dish that’s basically french fries and gravy is risky. Frickel, however, compares poutine to other dishes that are now commonplace around Omaha.

“[We] kind of likened it to sushi, where 20 years ago, people in Omaha either didn’t know what sushi was or never tried it. But on the coast, it was starting to explode,” Frickel says.

Of course, if you’re going to clog your arteries with starch, cheese, and gravy, you might as well go all out and wash it down with a brew. That’s where beer comes in at Cask Republic. Frickel and minority- owner Alex Gunhus are both beer enthusiasts; they traveled to breweries throughout the United States to come up with their beer menu. Frickel says he eventually wants to build his own brewery inside the Cask Republic.

“There’s nothing like that in the Dundee area, which blows my mind,” Frickel says. “We want to be the first to do that.”

Visit facebook.com/caskrepublic for more information.

A Taste of Old Times and Reuben Tacos in Old Dundee

October 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When I first started coming into the cavernous Old Dundee Bar & Grill, the eatery and I were both much smaller. The eastern portion—the part accessible from the back entrance off of Capital Avenue—was called Main Street Movies, a movie rental place walled-off from the bar area.

My dad used to walk my sister and me there to rent VHS tapes, any movie we wanted for $2.50.  I remember the smell of popcorn from the Dundee Theatre at the top of the ramp in the southeast corner, the `70s-style pattern in the worn carpet. I remember the smell of fried fish coming from the Dundee Dell.

olddundee2Established in 1934, the year after Prohibition, the Dundee Dell went through various owners. A former owner of the Dundee Dell, Pat Goebel, relocated the bar to Underwood Avenue in 2000. So, the bar that next occupied the old Dodge Street location needed a different name. The new name held onto nostalgia for the space. Affectionately known as “The Old” or “ODBG,” it has been owned by Bellevue native Joe Goodman since 2009.

Goodman says that the old bar and the building surrounding it—including the shuttered Dundee Theatre, a bridal store, Merle Norman Cosmetics, and an antiques store—were built in the 1920s and operated as a speakeasy during Prohibition.

Goodman’s ODBG is known for its specials, expert staff, and reasonable food prices, as well as its deep-fried flour tacos, including the Reuben taco (which isn’t listed on the menu). It’s made of a deep-fried flour shell, Swiss cheese, corned beef, Thousand Island dressing, and of course, sauerkraut. They’re huge, so I only eat one. For the Wednesday night special, the price of the beef tacos drops to $2. The others stay at the usual $2.25.

I’ve never eaten a Reuben—I normally hate sauerkraut. But the combination of the meat, cheese, dressing, and crunchy taco shell was delicious. The taco’s crunchiness and tangy dressing distracted me from the sauerkraut. I would consider ordering it again, and this is the only restaurant where I’ve heard of reuben tacos for sale. Other items that Goodman will cook-to-order, but are not listed on the menu, include a Cuban sandwich and crab rangoons. While these favorites are not necessarily secret, in general, only Old Dundee regulars request them. 

Goodman, and the staff who worked at The Old prior to his ownership, transformed it from a struggling bar into a thriving neighborhood watering hole. The space has been renovated while retaining its speakeasy roots: a massive brick fireplace defines the southern wall, topped by a massive black-and-white painting of two guys having a drink. Goodman replaced the battered green carpet that covered the floor and the bar with wooden floors, new carpet, and a newly cut and painted original cement floor in the gaming area (complete with pool tables and darts). He also installed a gleaming wooden bar flanked with carved lions.

olddundee1

“I think it’s the staff that keeps bringing people back,” Goodman says. “They make people feel welcome and encourage them to have a good time.” 

You’ll want to visit the Old Dundee soon: The bar’s lease will not be renewed. It will leave the building by the end of January 2017 to make way for Film Streams’ redevelopment of the Dundee Theatre next door. While Goodman says that the bar will remain open for New Year’s, he’s not sure when he’ll shut down for good.

“When we close depends on inventory, but we’re having fun,” Goodman says.

So while you can, come to the Old Dundee for the tacos, and stay for its vintage, comfortable vibe.

Crystal and Corned Beef

May 28, 2014 by
Photography by KMTV 3 / Bostwick-Frohardt Collection at the Durham Museum

High-stakes meetings and stylish parties were held on the hotel’s top floor ballroom.  Lush rooftop gardens looked out over bustling Midtown Omaha. The elegant Blackstone Hotel towered over Midtown, even casting its name onto the surrounding neighborhood.

It was a short stroll from where I worked at WOWT to the hotel’s front door. The Blackstone was a second home to those of us who wanted to grab an after-work drink at the Cottonwood Room—a fun hangout with a whimsical décor and air. How could it not be an enjoyable place? In the center of the bar stood an elaborate replica of a cottonwood tree densely festooned in leaves.

Upstairs, the hotel’s Orleans Room was reserved for special-occasion dining. Presiding as maître d’hôtel was a tall, distinguished-looking black man who was always seen wearing a tuxedo. Called by diners the “Governor,” he looked like an ambassador and was just as charming.

If you had dined at the Orleans Room before, the Governor remembered your name, your preferred drink and where you wanted to be seated. Meals were always prepared tableside. It was the type of personal service rarely seen anymore.

The room attracted visiting celebrities over the years. A hallway was lined with photos of stars who had dined at the Orleans Room. Mark Schimmel remembers spending time in the coffee shop with comedian Jack Benny. The self-described “miser” would allow Mark to pay for his coffee.

Mark’s father, Edward Schimmel, was the hotel’s general manager for many years. Now living in Wentzville, Mo., Mark was the manager when the family-owned hotel was sold to Radisson in 1968. He stayed on.

A busy Golden Spur coffee shop in the hotel was good for a quick lunch. Each of the seven walls displayed a different decor, according to Mark, with whom I recently traded fond memories of the Blackstone days. “It was like going into a museum.” he said, Spurs hanging from one wall explained the room’s name. In earlier days, the room was called the Plush Horse.

The Golden Spur is where I tasted my first Reuben sandwich. For countless Omahans and Blackstone guests, this was also the first place they tasted the famed Reuben.

But, was it the first place? The big question for posterity: Was I eating a Reuben from the actual birthplace of the now-iconic sandwich? While the Blackstone is most often mentioned as the home of the Reuben, others outside Omaha have tried to stake claim.

Debate no more. The case is closed. The Reuben was invented at the Blackstone.
Mary Bernstein—the granddaughter of Blackstone owner Charles Schimmel—got the story firsthand.

“Here’s the scoop,” she says. “My father, Bernard Schimmel, had just returned from school in Switzerland where he trained to be a chef.  His father, Charles, held a weekly poker game at the Blackstone Sunday nights.  He said to my dad, ‘Reuben wants you to make some sandwiches with corned beef and sauerkraut.’

“And my dad put together this concoction of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing and dark rye bread and grilled them, then took them to the poker players. After it later received such wide acclaim, they decided to put it on the menu at the Schimmel hotels and call it the Reuben sandwich, because Reuben Kulakofsky had requested it.”

The exact date is lost in family history. But it would have to be after Bernard returned in 1928 from Switzerland. The first menu the family has uncovered that lists the Reuben sandwich was from the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln in 1934, according to Judy Weil of San Francisco, the family historian.
Because the Reuben sandwich apparently first appeared on a menu at the Cornhusker, it is sometime mistakenly assumed that the sandwich was created there.

Charles Schimmel added the Blackstone to his stable of hotels in 1920. The building became an Omaha Landmark in 1983 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
He trained his four sons in the hotel business. They along with other family members each ran one of the seven Schimmel hotels. In Omaha, the hotels were the Blackstone and Indian Hills Inn. In Lincoln, Schimmel owned the Cornhusker.

The Schimmel family’s sandwich story has been repeated throughout the nation.  Bernard’s granddaughter Elizabeth Weil wrote about her family’s appetizing creation in the New York Times.
Bernstein still advocates for the Reuben sandwich, but admits she no longer eats the corned beef and sauerkraut concoction.  She’s now a vegetarian.