Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Star Deli

1319 South 50th Street (attached to O'leaver's Pub)
Omaha, NE 68106
(402) 614-9060
Mon thru Fri 11am-3pm and 5pm-11pm, Sat noon-5pm, closed Sun

Hmm. Did anyone go to this?

Star Deli sits in the shadow of the old Worker's Take-out location. For this reason, their similar menu of pressed sandwiches, salads and soups already had a lot to live up to on Day One. I grudgingly tried it for the first time six months ago. I think it was the Cubano, on toasty white baguette, with whole grain mustard and pickles sliced longways. And then I went the very next day, this time to satiate my Italian sub craving, which the "Don Rocco" did quite well. I thought about going for a third straight lunch, but I didn't want the counter dude to think I was weird. One time I tried a veggie sandwich on special that was a little sparse (mostly bell peppers), but I let it slide. The chicken cordon bleu special a few weeks ago really blew my skirt up, though. Oh, it was heavenly, hammy and cheesy.

Chicken Artichoke Soup--
What a bummer!

It seems a tad unfair that the day I decided to write about it, they were having a very bad day. As usual, I took the food to go, to heartily enjoy in front of an episode of Frasier. This day was different. The Chicken Artichoke Soup ($3) was mostly just the water that's left in the pot after boiling an artichoke, with a copious amount of oil added--so much that it separated after five minutes. The rest was just inedible outer artichoke petals, and some reject gray chicken meat. I tried not to let the soup bummer affect my sandwich experience, too. But the cheese on the Cubano ($7) wasn't even a little melted, and the beef on the French Dip ($7) was also ice cold and far too rare.

The Cubano:
Lovely baguette and mustard,
but cold ham, pork and Swiss.
Better luck next time.

The French Dip:
The au jus was very Worcestershire-y, not the actual "jus" from roasting beef like it's supposed to be.

Star, I know you're just a little counter sandwich shoppe. Maybe you like staying small. But I think you could be something big, even one of the best. Please, don't take your bad days out on us. Just cause you got in a fight with your girlfriend or whatever doesn't mean we should have to sip on artichoke water. Keep up the good work, and cut out the "off" days, especially the ones that make me feel that flushing a $20 bill down the toilet would have been more fun than eating your food. Got it? Good.

Monday, November 28, 2011

What I Ate for Thanksgiving

I raved about the fried chicken at Jack and Mary's so much I just had to have it again. The house was packed, and we eyed the others suspiciously, wondering what kind of people go out to eat on Thanksgiving. We alone represented the entire 18-55 age bracket, as the servers were too young to legally serve my wine, and the patrons were clearly old as f***. One of the fellow diners told us he dropped his Demerol tablet somewhere near the salad bar--hopefully not in the dressing--and successfully had every member of the staff on the search. (He eventually realized it was in fact still in his pocket.) All of this and more was our entertainment for the evening. Let the photos tell the rest.

The salad bar:
Bagged iceberg mix, black olives, genetically modified cherry tomatoes,
and sweet French dressing were the stars.
Don't mind the veiny hand. We didn't.

Sutter Home Chardonnay:
The rich, creamy pear and apple flavors, and the smooth, round texture made it an ideal pairing for my fried chicken. Pictured with the elegant salad I made for myself.

Wouldn't be Thanksgiving without the puffy white oven rolls, now would it?

Finally, the Feast:
Canned, microwaved green beans, stuffing and mashed with gravy,
and four pieces of fried chicken. LOVE IT!

At the risk of being too full to carry on with our drinking, we had to get the pie (included in the $12.95 price) wrapped to go. Rest assured it provided a swell midnight snack the following day. Jack and Mary's feast wasn't nearly as good as Mom's cooking, but to see the folks genuinely excited to eat and be together on this day made it great for me. For many, Thanksgiving 2011 has already been flushed away and forgotten, but for me, this will be one to remember.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Gusto Cuban Cafe

7910 Harrison Street
Ralston, NE 68128
(402) 614-7800
Sun 4-8pm; Mon Closed; Tue-Thu 5-9pm; Fri 11:30am-2pm, 5pm-1am; Sat 1pm-2am

Ropa Vieja Sandwich on Toasted Cuban Bread
(Sandwiches served until 6:30pm only)

Ah, the Gusto Groupon. It seems Gusto has been the "Deal of the Day" more than once, the most recent bargain offering two mojitos, an appetizer, and two entrees for the measly--and suspicious--price of $15. Desperate times lead to desperate coupons, I always say. But before I assumed the worst about Gusto, I headed in, sans Groupon, to see the place for myself. The hours can be tough if you're not a 9 to 5er, so plan accordingly. We arrived at 1:20pm on a Friday; we were told we had to order right away, and that we had until 2:15 to finish our meals and then we had to leave. Egads! Suddenly it seemed easier to get into Cuba without a visa than to dine there. I quickly decided to go with the dish with which I was most familiar, the ropa vieja entree, which happened to cost as much as the entire Groupon deal. This version of ropa vieja, meaning "Old Clothes," came with a trio of sides. To taste the robust earthiness of the kidney beans next to the congri rice--most likely a family recipe--on one forkful was truly delectable. Along with the candied sweetness of chewy soft plantains, these side dishes could have been a meal for me. The stringy, shredded beef brisket, swimming in a boat of tomato-based sauce, was simply not as exciting and flavorful as its accompaniments.

The deep wooden booths were scribbled and Sharpie-d with all sorts of shout outs and tags; it reminded me of what a graffitied Havanan alley might look like (or maybe just your average bar bathroom stall), and we thought about defacing it with some crude image just for fun (but we didn't). If you'd like to try Gusto, I'd recommend snagging one of those Groupons, since it can be a bit pricey for what it is, and don't necessarily expect pleasant service. It's a rough around the edges family place that I hope to try once more.

Toasted Parmesan-dusted Garlic Bread (to start)

Congri Rice--White rice and beans with garlic, onion, pepper, etc.
Fried Sweet Plantains--Like a candied banana of sorts
Red Kidney Beans--Eat with a spoon

The main part of the ropa vieja:
"Shredded brisket steak in a Cuban creole sauce" 

Monday, November 14, 2011

La Mesa Mexican Restaurant

84th Street and Tara Plaza
Papillion, NE 68046
(402) 593-0983
Plus four other locations in the Omaha metro area, and a few in KS and MO
Sun thru Thurs 11am to 10pm, Fri and Sat 11am to 10:30pm

Combination #1:
One Beef Enchilada, One "Chili con Queso" Tostada,
One Crunchy Beef Taco and One Crunchy Chicken Taco

Beware, beware. Halloween was weeks ago, but the scariest thing to happen to me all year was yesterday at lunch. I had prepared for an average honky Mexican experience, with mounds of melted cheese, mild salsa, and high fructose Margaritas. It was true the salsa was mild, but the chips were light, airy and crunchy. My large Marg--with its fake sugar bite--may have brought me a step closer to diabetes, but I can't deny that I enjoyed the thick, velvety sucrose quality, and the subsequent slight buzz. The booths and tables could have been designed by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera on a very, very bad acid trip. But the real fright came when the Combo #1 was brought to our mesa. The tostada was advertised as "chili con queso," and so I anticipated a glop of Hormel-esque chili with cheddar. The Taco Bellian side of me thought it might actually be good. What I got was a flat corn tortilla directly out of a package, spread with ground beef that didn't have a hint of salt or pepper, let alone cayenne, cumin, or anything else tasty. There was some major skimp-age on the cheese, too, which I thought was supposed to be the cornerstone of honky-Mex. The tacos were soggy and utterly bland. The enchilada was spongy, and the sauce reminded me of ketchup. A far cry from the steaming casserole dish of baked enchiladas I like to imagine.

The prompt service ultimately couldn't make up for the poor quality food. On their website, the restaurant claims: "La Mesa's 'authentic' taste is created from family recipes made with only the freshest quality ingredients." I adamantly believe this to be a flat out fabrication, as I am fairly sure Mexicans do not eat unseasoned ground beef wrapped in a Mission tortilla covered in canned enchilada sauce. I suspect, based on the product I sampled, that the kitchen is actually nothing but a sea of steam table pans full of cheap ingredients off a Sysco truck. For this reason, La Mesa gets two fat thumbs down.

Chips and Salsa:
Not spicy, but still decent

House Margarita with el Jimador Tequila

(Try Agave at 5013 Underwood Avenue in Dundee, if ultra-Americanized Mexican is what you crave. For there is something to be said about that special feeling you get when the sizzling, smoking fajita plate is brought to your table. If you want to OD on chips and queso dip, Agave might well be your den.)

La Mesa Mexican Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Jack and Mary's Restaurant

655 North 114th Street
Omaha, NE 68154
(402) 496-2090
Open Monday thru Friday lunch and dinner, Saturday dinner, Sunday brunch 10am-2pm and dinner til 8:30pm 
Jack & Mary's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Fried Chicken and Waffles

Fried chicken is something I'm only really "getting into" now, in my late twenties. Kind of like how people my age are getting into having kids. But I guess it's a little different. Anyway, I've figured out that there are a few things that make great fried chicken: It must be served hot, right out of the fryer; no heat lamps allowed. It shouldn't be overly greasy, sliding around on your plate like a possessed Ouija board planchette. The meat should be of good quality, which means more edible than non-edible parts. The batter should be seasoned with spices, but not too salty, and kept to a thin coating, so as to not cover up the flavor of the actual chicken. The first bite should be of meat, not just of fried matter. At Jack and Mary's, they know the fried chicken formula well. The waitstaff of old veterans and fresh faced newbies wore t-shirts that read "Giving Omaha the Bird For Over 30 Years," a claim they can definitely back up.

We went for brunch, where my leg and thigh adorned a Belgian-style waffle. Incorporating some vanilla into the waffle recipe could have made it less bland, and it could have been crispier on the outside, but the whipped butter and giant ramekin of syrup made it all work out. Jack's Plate was the typical two eggs/bacon/hash browns/toast, except it was atypically large, and overall very well executed. Neighboring tables were guzzling gizzards and giblets, iceberg and ranch from the salad bar, and mashed potatoes with extra gravy, in such a way I swore the retirees had been saving their appetites all week. In a West Omaha strip mall, the interior pulls off the country kitchen feel. I get the sense not every dish on the menu maintains the homemade-from-scratch model, so choose your items carefully. Flyers advertised a special Thanksgiving dinner for $12.95, where you'll probably find me, imbibing at the bar and polishing my plate.

Brunch entrees served with fresh fruit, and cinnamon rolls, which were heavy as heck.

Dark Rye Bread

Jack's Plate:
At least two industrial spatula-fulls of hash browns, two extra large eggs, and a bouquet of bacon

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Fat in Chicago

Van Gogh, The Drinkers, Art Institute of Chicago

Just like my 27 hours in Chicago, we'll make this quick:
The bus plopped me down in the middle of downtown on a Friday night. I thought about joining the cluster of ragtag "Occupy" protesters, but the numerous restaurants, still brimming with patrons after 9pm, seemed more inviting. Once again, my hunger eclipsed my punk sensibilities.

Knowing full well I was stumbling into the tourist-iest of touristy tourist joints (totally not punk!), I headed into Giordano's, hoping to God I could get one of their "world famous" stuffed deep dish pizzas in a size I could handle, or maybe just bum a slice from someone. Sadly, the very smallest would have run me $20 after tax and tip. Happily, this led me to order the Italian Beef sandwich instead. Just think: A toasty roll filled with tender beef sliced a millimeter thick, dipped in beef gravy, which was more like a salty, herby jus. The bartender asked if I was in town to run the Chicago Marathon. I chuckled, shook my head, and took another giant bite.

Eye-talian Beef sandwich at Giordano's

For lunch, I couldn't help but try an Indian fast casual restaurant with a Qdoba-like assembly line. Look, I watched a whole season of "America's Next Great Restaurant" hoping the Indian guy would win so I could someday experience this very thing. Chutney Joe's Indian Diner is a budding chain with two locations so far, and more coming soon. I tried the Red Bean Rajma, with a yogurt, tomato, roasted cumin and ginger sauce. The beans were suspiciously canned and smushy, but the sauce, garlicky naan and basmati rice were right on. At under $6, it was the one affordable thing I found in the whole city.

Red Bean Rajma at Chutney Joe's

Chicago's famed deep dish pizza is apparently only good if you have friends to share with, as I couldn't find a single place that sold by the slice. With two hours to go, I got desperate and tried a regular crust at State Street Pizza Co. This pizza was heavy, yo. I think it weighed double your average. The crust was dense and had a hint of honey. I sat at one of the window barstools, watched some freaks and families stroll by, and felt rather at home in a big city. This place could be a prime spot to stop and re-fuel mid-evening.

Slice of Pep from State Street Pizza Co. 
The Big Three

There were also the Gin-Gin Mules at the Whistler and the beers at some Wicker Park bar. At the Art Institute, my Art History minor made me feel majorly smart. It was a good day.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Halloween Visit to Quaker Steak & Lube

3220 Mid America Drive
Council Bluffs, IA 51501
Plus other locations throughout this fine country
(712) 322-0101
Monday thru Saturday open 'til 2am, Sunday 'til midnight

These are wings.

For Halloween I dressed up as a Council Bluffs-onian and dined at the deplorable Quaker Steak. (Hey, I had a coupon!) The interior--with its mounted vehicle parts and bogus street signs--could have been from a nightmare. Our server acted like he hated his life. He was able to rattle off the beer menu quite impressively, though: Miller Lite, Busch Lite, Bud Lite, Blah Lite, Poop Lite, Butt Lite, etc. etc.  But, as far as wings go, these were pretty deece: A couple of full bites of meat, minimal stringy stuff, and "Supercharged" wing sauce that was actually spicy. The soft pretzels with cheese were almost as good as what you get at the movie theater. I pocketed the after-dinner Twizzler that came with the bill in case I ran into any kids in costume later.

Next time I think I'll leave the wing eatin' and Lube Tube drinkin' to the posse of dudes I know, and I'll stay home and knit or something.

These are pretzels.