When it comes to great barbeque towns, many people think of Kansas City, St. Louis, Memphis, or Austin, but Omaha also has a number of great BBQ joints. This month’s review focuses squarely on the “joints” aspect of the local BBQ landscape. We’ll explore some of the hidden gems, those whose smoky scents have the power to waft far beyond their sometimes out-of-the-way locales.
We’re also introducing a new, one-time-only rating category in our accompanying information box—a “Dive Factor.” Read these scores like you would a golf card in that one should covet a low Dive Factor rating. For perhaps obvious reasons, we have also dropped the “Price” rating for these most accessible of eateries. And to simplify the review process, we decided to target only one menu item at each—pork sandwiches.
My judging criteria for these most basic of places is also the most basic—bun, pork, and sauce.
The first I visited was Jim’s Rib Haven in North Omaha. Jim’s is drive-through-only after the lunch hour. Even from the drive-through you can smell the amazing smoky barbecue aromas drifting out the window. I got right down to business and ordered a BBQ pork sandwich, but I had to raise my voice a bit because my crackling Dive-O-Meter device was going nuts. I had my choice of mild, regular or hot barbecue sauce and I chose regular while also asking for a side of the others to sample. The pork was very tender, incredibly smoky, and sliced thin. It seemed like it had been mixed with the sauce at the last minute, since the meat had not really absorbed the sauce. The meat itself was amazing, and I don’t think it would be possible to get any more smoke flavor into it. The regular barbecue sauce had great flavor and quite a bit more spice than I was expecting [Editor’s Advisory: Ordering the hot sauce at Jim’s should require the signing of a medical waiver]. The bun was the only weak spot. It was a cheap, flimsy hamburger bun, but this was still an excellent sandwich that I knew would be hard to top.
Next on the list was Hartland BBQ in Benson, a nicely decorated place where the needle barely budged on my Dive-O-Meter. It was very clean and well lit. The layout of the former Subway sandwich shop had me ordering at the counter and then taking the food to my seat. Hartland serves theirs without sauce, so the first stop was at the condiment station where you have a choice of mild, sweet, or hot sauce. Many people may like this arrangement and the ability to select and use as much or as little sauce as they like. In my case, I would prefer that to be done in the kitchen. Adding room-temperature sauce to a hot sandwich really cools it down, and it is impossible to get it mixed all the way in through the pork. The sweet sauce tasted a lot like Bull’s-Eye, the mild like Cattlemen’s, and the hot tasted just like Cattlemen’s Hot & Spicy. The meat was a smoked, pulled, pork shoulder that was moist and perfectly seasoned. The bun was a good quality round Kaiser roll. Overall I really liked this sandwich but just felt that the cold sauce detracted a little bit from an otherwise stellar meal.
Last on my list was Ozark Smoked Meat Company in Southwest Omaha in the location it has occupied for three decades. They are known for their amazing beef jerky, but their barbecue is also top notch. The restaurant has a nice, southern feel to it, but I had to stay focused because I was not there to look at the restaurant or their expansive menu. Their version of the BBQ pork sandwich was a textbook example and what most would expect. Moist, rubbed, and smoked pork shoulder is simmered in their own tangy, scratch-made sauce. It is served on a really nice quality sesame sandwich roll. I could eat this sandwich every day! This one earned bonus points for making a mess of my shirt, just like any good sandwich should.
I really liked all three sandwiches and all three restaurants, and I plan to go back to each and sample some of their other menu offerings. All of them serve some excellent BBQ fare at very inexpensive prices. This assignment has really opened my eyes to the fact that smoke-slathered BBQ is alive and well in all corners of Omaha!