August 29, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

El Día de los Muertos is right around the corner, and what better way to celebrate the Day of the Dead than with food? Keep an eye out for sugar skulls as you sample some of the best Mexican cuisine in Omaha along 24th Street.

La Michoacana (24th and E)

José Gaytan, owner of the small café La Michoacana, is hard-pressed to choose just one favorite from his menu but finally narrows it down. “For me,” he says, “the nachos are wonderful. The pico de gallo on them is made fresh every day.” As are all the meats. But if you’re looking for La Michoacana’s standout contribution to the South Omaha Mexican cuisine scene, skip the hot bar and go straight to the frozen cabinet by the cash register. A sign requests in Spanish that patrons allow an employee to open it. Ask for a mango paleta, or popsicle. It costs $1 and is made with milk, fruit, and not much else. The texture is smooth rather than icy, and the taste is creamy and not as shockingly sweet as frozen treats you’ll find elsewhere. It also melts with surprising speed the instant you step into sunlight, so plan on eating it quickly. No wonder they don’t want you standing over the freezer with the lid open.

Popsicles from La Michoacana.

Popsicles from La Michoacana.

Dos de Oros (24th and G)

“¿Cambio para el veinte?” One of the regulars at the Dos de Oros food truck taps another customer on the shoulder to remind him to get his change. There’s always a small crowd milling around the truck, patrons chatting as they wait in line or wait to order, so you’ll have plenty of time to study the menu on the whiteboard. If you’re okay with a bit of heat, try the chorizo burrito, a flavor you won’t find at a fast-food joint. Ladle some salsa verde over your plate, and grab a Mexican Coke from the cooler in the front of the truck. A bottle opener specifically for the sugar-cane soda swings in the breeze. These burritos are about half the size of the monsters at Chipotle or Qdoba, but for $3 and a great spicy flavor, who’s complaining?

El Ranchito (24th and H)

As tiny as its name suggests, El Ranchito keeps only a few picnic-cloth-covered tables in its café. Its menu has some standard lunch prices of $8 or $9 an entrée, but you can make a cheaper meal out of the tacos at $1.35 or the zopes (also known as sope) for $1.75. These soft, corn flour (or masa) tortillas are fried and then served open-faced with savory meat, lettuce, onions, and tomatoes. If you’re feeling brave, order the lengua zope. The seared beef tongue is tender, salty, and smoky. But consider ordering it for carryout—the telenovelas on that small TV in the corner can get loud.

Beef-tongue zope at El Ranchito is tender and smoky.

Beef-tongue zope at El Ranchito is tender and smoky.

Jacobo’s Grocery (24th and L)

The queue by the deli counter at the back of Jacobo’s Grocery is long but steadily moving. Kerry Hoiberg waits patiently for two quarts of what she calls the best salsa in town. She drives down regularly from the Field Club neighborhood to stock up on the grocery store’s salsa and homemade chips. “I like supporting local, but at a farmers market, a pint would cost about $5,” she says. “Here, it’s made fresh every day, and a quart is $3.25.” She also buys a small cup of hot sauce for 40 cents, saying she’ll mix it in later to spice up the mild pico de gallo.

The deli also serves an array of hot lunches, such as empanadas and chimichangas, but it just might be the pastry case at the end that will capture your attention. Order something at random, and you’ll be fine. The guayaba pastry, for example, costs 70 cents, is unbelievably flaky, and filled with guava jelly. You’ll make a mess eating it, but you won’t care.

There are plenty of hot lunch options at Jacobo's Grocery on 24th Street.

There are plenty of hot lunch options at Jacobo’s Grocery on 24th Street.

El Rinconcito (23rd and N)

El Rinconcito translates roughly into “the little out-of-the-way corner,” and it certainly is off the beaten path. However, it’s worth leaving South Omaha’s main drag of 24th Street for a place that serves breakfast all day. For around $9, you can have two huevos estrellados (fried eggs), a few strips of tocino (bacon), a caramelized plantain, refried beans, cheese, and three tortillas served in a tablewarmer. A little extra gets you coffee.

Most of these places don’t take credit or check, so no matter where you intend to observe el Día de los Muertos, come properly prepared with cash. That and an empty stomach are all you need to enjoy the flavors of South Omaha.