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.  

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Salween Thai

1102 NW Radial Highway
Open Mon – Sat, 11am – 9pm, closed Sun

Rad Nat with chicken ($6.95):
The menu said it had gravy, so naturally I had to get it.
The gelatinous, spicy sauce jiggled delightfully from the plate to my face.

It could be the exotic sounding name. Other Thai restaurants in town like Bangkok Cuisine and Thai Spice play it dismally safe in that department. I'd venture to say that nestling itself an arm's reach from both Benson and Dundee doesn't hurt, either. Or maybe it's that the parking lot is so challenging to get to from the northbound lane of Saddle Creek, that simply surviving the fight to get there feels like you've earned the right to partake in a rewarding indulgence.

All of those things, and also that the food is usually pretty great, make up the reasons why 30 minutes before closing on a recent Monday night, every single table in the place was occupied — with a high percentage of cool-looking people, nonetheless.

Boat rice noodle soup with pork ($6.95):
Rice noodles, meatballs and sliced meat, bean sprouts, cilantro,
and gailan (I think that's like Chinese broccoli).
Flavorful and warming, just like its better-known counterpart, a bowl of pho.

You won't find neatly trimmed, lean meats, or too much universally boring brown sauce. I like to think Salween is one of the portals to true ethnic cuisine in Omaha, though I've never been to Thailand — or even befriended any Thai people, for that matter. I probably couldn't pick the place out on a map (kidding). Point is, I can't masquerade as an expert. But I do know that the adjacent specialty grocery store, where many of the restaurant's ingredients are most likely cultivated, intensifies the legitimacy of the whole place.

Spring rolls were filled to the brim with snappy veggies
and an occasional shrimp.
Curious upright presentation was a bonus.

Dipped in spicy orange sauce this is a refreshing way to start the meal.
Fixin's for the noodle soup in the background.

In lieu of describing this particular meal in detail, since so many of us have already been here a bunch, here's my lowdown: all of the curries are fantastic, most likely the best in town. Last fall, a disappointing, gross experience involving overly mushy, coagulated noodles on the Pad See Yew nearly cost the restaurant a lifetime of my valuable patronage. But now I'm back, and I'm ordering the Rad Nat, courageously staring any sort of jelly-like texture right in the face. I'm slurping on my dining buddy's noodle soup, complete with the "teaspoon of blood" as dictated on the menu, and I'm chomping on a round of girthy spring rolls wrapped in extra sticky rice paper. It's an adventure in spices and textures, people. And surely, you're up for the ride.

All of that said, don't go here to dine in if you're in a hurry. Just don't. And don't mind the fact that the single-room, open floor plan makes you feel like you're in some sort of weird cafeteria/living room hybrid. If you want a giant Buddha fountain (all Eastern religious figures are Buddha to me) to distract you while you eat, go to Brooklyn.

Thai tea provides a little cool-off so you can properly handle a proper spice level 9.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Good Day Sacramento

Today I think I did a decent job pretending I give a hoot about football in favor of pimping our city out on oh-so-exotic Californian network TV. Thanks to Good Day Sacramento for caring and to Peyton Manning, whoever that is.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


3720 Leavenworth Street
Open Mon – Thurs 10:30am – 10pm, Fri & Sat 10:30am – 11pm, Sun 11:30am – 10pm
Delivery with $10 minimum 
China Town on Urbanspoon

Signage that suggests they've been around since at least 2001,
plus the Marylebone in the background and Mother India in the distance,
making up the culinary corridor of Leavenworth Street.

I used to pass this place on Leavenworth without looking up. I hadn't given it more than one or two subconscious, dismissive thoughts that didn't even come close to making it to the forefront of my mind. I fully assumed, based on location, signage, and the fact that no one I know ever mentions it, that it was simply not for me. The sauces would be syrupy and sugary, nearly undigestible. The meats would have a freezer-burned aftertaste. The vegetables, questionable, and the rice, dry. It might as well have had bullet proof glass dividing the kitchen from the outside world. (I'm not claiming to be some tough bitch or anything, but there are a number of take-out joints in Philly like that.)

Point is, there are a lot of bad Chinese places in town, kids. Watch yourselves.

Little did I know, the grease pool forming while taking this
photo nearly cost me my zebra print tablecloth.

It's true that the first time I ate food from here I woke up twice during the night, too thirsty to even consider a glass, going straight for the faucet while cupping my hands. That's likely more due to the fact that I not only "tried," but pretty much finished two whole entrees. A double dose of sodium will do that.

Let me walk you through that evening.

#C15, Kung Pao Chicken Combo Platter
First, when I ran into an acquaintance on the street, I felt compelled to say I was simply going for a walk, instead of "going to gorge myself at that guaranteed disgusting Chinese place directly behind us." With that major bullet dodged, I entered, placed my order for two at the counter, Facebooked in the corner of the dingy, gray dining room, and quietly collected my brown paper bag after a short eight minutes.

The Kung Pao chicken seemed, as a whole, undercooked, with veggies still too snappy and peanuts somewhat slimy and raw. The lo mein had a sorry vegetable variety, limited to poorly cut carrots, broccoli, and cabbage. I piled it all on one plate and couldn't quite discern the differences in flavor of the two. The egg roll, with tiny bits of minced pork inside, was insanely greasy. I thought about a future devoted to improving temperature control of commercial deep fryers as I ate it, slowly, intense and immediate guilt forming with every bite.

#39, Vegetable Lo Mein 

I vowed to never go back, knowing full well I would because it's convenient, and probably soon.

The second visit, which happened to be on Christmas, provided a feast fit for a holiday absent of city bus service: General Tso's chicken swimming in a luridly sweet, addictive sauce, served with another egg roll I swore I'd throw away and instead munched on once it had chilled off a few hours later. A small order of broccoli in spicy garlic sauce (because it's important to get your veggies) actually had some spice.

These days, instead of dismissing this restaurant whenever I pass, it conjures thoughts of semi-enjoyment, of retiring early for the evening surrounded by an assortment of little white boxes. In this, my fat person fantasy, I never forget to ask for chopsticks.

Chinatown is not good food by any conventional measurements, but if you order carefully, you might just come away satisfied. Suggested strictly for delivery on a crappy weather day, I say get your usual Chinese dish and see how it stacks up against the likes of nearby Rice Bowl and Three's Happiness, two also not very good restaurants. Who knows — you might be pleasantly surprised.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Frank's Pizzeria (and other thoughts)

711 North 132nd Street
Open Mon-Thurs 11am-9pm, Fri & Sat 11am-10pm, Sun 3pm-9pm
Frank's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

One time we ordered a bunch of Frank's at work. It lasted five minutes.

As I sat today compulsively wringing the excess cream cheese from my jalapeño popper before submerging it in a ranch bath, anticipating another just sorta decent pie at Frank's, I thought I'd weigh in. The Omaha World Herald recently named Frank's one of the three best pizzas in Omaha, specifically dominating the "less fancy" category. I found that interesting because I've eaten at Frank's four times in the last two months, but not necessarily because I love it. A more accurate description of why I make the trip Out West would be that I don't regret it. It's not bad by any means. It's just not that great.

Frank's is decent, but this pile of raw onions and
floppy sausage, combined with the wonky pizza cutter work,
sort of beg the question,
"What the heck is going on here?"
The cheese, sometimes with a grainy quality, often comes not melted enough -- it's definitely not the bubbling, browned appearance desired of New York-style pizza. In fact, both the sausage and onion on today's pie were curiously undercooked. The crust, however oven charred on the bottom it may be, somehow manages to reduce to a soggy state within minutes. A "best pizza" title holder might want to address this major structural flaw. It flops under the weight almost immediately.

Still, for the most part, Frank knows what he's doing. Overall, the assemblage of dough, cheese, and sauce tastes good enough to come back to, though I can't quite explain why.

Brick Oven likes to serve slices with an unusual 90° angle.

If you're looking for another New York-style option, try Brick Oven. Concealed in the shadows of Nebraska Furniture Mart, this pie -- available by the slice -- has a much sturdier and more flavorful crust. I can't vouch at all for consistency (one time I had to leave behind a mangled pile of stringy cheese and chewy sausage on the plate) but on a good day, it might just be better than Frank's. Plus, the place reminds me exactly of the mom-and-pop pizza joints I grew up eating at, save for the zealous owner/operator behind the counter who might be overbearing or just extremely passionate about his brand.

I'm partial to New York-style because I grew up with it. But I like Neapolitan. I like Sicilian. I'll own up to my vices and admit I even have a soft spot for total junk food Godfather's garbage when the time is right. Mostly, though, I'm a sucker for a timeworn recipe, or at least a healthy fervor for the craft of pizza making that doesn't wane after a few years. I think that's what makes a good pie, no matter what your style preference may be.

Consider the gallery below for a few other good ones in town:

A recent gut busting cheesy favorite,
albeit with an unimpressive crust
considering the owner's penchant for baking,
is the meatball pizza at Nicola's in the Old Market.

(UPDATE: A more recent visit revealed an herby, buttery,
flavorful crust. I stand corrected.)

Tasty Pastry serves personal sized pizzas on the cheap.
Here, atop an absolutely delectable, chewy crust,
are Brussels sprouts, pecorino, brie, bacon, and onions.

This is what Baxter's in Benson looked like when it first opened:
I'll trade you a sloppy pile of haute toppings
artfully made from local ingredients for a crust that's not corrugated cardboard.

This tasty jalapeño bacon slice illustrates the progression
of working out the recipe kinks at Baxter's. Cheers.  

Denying yourself a Dante pie because you're
repelled by its unfortunate location would be a shame.
The "Amore di carni" is a love worth dying for, even if that's just a
cheesy claim meant to convey that this
Neapolitan-style pizza is really effing good.

More Frank's