Sunday, November 15, 2015

Omaha Food: Bigger Than Beef

Out now on The History Press/Arcadia Publishing

Hey. Oh, HEY!

No, I didn't finally fall victim to my rampant overeating, though I've often imagined myself voluntarily succumbing to the same fate as that poor chap from the movie Seven. I haven't been dead this last year or so, but I was under a rock—or more accurately in my bed, propped by a mountain of pillows looking at my laptop screen, chin pasted to my upper chest with hours worth of sweat, the kind you imagine protruding from the pores of all the great writers when caught up in the heat of creativity. Folks, I was writing a book.

When I'd finally emerge from a weekend of this, after my butt and bed had nearly becoming one, I'd routinely dislodge myself around 9 p.m. on a Sunday night, hunger raging. It's not possible to exist on whole bags of Maggie's White Cheddar popcorn, I learned (though my white film-crusted keyboard will tell you otherwise). I'd want something to eat, and not just because I was spending weeks and months thinking and writing about food. But as my fellow eaters in Omaha know, come sundown on a Sunday, the viable restaurant options start rapidly vanishing. Ever try to grab some Salween on the Sabbath day? Or anything remotely Asian-ish in general? Blackstone is a ghost town. Benson is hungover. And come 9 p.m., everything that's not that one really busy Taco Bell is shuttered for the night, it seems.

"Food sucks in this town," we'd complain to each other over some mediocre tacos from a truck we found open, like a beacon of light, at the edge of the earth.

I'd routinely ask myself why I was doing this in the first place, devoting ridiculous amounts of time and money to a project that seemed overly optimistic and somewhat naive. I don't believe in boosterism, so how would I fill up 140 pages with a realistic account of stuff worthy of reading on the topic of Omaha food when I couldn't even find anything sufficient to stuff my face with on a Sunday night?

Well, I did it anyway. I did it because I do believe we are onto something. As a transplant about to celebrate my five-year Omahversary, I don't have a firsthand account of the city pre-2010. But I've seen a lot since then. I've seen the the opening of a number of new, noteworthy restaurants, the formation of some outstanding organizations, the launching of galleries, the painting of bike lanes, the start of new music venues and festivals, and the revitalization of multiple entire neighborhoods—all in just the last couple of years. Overzealousness aside, I believe this ever-changing town is at a very precise point in its cultural history, where we can stop comparing ourselves to other cities and start earning our very own well-rounded snobbish hipster attitude about things. And what better way to help nudge that cool factor over the edge than with a book, one that became a nice snapshot of Omaha food as it stands in 2015?

Finally, with a degree in History, this book is exactly the type of project I get off on. I'll attack any pile of research with an enthusiasm usually reserved for only the most diligent nerd. Now for the low, low price of $21.99, you can come on my little food adventure, too. Available online, in stores, and at events over the next couple of months.

The next place to partake is Friday, November 20, 2015 at The New BLK. Part concert, part art show, and part book signing, it's sure to be a doozy, and not to be missed. Details here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

We want you!

My maiden pie from Noli's on Farnam. Have you been yet, hipster?

So hey. You may have noticed I haven't been around here too often lately. Here's why:

1. I got bored with writing chunks of words that were being taken as "reviews," when they were in fact just my experiences. Also disenchanted with semi-anonymously tearing up certain subpar restaurants, because yeah, even that bad Mexican place in the Old Market is owned by someone who tries to make a living off of it.

2. I got busy working on another project I think you'll like. Not going to give away the details yet, but let's just say this one involves actual paper. Pages of it. Like, at least a couple dozen. Bound by a sheet of thicker paper. With words and pictures all over it. Kind of like a blog you can hold in your hand. Wait 'til you see this thing.

Here's what you can do:

Go HERE and tell me all your thoughts on pizza in Omaha. It will only take a couple of minutes. Heck, you can even tell your Facebook friends about it. We would be totally grateful! (I don't know why I said "we" there. To create the illusion this operation is more profesh than somebody typing away on their couch eating Pringles for breakfast?)

And, as a reward that I'm giving you in advance, please read all about the properest way to reheat pizza, and feel free to convert:

Gawker: The Way to Reheat Pizza Is in a Skillet 

You're welcome!

Update: The survey is now closed. Thanks for your responses and stay tuned for the results. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Pho Viet

7923 Blondo Street
(402) 393-3111
Open Mon–Thurs 11–9:30, Fri & Sat 11–10, Sun 11–9

Meatball Pho ($8.50)
What lies beneath the murky broth besides a clump of limp rice noodles?

I never considered myself an expert on pho. That is, until that one time I helped make it over a year ago. After cruisin' the trusty Internet for the best recipe and going clear out of my way to the 76th Street Asian market to get certain spices, I feel like, you know, I've been there. I get it. 

Seriously though, I did learn the importance of star anise and cardamom, of coriander and fennel. The delight of these aromatics is, I think, largely why pho is sworn to be one of the greatest comfort foods out there. It's ideal for a long, leisurely weekend meal with friends, when there's sufficient time to pack the entire bowl — noodles and all — bit by bit into your swelling stomach cavity. 

At Pho Viet, the broth didn't have much evidence of any of those spices. It was a curious deep brown, somewhat darker and than usual, and didn't smell or taste much different from the free-with-your-meal soup from the two-star Chinese joint down the street you only dared to dine at because it snowed a bunch. 

Bottom line: without abundant aromatics, pho is just not that special.

Sliced beef pho with the accompaniments. Sure, it's the dead of winter, but can you please only serve me spritely looking basil, perky bean sprouts, and jalapeƱo slices fit for a Taco Bell commercial shoot, please?

The family running the place, on the other hand, was special. They seemed extremely concerned about whether we were pissed because their baby let loose on the crying while they were in the midst of preparing meals for us and three other tables. Note to self to try to shed that "uptight asshole" look I must be giving off. Fact is, it's hard to deny the intimate magic of a family-owned restaurant, built by a hopeful outlook and a bunch of secondhand stuff strung together on a tight budget — whimpering infant and all. 

Egg rollz ($2.99):
Damn solid.

I might go back and try a banh mi—the other Vietnamese dish people like myself claim to know shit about. And I am especially happy to have had the chance to dine in this state-of-the-art strip mall that's remarkably easy on the eyes.

Still on the search for great pho east of 168th and Harrison. And hoping you'll still try this one, because it's possible they had an "off" day, and because I don't want to be even remotely responsible for the nice family going under because Fatty didn't taste enough spices in her broth. 

In a sea of bright yellow signage spanning the entire shopping center (I mean seriously, have you been there?), this one clearly has the most draw of the bunch, thanks to the seaming soup bowl icon off to the side.
Image borrowed from the Pho Viet Facebook page.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

LT Organic Farm Restaurant

32513 Ute Ave (Just north of I-80)
Waukee, IA 50263
Open daily 11am – 9pm, May thru Oct, 11am – 8pm in Nov, closed Dec thru Apr

This is a REAL LIFE iPhone photo.
View from the parking lot.

In the wake of a wee bit of food poisoning from a fast food joint (it was the slightly off mini-tub of honey mustard soybean oil dipping sauce that did it, I think), I am reminded of just how important it is to plan your meals if you're gonna be on the go so you don't get stuck eating pink slime and partially hydrogenated reconstituted potatoes against your will. If you happen to be driving across Iowa on I-80, I think I've found the perfect meal to get you nice and full and not be in a position to offend your car mates with factory-manufactured flatulence.

Psst... The restaurant is in an old barn.

The story is something like this: Doctor Guy of Indian descent (or maybe he's actually from India, I don't know) decides to leave his practice in Chicago and move to a farm just west of Des Moines. Doctor Guy starts an all-natural restaurant, using ingredients from his honest-to-goodness, functioning farm on his property, and enlists his daughter as the service staff and son as the kid that's just hanging around and wants to tell you all about the chicken coup and show you how to tear leaves off of trees to hand-feed the goats. It was all maybe a little too tranquil and perfect. 

Masala chicken, jasmine rice, sauteed spinach,
cucumber yogurt salad, red beans in coconut tomato sauce,
potato chutney, seasoned chickpeas, falafel in pea sauce.
Nothing was extra heavily spiced or overbearing in flavor — this isn't "Indian food"
as we normally think of it, but a refreshing, balanced, seasoned dish. 

Lemon ginger herb drink crack

In addition to serving one hell of a plate of Indian-inspired treats, Doctor Guy also likes to paint his walls with adages that make him sound a little wacko when taken out of context. You should probably give him the benefit of the doubt when he says stuff like, "Cardiovascular work is life threatening." I'm sure he knows something I don't. I'm just going to gnaw on this perfectly cooked, succulent masala chicken thigh, spoon in another bite of super spicy potato chutney, and marvel over how perfectly cooked these chickpeas are. I'll be over here, trying not to think about my mediocre health, enjoying this delicious food that makes most farm-to-table restaurants look like a sham. 

Worth a day trip from Omaha just for the food? Maybe. Worth it if you add in the breathtaking scenery, friendly proprietors, and a slice of Casey's pizza on the way home for dessert? You betcha. 

Whatever you say there, buddy.
In truth, I'm just offended by the "Stress is good for immune health" quip.
Stress isn't good for anything but my relationship with snack foods. 

One dish is served daily based on what they've got.
I believe they can do a veg version.

Ohhhh God, it was so good!
Look at how the cucumber sauce drizzles all over the beans!

One plate of delicious, farm-fresh food? $18.
One meal I can trust won't give me food poisoning again? Priceless.
(Damn, that MasterCard campaign really got stuck in everyone's psyche, didn't it?)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Big Mama's Sandwich Shop

2416 Lake Street 
Open Mon – Fri 10:30am – 2:30pm, Sat 11am – 2:30pm, closed Sun
Big Mama has some experience with sandwiches, and it shows. (She's fat.) 

So, um, can everyone please stop thinking Rotella's is good bread? Just because their stinking factory is located here doesn't mean the stuff is any different from the other pliable, springy, memory foam mattress-like, preservative-laden breads on the shelf at Hy-Vee. If a local restaurant carries it, it is not a nod to fresh, local, or quality. It's fine if you don't care at all about bread, but it is most certainly nothing to brag about. 

Big Mama's Cold Fried Chicken Sandwich
on Rotella's wheat hoagie roll

Big Mama's Sandwich Shop serves Rotella's bread. But I can get over it. 

At the counter on a fine spring afternoon, when prompted to choose white or wheat for my cold fried chicken sandwich, I seized up. My mind went a mile a minute trying to resist the urge to go for my knee-jerk choice of wheat (which is usually just brown white bread anyway), because something like cold fried chicken sounds like it's on the list of Reasons Why White Bread Exists — along with grilled American cheeses, BLTs, and baloney sandwiches they serve in prison. Why were they even asking me? So I asked her which one I should get. To which she responded:

"I don't know. Do you like white or wheat bread?"

Feeling like a doofus, I said "wheat" and immediately regretted it. But after that whole episode, I don't think it really mattered, because it was indeed brown-colored white bread encasing this particular sandwich. You know, Rotella's. Whatever. 

Down the hatch.

Other than that, the fried chicken strips had a hefty, flavorful breading and were pleasantly juicy. I thought Big Mama's secret sauce — something akin to a marriage of honey mustard and Italian dressing — had a nice, just-out-of-the-food-processor zing and an interesting, earthy spice I couldn't quite put my finger on 'cause my palate was busted from a hangover.

One very solid pastrami sandwich

My dining buddy's pastrami pepper jack melt thing came on pumpernickel that was ridged with the markings of a panini press. He said it was a solid sandwich but generally unremarkable. I had a bite and immediately forgot what it was like. The kosher dill pickle spear we paid extra for was on the level of a Vlasic®, reminding me why I always feel like such a putz when I pay extra for a pickle. 

Oxtail soup with swimming meat fibers and dissolving vegetables

The oxtail soup had okra, which was a nice touch, but it was smushy okra, so it didn't matter. Actually, all of the veggies were smushy, and the broth under seasoned. The pulled oxtail was pulled apart to the max, reduced to individual strands of meat fibers, rendering it undetectable. It was definitely homemade, it was just in need of some attention to detail.

I don't doubt Big Mama is a great cook. Because I have a heartbeat, I love the idea of opening a good sandwich shop to lure people of all races from all corners of Douglas County to a part of town with a dangerous reputation, as any forward-facing, liberal-slanting millennial would. Her story is very attractive to television producers: in addition to appearances on several national programs, Big Mama was even picked up for her own reality show on the Food Network (which seems to have immediately been canceled).

She's certainly the face behind the food. Or on the food. Y'know.

The problem is that here, it's too over-branded to feel authentic. Big Mama's face stares up at you in places you wouldn't expect. I just don't see the place making its way into anyone's regular rotation on the merit of the food alone. In quality and menu items, it could be an alternative to Worker's Takeout, but the sandwiches are half the size and twice as expensive.

$7.50 for a sandwich pre-tax and chips? Hmm.

I should stop posturing as if Omaha is just brimming with fantastic sandwich shops that could take this place down. It's not. And the over-the-top marketing might just seem like a lot because so many restaurants in this town either don't even bother or fail miserably at it. I think I was just offended by the chip selection. I just don't want to believe that Big Mama expects us to subsist on Lay's as the sole side dish offering, unless it's on purpose to take you back to the hard times of the early '80s, long before kettle chips were a thing. I mean, having to choose between original, BBQ, or sour cream and onion is some old-school shit.

Still, everyone should pay Big Mama's a visit, if not just to see what it's like. Counter space is limited; I'd recommend takeout. If you do eat in, be sure to bring your own chips.

Part of the Carver Bank development, an art exhibit and performance space.

A note: The Sandwich Shop's mother restaurant, Big Mama's Kitchen, was the subject of one of my very first blog entries three years ago, before I knew how to write. It's a little bit of an embarrassing time capsule, much like logging into MySpace and looking at your profile. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Cronut®

One milk and honey with lavender sugar Cronut® —
wait, is that a piece of mouse poop?

In preparation for my last routine visit to NYC, I started thinking about what I wanted to eat, as usual, about a month in advance. The Cronut® entered my mind, where the thought festered and pestered until I just had to figure out a way to try the highly hyped-up pastry I had already deemed overrated. It didn't make sense to chase an item I was cynical about, but just like pro-athlete salaries and people who enjoy snow, a lot of things in life don't make sense.

At 11am EST one Monday morning, I dove headfirst into a fierce online competition to claim a limited number of Cronut® preorders. The site was fussy ("Do I reload and lose my place in line, or do I wait? Dear God, what do I do?"), but by 11:07am EST, the site was sold out, and I was the proud owner of six fresh Cronuts®, to be picked up two weeks later within a one-hour specified window.

This is already getting ridiculous. Let's back up.

Them's the rules.

Since the Cronut® was "invented" and patented by Dominique Ansel Bakery in SoHo, the demand has been sickening, often resulting in six-hour lines outside of the bakery. There's a litany of instructions called Cronut® 101 that those lucky enough to behold one must adhere to. Consume within a few hours. Do not refrigerate or freeze. If you must cut, do so only with a serrated blade.

The whole thing is a real eye-roller, like so many things in that city are.

Everyone from Vice to Eater has weighed in, so it seems fruitless to devote time to the subject now. The main reason I'm slaving away at the keyboard is the high hopes of cashing in my clout with some sexy SEO action. You see, Dominique Ansel is trending this weekend, even more than usual. And it all has to do with a mouse in the house. 

I had pests in every apartment I lived in in New York. Mice — and roaches — are a part of life. In a restaurant I worked at two blocks from the river in Philadelphia, the cheeky fuckers would occasionally dance across customers' feet as they dined, prompting us to comp meals, but instead of profuse apologies, we usually just sort of shrugged — there was only so much you could do.

I did not work in a dilapidated shithole. I assure you that many, many popular restaurants in these cities deal with the same issue, it just comes down to who gets caught. When some ass posted a video on YouTube of a single mouse darting around the kitchen at Dominique Ansel, prompting the Department of Health to jerk its knee and shut the place down, the future of the Cronut® was all of a sudden lurched into uncertainty. A product of the ubiquitous phone camera, the new sport of restaurant pest-spotting is sweeping the nation with nausea. I miss the days of ignorance, don't you?

Now-ironic message on the chalkboard

I shouldn't care. I don't, actually. (See comment above about going for at least third-page Google results with this shit.) The Cronut® is an intricately layered pastry, and the painstaking effort that must have gone into its development is apparent. Still, it was somewhat difficult to bite into, the cream filling was overkill (a donut–croissant hybrid should be rich enough in my opinion), and the lavender dusting smelled faintly of old people. Perhaps worst of all, I had trouble unloading them on my friends. "No," they said, "you've waited far too long; I couldn't possibly."

I wondered what would have happened if I had left this box of Cronuts® on a park bench somewhere.
Would it have made front-page news?

While I have a thing for portmanteau, the name Cronut® seems far too cutesy for a pastry so regal, so special, so lavish. I think, overall, that croissants might just be better as croissants (unless it's a City Bakery pretzel croissant). But at $5 a pop, I can say I ate one before the Cronut® bubble burst. Before the place was shut down because they evidently found mouse crap everywhere. Before we all got too grossed out to eat outside of our home kitchens anymore.

Until last week, the most sought-after six pack in the country.

Update: Two days later, MY Cronut® photo shows up in the 30th row of Google images!
Sweet success.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lansky's Pizza Pasta & Philly Steaks

4601 S 50th St (at L St) 
402-731-1919 — put this one on speed dial (people still do that)
Open daily 11am – 9pm or something 
Plus locations in Bellevue and Council Bluffs

Sleek font, sloppy food

Imagine waking up in a parallel universe, where animals can talk, the cab company doesn't suck, and your neighbors champion really disgusting foods. For one of those scenarios, you don't have to imagine anymore — you can just go to Lansky's. 

We were bumbling around near 50th and L when hunger struck and a quick consultation with the smartphone (93% on Urbanspoon!) ultimately pivoted the car into the parking lot. At first, it seemed Lansky's had the makings of something good. The awkward layout and quaint-yet-hideous interior all pointed to the idea that the food's too good to be bothered with atmosphere. A sign at the translucent iceberg lettuce salad bar read, "One trip only, please." I felt that was legitimate, that the owners are too busy quietly turning out Omaha's best pizza to be bogged down by unnecessary salad costs. The aroma of the place even reminded me of the neighborhood pizza joints I terrorized as an adolescent. (The reader has been reminded that I grew up on the East Coast and am therefore an absolute authority on most things, including all types of pizza.) Tables started to file in with subdued excitement, placing their orders at the counter and then plopping down on the salmon-colored padded chairs, sipping from styrofoam cups and chatting about all the joys and hardships of being a South Central Omahan while nonchalantly waiting to have their minds blown by the best food on the planet. 

No, I don't do food styling: the Philly cheesesteak with wayward onions and peppers

But no. Just, no. With the food on the table, and the shock of its appearance faded ("It could still be good!" I screamed in my head), we dug in, only to be met with hopelessly poor quality — it was in-your-face cheap. The Philly cheesesteak bun tasted like a knockoff of something you'd find at a church spaghetti dinner, and as a whole, the sandwich had an off-putting flavor; I think the mass-produced "American Swiss cheese" was the culprit.

Then there was the pizza. Piled with pounds of tasteless cheese and pepperoni, the spongy crust was the color of pasty legs in winter.  I thought it might just be undercooked, but it became clearer and clearer that another few minutes in the oven wouldn't have done much for this heap of shitty ingredients. In one final attempt to reconcile my hunger, I pulled back the inch-thick inedible layer of toppings and pushed it to the side, folded the white, doughy, sponge square in half while it oozed yellow oily matter, and gulped it down. I cursed myself for not stopping at Casey's General Store instead. I thought about the last time I had DiGiorno, and how it's only $4.99 for a pie. I wondered why I put myself through this. 

The pepperoni pie:
It's true I loathe the party cut and toppings under cheese,
but what I loathe more than anything is a bunch of Sysco-sourced ingredients masquerading as something good.
I'd say it's more in line with school cafeteria quality, but I wouldn't want any children eating this.

By now we all know the internet is riddled with untruths. But studying the restaurant's red hot glowing diner reviews online is more than puzzling. It makes me feel like there's something wrong with me. If this is it, then what am I doing? Why am I here? What's the point? Am I trapped in a dystopian novel? 

The way people feel about Lansky's makes me think it's me against the world.