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.