Tag Archives: tacos

A Tale of Two Tacos

August 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Mexican
 Perfection

February 22, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Anthony Bourdain was asked what food trend he would like to see in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), he said, “I would like people really to pay more for top-quality Mexican food. I think it’s the most undervalued, underappreciated world cuisine with tremendous, tremendous potential.”

At Hook & Lime Tacos + Tequila, North Downtown’s newest addition, you will find that top-quality Mexican food and all kinds of potential, though you won’t necessarily have to pay more for it.

Owner Robbie Malm says after selling his share in Dudley’s Pizza and Tavern, he wanted to do something smaller and more creative. With a little help from his wife, Erin, and his brother, Tim Malm, he has done just that.

Hook & Lime’s menu has a selection of a la carte tacos, small plates, and tortas, all for under $20.

But if you do want to spend some money and have a more decadent experience, you can try the family-style tacos or the tasting menu (with or without tequila).

For the family-style tacos, you can choose between the whole fish, which is currently fried, striped bass, or bone-in barbacoa, which is cooked for 72 hours, crisped in the oven, and sent to the table for you to pick apart.

Head chef Alex Sorens says the tasting menu is something he’s excited about because it gives his crew the opportunity to create dishes and test things out. If they’re good, they’ll go on the next tasting menu.

“It’s stuff that we wouldn’t normally serve to the public,” he says. “It will be a select amount of these things, and when we run out, we run out.”

The menu features a lot of fish, hence the “hook” in Hook & Lime. Sorens says he gets their fish from Seattle Fish Co. out of Kansas City, Missouri. He uses their program Whole Boat Harvest for some of the dishes, like the ceviche. The program sells the “leftover” fish from hauls, fish that would normally go to waste because they’re not as well-known as others.

“The reason for that is because I’m trying to do my part to not be in that same group that’s using all those super popular, over-fished species that are going on endangered lists right now.”

Sorens also tries to support other environmentally conscious businesses, getting a lot of their ingredients from local producers like Plum Creek Farms and Jon’s Naturals.

Malm says these are things you might normally only find at “higher-end, white tablecloth places.” He says their goal is to make that food available to everyone.

“We have this amazing menu, these amazing items, that we’re able to bring to people who normally wouldn’t get to experience them,” he says. “We’re trying to take that food, that approach of sourcing locally and treating these items with respect, and make it more approachable. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a suit and tie or flip-flops, we welcome everybody here.”

Malm says he has been “very, very fortunate” in finding the team to do that.

“Everyone seems to be really excited about their role in this,” he says. “So I quickly found out that my best role is really to enable them to just dive in.”

This enthusiasm extends to the front of the house, where bar manager Brian van Egmond works to create original cocktails using ingredients made in house.

“It’s a fusion between speed and craft,” he says. There will be a couple margaritas available on tap, but the fresh juices are added after they’re poured.

So far, van Egmond says they’ve made their own orange brandy, orange liquor, syrups, and crème de cassis. He is currently working on a strawberry tequila for their strawberry margaritas. They also have a hibiscus-infused reposado, which is used to make the Roselle cocktail.

“That’s one I think both Negroni and Cosmo fans will appreciate.”

Van Egmond says they also have a well-curated spirits list, and plenty of beers to offer, including many from local breweries. There are also several wine options.

Of course, if what you’re really looking for is some straight up, premium tequila, Hook & Lime has you covered.

“Tequila is my favorite thing to drink,” Malm says. “It is my favorite thing to drink,” he repeats, laughing. “And I’m a fairly recent convert.”

But once he fell in love with tequila, it became a little bit of an obsession. He talks excitedly about touring tequila distilleries in Mexico with his wife. He says they toured five different spots, including Cuervo and Herradura.

The restaurant’s offerings reflect his enthusiasm, with more than 100 tequilas on their list and four different styles of flights available if you want to do a little sampling before you commit.

“They say there’s no zealot like a convert,” Malm says. “And that is definitely true when it comes to tequila.”

Undoubtedly, Hook & Lime will do their share in creating converts, both to tequila and to a greater appreciation of top-quality Mexican food.

Hook & Lime is open Sundays through Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.

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

Birrieria El Chalan

January 3, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Step inside Birrieria El Chalan, and the sizzle of grilled meat along with the aromatic scents of cumin, chiles, and other spices are the first signs that Mexican food fans are in for a treat. And once they start digging into a plate of tacos, tortas, or tostadas, they will realize this place is not about Tex-Mex, fusion, or modern Mexican. Instead, the focus is on homestyle, traditional food that, for the most part, is flavorful and done well.

Although there is nothing fancy about the outside or inside of the small, locally owned spot near 24th and J streets in South Omaha. The spare, simple restaurant is a fun, casual, and welcoming place to eat.

El Chalan serves many of the classic favorites one would expect at a Mexican restaurant, but it also offers cuisine from the state of Jalisco in west-central Mexico. Dishes such as birria, a spicy, savory stew made with goat or beef are popular among many patrons. For our recent first-time visit to the restaurant, my dining partner and I skipped the specialties and stuck to more familiar fare.

Complimentary chips and salsa are a great way to start. I could have sat there all day munching on the crispy tortilla chips and fiery red salsa. Medium spicy with a hint of smokiness, the salsa is terrific both as a dip and drizzled on nearly everything. Equally addictive is the house-made guacamole. Slightly chunky with chopped onion, tomato, and cilantro, it boasts a salty, spicy, citrusy balance.

The kitchen does amazing things with tacos, too. My dining partner, a former South O resident who has eaten tacos all over the neighborhood, said they are the best he has tried locally. Diners can choose from more than a half-dozen meat options, ranging from marinated pork to beef tongue. We went with carne asada (grilled steak) tacos.

Warm corn tortillas, soft yet sturdy, hold a generous amount of tender, seasoned steak chopped into small pieces, dressed with onion and cilantro. Diners can add accompanying garnishes of sliced radish, lime, and a blistered whole jalapeño for added texture and flavor.

Tortas, a popular Mexican sandwich, are offered with a choice of meat, topped with lettuce, avocado, pickled jalapeño, and other ingredients on an oval-shaped roll with a pillowy interior and grilled exterior. We tried a torta con lomo (pork loin sandwich). The meat was tender and flavorful, but the bun started falling apart under the weight of all the filling before we could finish.

I’m a huge fan of chile relleno—a poblano pepper stuffed with mild white cheese, battered, and then fried until golden brown—but the restaurant’s version missed the mark for me. A zesty tomato-based sauce drowned the pepper, making the breading soggy. And I thought the sauce was too thin and watery. The entree comes with fluffy seasoned rice and creamy refried beans.

The restaurant takes cash only, but you won’t need much. Tacos cost $2; entrees run about $8. Despite the shortcomings, our overall dining experience was satisfying. Those looking for a casual, low-key spot that highlights traditional flavors of Mexico will find it at Birrieria El Chalan.

Rating:

Food- 3.5 stars

Service- 3 stars

Ambiance- 2 stars

Price- $

Overall- 3.5 stars

Visit http://Facebook.com/pages/birrieria-el-chalan/168661723148405 for more information.

This article was printed in the Jan/Feb 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

OJs Enchilada

August 2, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ground beef and cottage cheese on an enchilada. The combination sounds strange, but it tastes amazing.

Creamy, melted cottage cheese oozes over hearty meat and shredded lettuce, tucked into a flour tortilla. Douse the whole plate with ladles of finely chopped hot salsa (made fresh every day), and dig in.

The menu warns in all-caps: “GUARANTEED A GUT-BUSTER!” It stretches across the plate like a log, coated with a blanket of cheddar and sprinkled with black olive slices. Twin mounds of rice and refried beans huddle beside the delicious monstrosity.

OJs1Ever since I learned of cottage cheese enchiladas, OJ’s Cafe on the edge of the Missouri River has called to me like a siren song for fat kids.

Mexican food is fairly common in the Midwest nowadays, but OJ’s Cafe was a trendsetter. Located next to the Florence Mill, just south of I-680’s 30th Street exit near the Mormon Bridge, OJ’s wood-paneled facade harkens back to the days of the Wild West.

The recipe for cheese and beef enchiladas belonged to the owner’s mother. The owner, 70-year-old Olga Jane Martinez (whose married name is Vlcek) was born in Anaheim, California. She opened the cafe 40 years ago. Vlcek says they added the Western-style facade a few years after opening.

Mexican food was hard to find in Omaha back then. The restaurant was situated in the site of a former dairy that sold milk, eggs, ice cream, hamburger, and cheeseburgers. At first, Vlcek followed suit. She kept the menu and added a daily special. Mexican dishes were the Thursday and Friday special.

“Then customers started asking for more Mexican food,” Vlcek says. “I said, ‘You know what? I am going to try to make a business of this.’ So, I cut everything else (about a year after opening).”

OJ’s now offers a full menu with tacos, burritos, vegetarian options, nachos, and a wide range of Mexican fare. The kitchen will even switch out flour tortillas for corn upon request.

Walk inside OJ’s today and find heavy wooden lacquer tables and booths. Kitschy decorations abound. Ceramic suns cover one wall. Promotional mirrors for imported Mexican beer cover another. There’s a stained glass window with cacti and a sombrero, a crucifix, family photos, and lots of other trinkets contributing to the down-home atmosphere.

A waitress asks for our order. I know what I want, but ask her suggestion anyway. She recommends the cottage cheese and chicken enchilada. I pause for a moment. I didn’t know the meat choice could be switched. I take a risk. Chicken and cottage cheese it is.

When I order a plate of tortilla chips, I ask for a mix of corn and flour ($3.75) and a Pacifico on-tap ($3.75 glass) from an ample selection of Mexican beers. The beer arrives in a frosty mug. A margarita ($4) with salt on the rim follows with the entrée.

Word to the wise couple: Those with smaller appetites should consider splitting the enchilada ($10.25). After essentially chugging half of the dish, I slow to contemplate the merits of beef vs. chicken and cottage cheese. The chicken is fairly bland, aside from the rich cheesiness common to both. I still prefer the beef (which seems more savory, possibly cooked with more seasoning); however, I’m not disappointed. Being perfectly honest, I dump so much homemade salsa on my plate that it probably doesn’t matter what I’m eating.

OJs3To wrap up the meal, a sombrero ($5.50) arrives. Luckily, I’m eating with a dinner companion. We share the two heaping scoops of vanilla ice cream towering over a cinnamon and sugar-coated tortilla, all drizzled with Mexican caramel. 

Completely stuffed, I wonder about the origins of my favorite enchilada. Who better to ask than Olga Jane Vlcek herself. She still works at her namesake restaurant every day (OJ’s is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., with a mid-day break that closes the cafe from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.)

“That’s my signature enchilada,” Vlcek says of the beef and cottage cheese enchilada, which happens to be her favorite, too. The cottage cheese and beef enchilada was on the menu in the early days of OJ’s, but it wasn’t popular. “Ironically enough, I couldn’t sell them,” she says with a laugh. “People wouldn’t buy them, so I took it off the menu.” She made a commitment to herself that if her restaurant became established, she would bring back her mom’s enchilada recipe. And that’s exactly what she did. Omaha Magazine

Mula Mexican Kitchen & Tequileria

February 11, 2015 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha has always had its own unique take on Mexican food. Things like puffy tacos, enchiladas made with flour tortillas, and margaritas made with Rose’s lime juice can be found at just about every Mexican restaurant in town. Some may be surprised to learn that you would be hard pressed to find any of those things in Mexico. Mula, which opened in June, decided to buck this trend by serving authentic Mexican street food.

Owner Michael Sanchez is no stranger to the Omaha style of Mexican food. His Grandmother is Maria, the namesake of the famed Maria’s Mexican Restaurant in Ralston. Sanchez has been running Maria’s for the last several years and has shown his talents by upping the ante at Maria’s in most every way. Regardless of his local knowledge of the ins and outs of Omaha-style Mexican food, he has decided to take a risk and serve a much more traditional style of Mexican food at Mula.

The restaurant is located on the corner of 39th and Farnam. The outer brick building gives way to a beautiful modern interior that is well-designed but not “over designed.” I really liked the rustic wooden table tops, the pewter-colored bar top, and the bright orange walls. It’s a very handsome space.

The menu is straightforward and mainly consists of appetizers, tacos, and tortas, which are basically the Mexican version of a sandwich. There is also a variety of salsas, guacamoles, and side dishes to choose from and, of course, authentic churros for dessert just like you would buy on a street corner in Mexico. Everything is a la carte, so it’s fun to just order a taco or three at a time, kind of like you would do when eating sushi. At $2.50 a taco, it’s certainly a lot cheaper than sushi and, for me, much more enjoyable.

On a recent visit, we sampled the Queso Flameado Appetizer ($7). This delicious dip features boracho beans, queso chihuahua, ancho chili, chicharrones, and pepita (pumpkin seed) salsa. We also tried the Huevo Con Chorizo Appetizer ($6.5). This was soft boiled egg served with some of the best chorizo I have had in ages topped with a zesty salsa verde. We also tried a plethora of different tacos including Al Pastor Taco ($2.5), Carnitas Taco ($2.5), Baja Fish Taco ($2.5) and Carne Asada Taco ($2.5). All of the tacos were outstanding and went well with the Salsa Flight ($12) that I ordered to dress them up. The salsas included a Charred Pineapple Salsa, Roasted Tomato Salsa and a Tomatillo Salsa. All of which were top notch. We also tried the Machaca Torta ($8) and the Chicken Tinga Torta ($8). The tortas are much bigger than the tacos. Almost a meal in themselves, the tortas are suitable for sharing. They come on a freshly baked telera bread with sliced tomatoes, charred jalapenos, avocado, black bean spread, shredded lettuce, house crema, and roasted garlic mayonnaise. Combined with Mula’s great proteins, these sandwiches are incredible. Of course, we also had to try Mula’s Green Rice and Boracho Beans ($5). These were great and probably the most authentic beans and rice I have ever had in Omaha. As if all of this was not enough I also managed to take a couple of bites out of an order of Churros ($6). If you have ever had these on the street in Mexico, you know how good they can be. Mula manages to duplicate this experience.

The food at Mula is some of the best Mexican food I have had in Omaha or, for that matter, in the entire Midwest. Couple that with the service also being excellent. I was particularly impressed with my server’s knowledge of traditional Mexican flavors and ingredients. I have yet to even mention the bar, but I can tell you it has everything you could want in a Mexican Tequileria, including, by my slightly tipsy count, over 160 tequilas.

All of which combines to make Mula a place that everyone reading this should make a point of checking out. If you’re like me and favor a more traditional style of Mexican food, you’re going to love Mula! Cheers!

20141202_bs_1762