Omaha... Quintessential & Mexican
I should mention the Whole Foods just off West Dodge (near the big Mall Complex) has a very, very solid Beer Department (FYI... across the Butcher there is a small section labeled "Cold Beer"... sh1tty selection... avoid it like the plague instead head towards the wine department [by the way I like the prices on LaTour and other French wines] there is a walk in refrigerated Beer section with some intriguing finds... I am currently sipping the rich bodied, pineapple nuanced Ultrabrune from Ecaussinnes (Belgium)..... an excellent find. On deck is Ommegang's Three Philosophers (which I have never seen before). They also had a full line up of Rogue... and a local Belgian style Ale with hand written labels (which I am kicking myself in the azz for not picking up). Overall a good selection althought is unfortunate they have the New Belgium swill taking up space that could be devoted to some great stuff like the Russian River, Stone Brewing or Marin Brewing (Moylan's & Marin) beers. Ask for them! My local WF does carry them.
Following up on the local Whole Foods (its down the street from my hotel)...
> Went back for the local beer turns out to be the Upstream Tripel... excellent beer... overpriced at $16 / bottle (given some other alternatives)... but none the less a complex beer with fruity, banana & bubble gum flavor notes that can go toe to toe with the best Belgian style beers I've had.
> Also bought a pint of Mixed Berries. $14 a pint for "prepared" mix.... to be sure..... oh well expense account right? OMG... I had no expectation for anything better than typical mediocre Whole Foods crap.... these berries were absolutely excellent... wtf are they sourcing them???
> Another great find... "Chocolove XOXOX Strong Dark Chocolate" 70% Belgian chocolate made in Boulder, CO.... excellent, excellent chocolate. Probably not the most snobby, intriguing, surprising chocolate I've had.... just one you want to eat over & over again.
I posted this on LTHForum originally and meant to tailor it for here as well, but I don't think I ever did. There's some additional follow-up discussion there as well, at this link: http://www.lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=19099
I think Guaca Maya's seafood is promising also. You can also find a recent (favorable) review of Jams on LTHForum from a visiting Chicagoan: http://www.lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=19006&start=0&st=0&sk=t&sd=a
Also, I ate at Stokes in the Old Market a couple days ago and found it very good, with a surprisingly nice wine list. It's southwestern or Mexican or something, a "nice" place with two Omaha locations, and the feel of maybe more to come around the Midwest. Not traditional Mex, but quite good nonetheless.
(This post is quite long—I included a much briefer summary toward the end.)
When I lived in Omaha, I didn’t spend a lot of time on the south side, South O, as it’s locally known. I knew some Italians that lived down there. I had a vague knowledge of its historic standing as a heterogeneous ethnic enclave. I knew the old stockyards were located that direction, about 8 miles east of where I grew up in the southwest annexed suburb of Millard.
I’ve known over the years that South O was becoming the Hispanic cultural center of Omaha, but I was quite pleasantly surprised at the vibrant Mexican cultural display on 24th Street south of L.
A younger sister has a wedding upcoming, and she’s interested in a taco bar-type reception dinner. She’s in Texas, and I’m only too happy to help with the research. I’m not sure I’ll ever have a better opportunity to drag my mom and another sister along a two-day 8-stop taco crawl, exploring a load of ethnic joints previously unknown to me. This kind of event, of course, is the ideal use of my spare time as far as I’m concerned.
Our first stop was the Mexican restaurant at the GI Forum. I’m not quite sure of the set-up here. Presumably, the GI Forum was empty most of the week, and a family needed restaurant space so they partnered up. In any event, it’s brightly lit and spacious, a very eclectic mix of South Omaha families, Mexican families, gringo families, multigenerational Mexican-gringo families—all enjoying cheap food and cheap beer.
A poster on Chowhound, joypirate, put this place on my radar several years ago, and this was my first chance to try it. I don’t think I’ve been missing much, but it was oddly enjoyable.
We got a mixed nacho plate (yes, there are some odd choices throughout this report). Two kinds of homemade chips (flour and corn) topped with un(or barely)seasoned, finely ground beef, some processed nacho cheese, and sliced pickled jalapenos. Certainly not “authentic” by any stretch. The menu didn’t have any choices that suggested traditional Mex, and this nacho plate supported that observation. It looked kind of gross too, but tasted pretty good, and very reasonably priced beer ($2.25 for a Pacifico) and nightly drink specials left me thinking I could easily spend a night here if I had time to kill. Super friendly, eclectic neighborhood crowd…food wasn’t what I had in mind, but I dug it.
Leaving here, I spotted a large band playing in a window with a sign outside reading Los Gallos. I have positive gallos associations, probably from a couple different Chicago establishments. I made my mom stop the car so I could jump out and check it out. As we pulled up in front of the window, the tuba player smiled at me knowingly, winked, and motioned me inside with his index finger.
It was a full band, a high school band maybe, probably 30 strong, lots of brass, and they weren’t holding back in the modest, rather barren space. Through some halting conversation and a blaring musical background, I gathered they weren’t actually open yet, coming soon, but I saw a plate in the back that looked pretty darn good and the menu I saw written out on a piece of notebook paper revealed cesos, cabeza, lengua and a host of other things I don’t really eat but take as the sign of a potentially good restaurant. I thanked them and moved on, back to 24th Street proper. (Looking up the web address, and seeing as how I found a pic online and an Entertainment.com coupon, I guess it’s been there a little while, just must not have been open when I stopped.)
The next stop was Don Gaby’s, “Los Pioneros de la Gordita.”* A review in the Omaha World-Herald claims that the original Don Gaby’s introduced the gordita in Chicago in 1974. I await Rene G’s opinion. We couldn’t resist, of course, and ordered the gordita de chile rojo[/url] advertised on hand-written signs on the wall above each booth. We also got a couple tacos, noting the tortillas [i]hecho a mano[i], one [i]carne asada and one al pastor.
The gordita was rather unlike what I expected from my experiences at, say Taqueria El Gallo in Albany Park, where you get a pupusa-like gordita with thick masa surrounding a filling. This gordita was more like a middle Eastern pita sandwich, a thick tortilla sliced open at one end, hollow in the middle, and stuffed with the goods, actually, just the meat. It was hot, fresh, and really quite good. I was surprised at how well the gordita held the filling, given the relative thinness of each side.
The homemade tortillas for the tacos were excellent, if fairly unique, maybe even the same tortilla as used for the gordita. On a taco, it seemed quite thick, chewy in a good way, and of very wide diameter, maybe 8 inches. (They also offer a small size, not made in-house). The steak was good, but perhaps a tad too gristly. The table salsas were decent, fairly standard chile-based salsas, though the chips were not—boring store-bought rounds.
Afterwards, feeling a bit full, we stopped next door at Restaurant San Luis. This place is very large, a big buffet table (not active when we were there at 8:30 on a Saturday night), and a lively adjoining bar where the sister who was with me could have likely found her own husband had she been so inclined.
A gentleman behind us was taking some food photos for their menu, and the parrillada was stunning, a rich medley of split grilled Cornish game hens, grilled steak, pork, octopus, crab legs, lightly battered shrimp, and who knows what else. I think it was about $16/person, and we weren’t even hungry, but I was still tempted to order.
Despite the impressive display, we didn’t order anything off the menu here, but I hope to return. For wedding food, chips and salsa quality are a good indicator of mass appeal, and I didn’t care for this place on either count. The second place I’d seen flour tortilla chips, which is perhaps native to El Norte, but I liked these worse than those at the GI Forum, and the salsas were nothing to be too excited about. I paced myself with a Bohemia.
The final stop of the night was Hector’s, on our way back home, out of the Mexican strip. A bored or stupid server breezily told us they (maybe she meant “she”?) didn’t cater, but a manager indicated otherwise. They brought us out samples of many different meats (shredded beef, ground beef, chicken, carnitas), a few salsas, guacamole. I had moved from beer to tequila at this point. Nothing was very good here. The pork bore no resemblance to carnitas. The shredded beef was passable. The ground beef had pretty muted flavor. The chicken was white meat, which pleased my mom, but it wasn’t very good either. The guacamole tasted off.
Oh, and this place claims to serve “Baja-style” cuisine, so maybe we weren’t testing their sweet spot, but I’m not necessarily eager to find out. The flour tortillas, I should say, were actually quite good, fresh and a bit flaky, almost like pastry.
On Sunday, we headed back down to 24th Street. We’d heard somewhere that El Alamo was worth a shot, and I’d picked up a menu the night before and the place seemed the right mix between a real Mexican “care about our food” place with enough Tex-Mex-type accommodations to satisfy a wedding crowd. I mean, how can you not love a menu that offers “a culturalized chesseburger, topped in green chilled and served on a sesame seed bun.”
This place is promising, though not an unqualified winner. The chips were fresh, made in house, and excellent in the thinnish Tex-Mex style. The red salsa was a great mix of tomato-y Tex-Mex scarfability with a pleasing accent of chile heat. The green salsa was surprisingly strong on oregano and green onion, not necessarily to my taste but a sure sign they were doing their own thing.
The carne asada was good, not as fresh as I would have liked, but with good flavor and good char. The al pastor was a little weird, kind of mushy, big chunks, clearly not cut from a spit or griddled all caramely like I like. Rice and beans were okay, but they, like other offerings in hindsight, suffered from a little undersalting and underseasoning. Oh, and the tacos were served with a single tortilla, not homemade and a little disappointing overall. Having written this, I’m not sure why I thought this place was promising. I guess the chips and salsa were good. Oh, and I didn’t try the culturalized cheeseburger, but I’d like to. I still think I could get a good meal here.
There were a couple other places down there I noted but we didn’t sample, and numerous others that I barely even noted. Las Tortigas Tortas looks like a nice torta shop, a white board menu, only tortas. And La Cabaña d’Franko has a weird name and a menu of “huaraches 100% estilo D.F.” There are a lot of huaraches to be found on 24th Street, actually.
Our last stop, though, was Guaca Maya, a huge freestanding building a bit west of 24th, nestled in among some remaining meatpacking plants in the old stockyards. An article posted in the entryway gave an interesting account of the $2 million dollar investment in the space, a move from a humble 24th Street storefront restaurant started in the mid-1990s.
You could tell there was a lot of money put into the place. It’s huge and nicely appointed, pretty tile, nice woods, lots of Mexican decorations and color, the waitstaff all dressed in costume. By all appearances, a place very high on style in the style vs. substance equation.
Luckily, there was some substance. Chips were okay, though made from flour tortillas, which I continue to find odd. The red salsa was of the tomatoey type, and too tomatoey for my taste, a little like cocktail sauce also.
The real winner, though, not just here but of the whole trip, was the carnitas taco. The tortillas are made fresh here—there’s a woman working the masa in a prominent place in the restaurant. The carnitas were really terrific. Not quite as rustic as a dedicated carnitas place, like Uruapan. And you can’t pick the bits of pig you want. But it wasn’t the bland pork cubes that often are passed off as carnitas other places. These were rich, fatty pork chunks, fatty in a meltingly tender way rather than chewy or rubbery, and complemented by crispy pork ends. The taco came out hot, juicy, fatty, fresh, tender and full of pork flavor. This was the single best item of the two day tasting trip.
The carne asada taco was good too, though it would have benefited from a bit more grill flavor. Rice and beans were unmemorable. Beans were straight up pintos, not refried. I asked if they had other beans and, though communication wasn’t entirely clear, I eventually ended up with a small bowl of charros that were quite unlike other charros I’ve had.
It was basically the same pinto beans with a variety of uncertain pork products—there looked like 1 inch square slices of some kind of pressed ham product; little crunchy bits of chicharron, maybe some carrots. All together, it was pretty much just weird to me. It tasted okay, I guess, but really weird.
There’s a lot of potential here, but no home run. Not sure we accomplished much on the wedding food front.
Winning food stuffs included the carnitas at Guaca Maya, the gorditas and tortillas at Don Gaby’s, chips and salsa at El Alamo.
The GI Forum was cheap, entertaining, seemed like fun and the nachos were somehow more satisfying than they had any right to be by appearances.
Guaca Maya was easily the most fancified, least mom-and-pop space, and had a huge menu (with actually quite a number of different offerings).
Restaurant San Luis has a beautiful parrillada that I didn’t taste.
(A surprising number of mixed grill-type offerings across these restaurants, and a number of seafood specialties we didn’t get to also, provide fodder for future visits.
Hector’s is unlikely to see me ever again.
*Just for kicks, I ran this phrase through an online translator and enjoyed its rendition: "The Pioneers of the Chubby one."
American GI Forum Restaurant
2002 N St
Omaha, NE 68107
4630 S 20th St
Omaha, NE 68107
Don Gaby's Restaurant
“Los Pioneros de la Gordita”
4806 S 24th St
Omaha, NE 68107
Don Gaby’s menu
Paleteria & Restaurant San Luis
4804 S 24th St
Omaha, NE 68107
3007 S 83rd Plz
Omaha, NE 68124
(2nd location at 201 S 157th St, Omaha, NE - (402) 884-2272)
4917 S 24th St
Omaha, NE 68107
5002 S 33rd St
Omaha, NE 68107
La Cabaña d’Franko
4835 S 24th St
Omaha, NE 68107
Las Tortigas Tortas
(Can’t find it online, but next door to the place above.)
Any recent experiences at:
> Lithuanian Bakery & Kafe
> Dundy Dell's
> La Mesa
> Maria's Mexican
Lithuanian Bakery & Kafe
7427 Pacific St, Omaha, NE 68114
Jam's Bar & Grill
7814 Dodge St, Omaha, NE 68114
8412 W Dodge Rd, Omaha, NE 68114
Romeo's Mexican Food & Pizza
2228 N 90th Plz, Omaha, NE 68134
La Mesa Mexican Restaurant
11002 Emmet St # 112, Omaha, NE
Maria's Mexican Restaurant
7630 Burlington St, Omaha, NE 68127
Amigo's is fast food...it's pretty much the same as Taco John's (a baby-step above Taco Bell).
Romeo's is a baby-step above the fast food places, but still not someplace I would spend money.
La Mesa is consistent. i like them quite a bit. they are a regional chain.
i find them to be one of the best around for narrowly riding the authenticity line using traditional flavors and dishes but without getting too ethnic for the general public. order from the 'Preferencia del Cocinero' section of their menu for the best results: Chile Colorado, Chili Verde, Chilaquiles.
web site is here:
menu is here:
Maria's is a 'different' style of Mexican restaurant. i guess i would have to say it's more like some Southwestern US homestyle Mexican...i'm not sure how to explain it. if you've ever been somplace that has an enchilada gravy as opposed to sauce, that's what they do here.
not bad, but not really my style.
Alvarado's is fast food Mexican also, but an independent family owned place instead of corporate chain. pretty good for what you get, but nothing really stand out. the best thing about the place is they are open after midnight.
Lithiuanian Bakery is ok. the best thing there is the Napolean Torte..get one to go. i'm not sure the Kafe part is all that much to holler about.
Jams is ok. decent new American stuff. good, if that's your thing.
the Dell is mostly a bar. fish and chips is their big draw.
other Mexican places I would take a look at:
4917 S 24th St
5002 S 33rd St
Rivera's Mexican Food
12047 Blondo St
in the UNO area if i had to pick one meal it would be the Vietnamese Asian restaurant. not in any way quintessential Omaha, but the place i would pick personally. they do Vietnamese and Thai:
Vietnamese Asian Restaurant
7212 Jones St
if you wanted sterotypical Omaha, then keep heading south and go to Anthony's for steaks:
Anthony's Restaurant & Lounge
7220 F St
Thank you very much for your feedback... doesn't seen like you are too hot on the local scene? Vietnamese is not what I would be expecting from Omaha... but I have been craving Banh Mi & Pho the last couple of days!
Guaca Maya seems like the most promising of the Mexican bunch.... have you tried any of the Parrilladas, or Shrimp dishes? Anybody do Chowdowns in this part of the country?
Thanks for Jams website... the menu seems pretty boring. However, I am a CFS fiend... do you have any experience with their version... if not is there one in town you would recommend?
Anthony's sounds like a good place to take my co-workers tomorrow.... is their a cut that stands out from the rest... and I assuming its better than the crap chains like the Palms & Ruth Chris... if its not... I will probably skip.
oh there's definitely tons of good food to be found on the dining scene here.
i've not had any of the seafood at Guaca Maya.
and their menu is so large i've not yet found my sweet spot on it.
however, anything i've had there has been above average.
i like Anthony's better than the chains and would opt for the Cowboy Cut ribeye. some, though, would probably prefer the filet or prime rib.
for Chicken Fried Steak i'd look at these:
5325 S 139th Plz
13325 Millard Ave
Big Daddy's Diner
1901 Farnam St
EN, the 2 "unique" to Omaha places are bohemian cafe and Joe tess for carp. Check out the thread I posted in Aaron's second link, and ignore the Pittsburgh part.
You might be able to squeeze in a pork tenderloin in Iowa if you have an hour or so.
No catfish tacos:)
Stick to Aaron's south 24th st mex, the others are burb places.
You know.... Catfish Tacos don't sound bad to me.... Battered, Deep Fried Catfish is not uncommon in Mexico (although people tend to prefer it in a stew)... with the right sauce (I am think a very lush Fish Stock, Dried Chiles, Garlic, Thyme, Mex Oregano, Cloves, Butter & Black Pepper.... cooked Salsa to dip the whole Taco in).
Any way.... I tried heading to the Vietnamese... turns out Tuesday is the one day they close... I had my handheld GPS with me & it realized Guaca Maya wasn't far so I rolled that way. My impressions:
1) I liked the drive.... that neighborhood has a bit more character than other places I have driven through. The slightly buzzed Troubadour with a Salvadoran accent, who claims is from Veracruz... yet doesn't seem to know any of the regional songs... was great.... he only knew half the words to anyone song... universally seemed to start songs on an unconventional phrase or beat.... he was almost this genious virtuoso on guitar except he his fingers would slip trying to complete the arpeggios as he accelerated the tempo to Masters territory.
The restaurant was a bit gaudy, not unlike something in Tijuana's tourist corridor.... the dining seems to be just an additional Profit Center... as the real biz is weekend Dance Hall.
2) Service was timely but timid & not particularly competent. She was also Salvadoran... and cracked under pressure when I asked for a recommendation... she didn't know much about Mexican cuisine.
3) The food was hit & miss.... although prices are extremely cheap (well maybe I am just pre-conditioned by Bay Area prices). [Edit: actually the prices are in line with a casual restaurant in Mexico City or Guadalajara... so I will reaffirm them as extremely cheap.]
> I order the Codorniz al la Diabla. Most places in Mexico refer to Quail as Codorniz, and Cornish Game Hen as Gallinita de Monte.... but there are some places where it is reserved... at Guaca Maya... Codorniz is a Cornish Game Hen. In this preparation its butterflied & seared on a griddle... then bathe in a spicy A la Diabla sauce.
A la Diabla is one of the preparations I seek out with greatest interest because it is never prepared the same (not even close).... and often leads to some intriguing dishes. What can we agree on? Its a thick, luscious sauce made with extremely spicy dried chiles (the variety of chile changes quite a bit) but they universally have forward spice & berry flavor notes (as oppossed to more smokey, or pulpy prune like chiles etc.,)... the focus is usually on the Chile... complemented with background flavors... sometimes its coconut, sometimes roasted garlic & butter, other times its bbq like worcestire & spices... at Guaca Maya its raw garlic, Maggi (Mex Soy Sauce) & Orange Rind.... the effect of the whole thing is kind of like a refined version of Chinese-American Orange Chicken. It was really good.... however the side of tired, unremarkable, brothy Pinto Beans was not a willing dance partner... also the tortillas (while made on premises from Masa Harina)... where a bit flat tasting and not anything I will remember past this post.
The whole bird, beans, rice (which I declined... as no self-respecting Mexican tolerates Rice & Beans as sides with every freaking dish!) was $10.95 and included a choice of Salad or Soup. Today's Vegetable Soup in a beef broth was decent enough, lacked a wedge of lime to brighten... vegetables were unfortunately Mushy, extremely Mushy but tasty (well even in Mexico many restaurants make that mistake)... it was extremely small (just a cup) but acceptable. Like I said very inexpensive.
FYI... curious about the flavor of the A la Diabla... I did some Google investigation and it seems like at least one of the owners of Guaca Maya might have worked at La Espadana in Tijuana... which I kind of got that sense... given the Kitschy decor for "gringo tourists"... and the flavors of the cuisine (Mexicali is the capital city of Baja California Norte and is known for its Cantonese cuisine... at one time Ethnic Chinese outnumbered Ethnic Mexicans.... as such its not uncommon to encounter Chinese-Mex fusion elements in the cooking of the area. In fact, one of the best regarded Mexican restaurants in L.A. - La Huasteca - is owned by Chinese-Mexicans... and also produces some subtly Chinese influenced dishes)
Oh yeah the Salsa served with the Chips sucks completely... its made from canned tomatoes... has no piquant... and definitely not something worth the calories of the complimentary (decent) Chips.
Another note... despite the name (a word play on Maya / Mayan and Gucamaya a type of Parrot) there is absolutely nothing Mayan about the cooking, decor or ambience there.
Finally... I don't think this place is a favorite of Mexican diners (as the only other tables were studded with Anglos)... bummer that I was only a couple miles from the 24th street neighborhood.... I might get a chance to go check that out tomorrow.
You are afraid of my taste buds because.....
BTW... have you ever encountered Caldo Mich / Miche / Michi... its a stew that is common from my parent's homeland in the Highlands of Jalisco southwest to Michoacan's Purepecha Highlands.... it is usually Catfish and/or Bass and/or Freshwater Shrimp in a broth (similar to the cooked salsa I mention just above) & a Carp head..... one of my very, very, very favorite dishes from that part of the world!
BTW... Bohemian looks for good to me (my wife is part Czech, part Scottish so I have spent time learning alot about both cultures. The Czech literary eminence Milan Kundera turned me off Czech cuisine for his criticisms of it <seems he is more into French, Italian & Spanish>.... but I never really bought his story... and think this looks greak).... I have also head a seperate interest in Czech stuff because of its influence on Northern Mexican Brass Bands and the adoption of Kolaches into Tex-Mex and Northern-Mex gastronomic culture.
We hit Vietnamese for lunch today.... not bad... flavors are a little bit dumbed down, fresh garnishes were a little sad, and they serve food that is a bit safer (i.e, no Tendon or Tripe in the Pho) but overall execution was comparable to what you find in Vietnamese enclaves in California. The Rare Beef Pho & Pork Banh Mi hit the spot.