Monday, June 30, 2008

Johnny's Cafe

Restaurant: Johnny's Cafe
Address: 4702 S 27th St
Genres: steak
Check Constraints: 18% for groups of 8 or more
Chain: No. | More Omaha Locations: No.

  • Cottage Cheese Spread ($2.75)
  • Luncheon Steak with Mushroom Sauce ($8.95)
    • Fries
    • House Salad with House Dressing
  • Homemade Bread Pudding ($3.95)
  • Iced Tea ($1.75)
There are some places in Omaha, or in any city, where Time seems to have decided that its work there was done, and moved on. These places are isolated oases of tradition; living museums that persist due to an almost magical quality about them. Johnny's Cafe is definitely one of those places. Originally a cafe for cowboys and other workers at the nearby Stockyards, Johnny's used its location to reinvent itself as one of Omaha's first steakhouses, and has been around for 78 years since. That's quite a legacy.

When I say Johnny's is a living museum, I'm only partially exaggerating. The decor seems to have become stuck in the late 1970s, and though the air smells a little musty the building itself remains elegant. I particularly liked the bronze sculpture set into the door, and the carpeting, but I'll hold off on further critique. This isn't geeks.rate(interiorDecorating).
The menu retains a little of the same antiquity... I have never seen cottage cheese as a menu item not paired with a fruit of some kind, and even that is restricted to smallish cafes and diners. It doesn't overextend itself, nor try to upsell itself as a ritzy chop house. There's something to be said for maintaining your place in the world.

The cottage cheese spread was interesting. Small-curd cottage cheese was blended with herbs and served with an assortment of crackers, and it wound up tasting like a sharper and firmer version of what you might expect out of a cream cheese dip. It's more than enough to share among several people, and as ND will probably attest later, it makes their garlic cheese bread more delicious. Even if you don't like cottage cheese, you might enjoy the spread.
The steak came in a clearly-homemade mushroom sauce, which had a heavy beef flavor and was very, very full of gelatin from the rendered beef. With sauces and the like it's hard to say how the average quality will be based on a single visit, but if the sauce is always this way, it may put off people who like a more consistent and liquid gravy. Still, the flavor was delicious, and it paired well with the steak. It was also good for dipping my fries into. The one downside is that the actual steak taste was overpowered by the sauce - if you're looking for just an excellent cut of meat, go with one of their dinner steaks (which you can order specially even if it's lunch time, just ask). The house salad wasn't much more than a pile of iceberg lettuce. The house dressing was good, but in this case didn't taste like much more than a simple vinaigrette, very heavy on the vinegar.

The bread pudding, however, was fantastic. I confess to not having had many bread puddings in my day, but this was certainly the best I've had thus far. A surfeit of cinnamon, raisins, and general spice went well with the Jack Daniels they use for flavor, and the texture toed the delicate balance between firm and mushy very well.

Johnny's is an interesting place to get an interesting meal; as long as you understand that and don't come here expecting white linens and $40 strip steaks, you're going to get some good food and come away satisfied.

  • Garlic Cheese Bread ($4.95)
  • Roast Turkey with Stuffing ($6.95)
    • Side Salad w/house dressing.
  • Strawberry Cheesecake ($4.45)
  • Iced Tea ($1.75)
Cham is right, the cottage cheese dip is good stuff, at a really low price. Definitely worth trying. Their garlic cheese bread has a lot of two things. Cheese and bread. The bread makes Texas toast look kinda skinny, and they put a hell of a lot of cheese on top, and just enough garlic. Adding the cottage cheese dip just makes it even better, assuming that you, like us, enjoy an orgy of cheese. The side salad was an ordinary side salad, though the house dressing, which I opted for after a description of "a vinagrette with lots of garlic", is exceptionally good.

I sorta wanted to try a steak, but with my options seriously curtailed by love of mushrooms, I opted instead for the roast turkey special. It is pretty special, I will say. While the turkey was nothing amazing, the gravy and stuffing are what made it really worth the price. I grew up with the unholy concoction that my extended family called "stuffing", which consisted of bread and whatever crap they could come up with to throw in with it. Apples, raisins, and other, less delicious things found their way into that stuffing. This stuffing is nothing like that. It is pure. Bread, delicious juices, and a heap of equally delicious spices, baked into a mushy, but not too mushy mass. I was considering getting a container of the stuff to go, if that was possible. It would have been worth the price.

The cheesecake was a damn good finisher, though I think it's not quite as good as the wine sundae or the bread pudding. The strawberry sauce was almost certainly not homemade, but the cheesecake itself definitely was. It's not quite like any other cheesecake I've had. It has the texture of a whipped cheesecake, but the density of a standard cheesecake. it was odd and also delicious, but definitely not as good as that bread pudding.

Looking back, I realize that I got all that food for less than twenty bucks, and I can't help but think I got a pretty good deal. Johnny's definitely doesn't jack up their prices on account of being an Omaha landmark.

  • Stockman's Steak Sandwich ($7.95)
  • Apple Pie ($2.95)
    • Ala Mode: 1 Scoop ($1.50)
I kinda liked the decor, honestly. It gave the place a very unique style and mood, even if it was really quite dark. The cottage cheese spread was pretty good. It was definitely something I hadn't seen before. The menu says it's a Johnny's tradition. It's a bit thicker than I had imagined it would be, but that helped it stay on the crackers better. It was worth giving a shot, especially at the price. The cheese bread was simple and good. Nobody has mentioned the sauce yet, but I believe it came with a marinara-like sauce that they others thought might be pizza sauce. Nobody has mentioned the shrimp either, but that's probably because Maple was the one to put it on his ticket. We split the cost of a bucket of peel-and-eat shrimp. They came in an actual pail over ice and came with some cocktail sauce. It was one of the most expensive appetizers, but you do get a lot. They were also simple and good.

The main dish came with a side, and I chose noodle salad. It came out first, with the other salads. It was a small bowl, but it was piled high with a couple types of noodles and bits of veggies. It actually had a really sharp and kind of tingly taste. Cham likened the flavor to the kimchi we had a while back. I agree, but only slightly. The tingling was the main similarity, and it wasn't nearly as strong. I actually thought the flavor of the noodle salad was really good.

I couldn't have asked for more with the sandwich. It is described like a Philly on the menu, and it pretty much is. It had beef, cheese and onion, but the steak pieces were thicker and there was more cheese. It came on a roll that was only a bit wider and about as long as a hot-dog bun. It was just crispy enough, and just the right amount of sandwich. The steak was tender. The cheese was plentiful. The onions were mostly hiding and don't get in the way of the rest of it. I really liked this sandwich. It did come with fries, but they were not really noteworthy.

They claim their apple pie is "better than grandma's", but I wasn't quite so impressed. There was also an option for cherry pie. It may have been better warmed up, but since I didn't ask for it that way, it came cold. You could add one or more scoops of ice cream. I think it could have used a bit of something, like cinnamon, but still it was ok pie. I'd recommend asking for it warmed up, however.

  • Prime Sandwich ($11.45)
  • Bucket o' Shrimp ($13.45)
  • Soda Pop ($1.75)
Jay and I decided to split a bucket of peel-and-eat shrimp, because they had a bucket of shrimp on offer. It came out in a small metal pail. I think the menu said it was 1/2 pound. As Jay said, they were simple and good, however I found the cocktail sauce a little underwhelming. It was ok sauce, but just didn't have the kick of horseradish I would have liked. I was pleasantly surprised by the cottage cheese spread. It was the size of a normal portion of cottage cheese that you might see as a side for one person, but with the thickening they did to it and the use of crackers, it went a lot farther than I would have expected.

For my entree I got an open faced prime rib sandwich. This translated into a half inch slice of prime rib laying on top of a slice and two halves of toast with a side of au jus and a side of french fries. It was delicious. The meat was just a shade off of pink and tender. The bed of toast gave a touch of saltiness that was well received. I didn't make much use of the au jus, because it really wasn't needed. The french fries were ok, but nothing special.

  • Onion Rings ($5.35)
  • Triple Decker Club (w/Chips) ($6.95)
  • Wine Sundae (1 scoop) ($2.15)
There's a line of resturants in Fort Wayne, IN, that tend to carry a similar 'dark old-timey' feel (Hall's Resturants) and so this place was actually a nicer version of said decor, and I really liked that.

As to the food, the Onion Rings here were pretty solidly done, not slippery. Cham asserted that they probably used their Catfish batter to do the battering, which didn't make them bad. More traditional and a bit more flavorful than Mama's, but it depends how much you like that salt on Mama's. The shrimp were shrimp, simply presented and with an okay sauce. I still maintain that a bit of the Jack Daniels type flavoring on their shrimp would work well... then again, see TGIFriday's mass market Jack Daniels Grill. The cheese bread was solid warm cheesy bread, and I really didn't get a strong taste out of the cottage cheese spread, but it wasn't bad, even though cottage cheese tends not to do it for me.

The Triple Decker Club might be more accurately described by some as a bacon sandwich to some people, because the flavor was so strong... but there really was a solid balance of textures and some flavors in it, tomato and turkey both. And I always thought of triple decker as requiring three sections of stuff, not three pieces of bread, but they went the second route with this one. Still sizable and it tasted very good. I'm glad they didn't take the tomato out despite the salmonella scare. The chips that come with it are at least decent bag chips, as they seemed too homogeneous for home made. They did an excellent job with the bacon, though, crisp without being burnt. Thumbs up.

The wine sundae was interesting. It tasted like sherry, to me, over vanilla, which was a very simple but delicious mix. And it's the kind of thing one could easily do at home! If they had, say, gobs of sherry for some reason. Not that I know anyone like that.

The sum-up here is positive, and you may feel a little bit underdressed in business casual given the place's atmosphere, and we didn't get to try any of the drinks (stupid work lunches) but that's no reason not to give it a shot for lunch if you're in the area. It was a long lunch for us, but that's because we aren't so much in the area, and you can probably get it in at around an hour, hour and a half if you're closer and don't order a billion appetizers.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Harkert's BBQ

Restaurant: Harkert's BBQ
Address: 4865 Center St.
Genres: BBQ, Italian
Check Constraints: Short order.
Chain: No. | More Omaha Locations: No.

  • Large Carolina Pork ($6)
  • Curly Q's ($1.50)
  • Meatball ($1.05)
  • Pickle (Appx $1)
  • Diet Pepsi ($1.25)
There have been several occasions when, while driving down Center, the delightful aroma of smoking meat wafted into the car and caused a spasm of me craning my neck in an attempt to triangulate the actual source of the wood smoke. Once I determined it wasn't nearby steakhouse Gorat's luring me in, I finally took the time to discover that it was a tiny barbecue joint tacked on to the end of a strip mall. They cleverly hide their woodpile inside a square fence plot, making them that much harder to actually spot. So after several weeks of anticipation, Maple and I finally coerced the rest of the group into going for last Thursday's lunch.

Sadly, we were kind of disappointed. Don't get me wrong, the food I had here was good, and the smoke smell both inside and outside the joint made me drool like a drugged English Bulldog. But from the reports of the others, the sauce they chose to use for barbecue was not exactly the best. I agree, but I'll let the others explain why - I have a Carolina Pulled Pork sandwich to talk about.

Carolina BBQ, if you're not familiar with the vast spectrum of BBQ out there, is kind of a radical take-off on what most people think of as "barbecue". Like traditional southern BBQ, it's pork-based, but it eschews a tomato-based sauce in favor of a vinegar-and-chile-based sauce. When served as a sandwich it's often topped with coleslaw, and it was that way here. Harkert's does their vinegar as a marinade instead of as a sauce added to the pulled meat at sandwich construction time, so the tang was diminished, and lessened even more by the coleslaw. I'd have preferred a little more heat out of it, both vinegar- and chile-wise, but it was good nonetheless, and was a fairly large sandwich for $6.

The Curly-Qs were curly fries, and I don't have much else to say. Moogle's side was a far better choice, in my opinion. The meatball, though, was kind of amazing. It was, estimated, 4 inches in diameter, and came in a bowl of marinara. The sauce was average, but the meatball contained hints of both onion and cabbage and was rather good. You could make a meal out of three and some garlic bread, I suspect. The pickles are served out of a jar on the counter and was pretty good, as pickles go.

I'd go again, but from what I tasted around the table I'd wind up with the same sandwich and perhaps a different side, if I didn't try something out of the Italian part of the menu. And we have too many other places to go for me to start repeating food.

  • Regular Brisket Sandwich ($4.50)
  • Curly Q's ($1.50)
  • Large Pork Sandwich ($6)
  • Dr. Pepper($1.25)
Big note if you're planning on going as a group. This place is cramped. If it had been a little busier, we'd probably have been left without a decent place to sit. I made Cham buy the pickle because I went first and forgot to grab one. The pickles are immense, juicy, and just the right blend of dill and sweet. If you insist on going here, and you aren't opposed to the very idea of putting pickles on barbeque, get one of these, slice it up, and add it to your sandwich. It improves the flavor.

The curly fries were standard Arby's issue curly fries, really. If I were a fan of jalapeno flavor, I'd go with Moogle's side instead, by a long shot. Unfortunately, this is where my good comments pretty much end, because now I have to talk about the sandwiches.

I'm going to start with the brisket. The brisket seemed a bit tough, even for brisket, much more so than the good stuff I got at Ozark. I'd like to say something about the quality of the smoking, but I can't, because the stuff was coated in an awful, overly tomato-ey, sour excuse for barbecue sauce. I dealt with it, though, and finished the brisket sandwich, and it at least wasn't drowned in the sauce.

The same was not true of the pulled pork. The pulled pork sandwich was an abomination upon the land. If you have ever had a proper sloppy joe, the sheer liquidity of this sandwich is roughly comparable to that. There was so much of this awful, sour sauce on the pork that you couldn't even tell it was pork. They could have substituted chicken, beef, veal, or rat meat, and I wouldn't have been able to tell. I would love to be able to give an opinion on the meat in general, but I never actually tasted the meat at any point, it was nothing but sauce.

If you insist on going, go for the Carolina pork, or something italian. The bit of carolina pork I tasted was pretty good. You might consider asking if you can get some meat, with no sauce, slapped on a bun. Maybe add a bit of pickle, or bring your own preferred barbecue. I really don't care if anybody wants to give it a second chance or not, if we opted to go there again, I would probably opt out.

  • #1 Pork Rib Snack: 5 Spare ribs, coleslaw, baked beans, bread & butter ($8.75)
  • Mountain Dew($1.25)
I was glad to see they actually offered fountain soda, not just cans from a cooler. It always annoys me when I ask for a soda for $1.00 or $1.25 and they come back with a single can and no glass to even pour it in.

I ordered one of their specials. It was 5 Spare ribs, 2 sides, and bread & butter for $8.75--not a bad deal for the portion. I never got any bread & butter, but I didn't realize it at the time. I opted for coleslaw and baked beans for my sides. The coleslaw was actually pretty good. It was a little sweet, pretty wet, and not terribly spicy. The baked beans were also pretty good. The ribs...they came slathered in a gritty looking, bright red barbecue sauce, which I didn't at all like. It was way too tomatoey and didn't have any spice. At one point I was gnawing on a rib and had a huge puff of tomato smell go up through my sinuses. That isn't right. This was all very unfortunate, because the ribs themselves were nice and meaty with a delicious looking pink hue, no big chunks of char, and a nice taste of smoke, and were overall very good once I wiped the rancid tomato off.

I recommend that, if you choose to order something that has a remote chance of coming with their barbecue sauce, you order it dry and bring a bottle of your own favorite sauce to top it with.

  • Regular Brisket Sandwich ($4.50)
  • Spicy Taters ($1.50)
  • Diet Pepsi ($1.25)
I had the brisket sandwich as well, and my initial thought was that the meat was a bit tough. I didn't really notice it later when I got more into it. It was pretty well drenched in the sauce. I agree that the sauce was too tomatoey, but it didn't bother me as much as the others. I had a bit of ND's pulled pork though, and the sauce on that was way, way too much and really sharp. I can see why he didn't bother to eat most of it.

The side was cheesy tater tots with jalapeno flavoring. I didn't notice any actual jalapeno bits. They were pretty good and came out very physically hot. Once they cooled down, I could actually taste them, and they weren't very spicy. They're decent, but there weren't very many of them compared to what you get with the fries.

It seemed to be a local techie lunching place though. Almost everyone there seemed to be dressed for and talking about some sort of technical position. If we end up coming back at some point, I'd try something different for sure. In general, I thought things were "just OK".

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Out of Town: Pittsburgh Three-fer!

A while back, my wife and I visited Pittsburgh to see family. We ate out a couple of times, and I wanted to get some of my impressions written down. It's been about a month now since I ate at these restaurants, so I hope I didn't miss too many details. Here goes:

Hoss's Steak and Sea
Address: 4813 William Penn Hwy, Murrysville, PA 15668
Genres: American, steak, seafood, salad bar
Check Constraints: None
Chain: Yes | More Pittsburgh Locations: Yes

  • Soup & Salad bar ($5.99 lunch, $6.99 at dinner)
  • 1/4 lb burger ($0.25 with salad bar)
  • Soft drink ($1.89)
Hoss's Steak and Sea is a Pittsburgh/West Virginia regional chain, so if you're not in those areas, you're out of luck. It's one of my wife's family's favorite places.

Hoss's is an interesting sort of place. When you first enter, you're in a line like you'd be in for any buffet. One of the main features of the place is a salad bar, but they do offer other items like, well, steak and seafood. They're listed in a giant menu on the wall, which is a little overwhelming for a first-timer like me. I ended up taking the easy way out and getting the soup/salad bar plus burger option. That was what the rest of the group got anyway. We placed our order at the end of the line and were taken to a table. A waitress came by with our drinks and, a bit later, the burgers.

The salad bar seemed a tad small, but it did have plenty of good options. Everything was fresh and topped off (except, initially, the macaroni & cheese which was refilled later on). They had all the standard fixings on the center bar. There were a couple of noodle salads, including an interesting one with steak bits in it. That one was pretty good. They had soups, some other hot things like the macaroni, and nacho stuff on another bar. They usually have a chicken noodle and a specialty soup. Saturday's was Loaded Potato, which was quite good. I thought there was a third soupy option, but I don't remember. They have some different breads and bread toppings on a smaller bar off to the side. The last bar had a good number of dessert options including Jell-o, cookies, cakes, ice-cream, and various toppings for each. I had bread pudding with a raisin topping that went with it.

When the waitress brought the burgers, they came plain, and she told us we could take them up to the salad bar and top them how we wanted. It was an interesting option that I hadn't seen before, but the salad bar didn't have a whole lot of interesting options that fit for a burger. I ended up with shredded cheese and bacon bits. The burger comes on more of a roll-type bun than your standard bun.

Overall, it's a pretty good salad bar place with plenty of options and good prices.

Restaurant: Minutello's Restaurant and Lounge
Address: 226 Shady Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15206
Website: None
Genres: Italian
Check Constraints: Unknown
Chain: No | More Pittsburgh Locations: No

  • Chicken Parmesan early-bird special ($11.95)
    • Bread
    • Cup of wedding soup
    • Chicken Parmesan
    • Lemon Ice
Minutello's feels like it fits the "hole in the wall" category. The building is in a more commercial area with taller buildings, and the building itself is taller than the restaurant. It is not, by far, downtown Pittsburg, but it has more of a downtown feel to me. If you're from Omaha, it feels a bit like the Old Market area, but not as focused. There is no parking directly for Minutello's to speak of except for street parking and a larger parking lot across the street. You enter the building from the sidewalk right off the street and head down a small flight of stairs into something that's not really a lobby.

We came somewhat early to get their early bird specials, and had no wait. In fact, there was only one other table occupied in our seating area. The area had 16-20 tables and the space was broken up by several large columns. Wall decoration was the typical Italian/French chef motif, but was otherwise sparse. Lighting was good though. There was another room off to the right which was dark. It may have been more seating, but I couldn't tell. Later, I noticed a bar in another section off to the right which had a few more people.

Part of the reason we came for the early bird specials was that veal parmesan used to be one of them. We had a couple of fans of the veal parm in our group, and they ended up getting that anyway. The price was about $17 for that and I think $14 as a special in the past. The prices may seem a little steep at first for a special, but there was a lot of food. They included soup/salad, the main dish, and dessert. Not only that, but the portions were pretty big.

The chicken in the chicken parmesan, for example, had to be at least eight ounces, drenched in cheese and sauce, and a large plate that was filled out with noodles. You actually get a choice of noodles with a couple of the dishes. The chicken was nice and tender, and there was just the right amount of sauce and cheese.

The bread came in a basket. It was good, but nothing stood out about it. I think it was sliced bread, rather than rolls. The cup of soup was pretty average sice, but it was good stuff. If you've never had wedding soup, it's a brothy soup with spinach, little meatballs, and tiny noodles. I forget the name of the noodles, but they're just tiny dough balls smaller than a pea. I first heard about it through my wife's family. This soup was heavier on the greens, but it was pretty good.

They tell me that Minutello's spumoni is amazing. I don't think I've had spumoni at all yet, and we didn't get it here because they were actually out that day. There was even a vampire-in-the-light-like hiss from one of the goofballs of the group when the waiter mentioned they were out, but I don't think the waiter heard. I decided to go with the lemon ice instead, and I am not sad about that choice. Maybe I don't know what I'm missing with the spumoni, but the lemon ice was awesome. It was about two scoops worth, and the texture, sweetness, and sourness were all perfect. This lemon ice will be hard to top.

It was a delicious, filling meal. The earlybird special was a great price for the amount and quality of food. It seemed to be lightly trafficked, but they tell me that the place is packed by 8 pm.

Restaurant: Pasta Too
Address: 5260 Library Rd, Bethel Park, PA 15102
Website: None
Genres: Italian
Check Constraints: Split checks acceptable, group gratuity unknown.
Chain: Yes | More Pittsburgh Locations: Yes


  • Lasagna ($11.95)
  • Side salad ($1.75)
Pasta Too was mentioned by a family friend (the same who hissed at the Minutello's waiter) for their large portions. On his suggestion, we all went one day to check the place out. It's a pretty nice place with a fairly open seating area, interesting ceiling designs, and a nice large window. One might expect this window to overlook a lake or a nice mountain vista, but it instead looks out at a big gas station, large intersection, and some trees. You can't have everything, I guess. The kitchen is somewhat open to the dining area as well, which was a bit odd. It's hidden behind some half-walls, but you could still hear them chopping, pounding, and cooking away.

They brought bread to the table with some plates holding some sort of seasoned olive oil. I'm not sure what was in it, but it had some reddish flakes. The bread were small loaves of soft Italian bread cut into slices, and it was very good with the oil. The side salad was pretty typical, and had plenty of mixed veggies. I think I had Italian dressing, which was good. They didn't put too much or too little on, but other than that it was pretty average.

The lasagna was impressive though. It almost didn't look like much because there was nothing else on the plate. This was, however, quite a brick of lasagna measuring in at about 2" x 3" x 4". Twenty four cubic inches of delicious lasagna. I wanted to be able to finish it, and I tried. That was a mistake. I made it through about three quarters and had to stop. I should have stopped at about half to try some of the desserts.

I had no room for any of these fantastic things I'm about to describe. First of all, while we were eating, we noticed a LARGE cake sitting on a table in the dining area. It was a cylinder probably about a foot tall and a foot in diameter. We thought, "That can't be real," but we were wrong. That was their actual carrot cake. They serve a full length slice from that and it's technically intended for two. It looked to be about two average slices stacked on top of each other. They also have this cake in chocolate. I think they called it the Chocolate Tower, but I could be mistaken. My wife and her brother got tiramisu, and the friend got some other dessert that I would have picked. I unfortunately didn't try any because I was out of commission, but the sizes of those were impressive as well. They were smaller than the cake, but I think the cake was priced a bit higher as well.

Overall, the food was great. The prices may have been a bit on the high side, but you get one and a half or two dinners worth. Be prepared to take some home with you.

BONUS: Vincent's Pizza Park
(pizza, Pittsburgh chain)

I don't have a lot of info on this one at the moment, but I wanted to mention it. Vinnie's is another one of my wife's favorite food places in Pittsburgh. They have very large pizzas that, when you order to go, come oblong shaped on a bit of cardboard and wrapped in paper. They are extremely greasy and have a big thick outter crust. Generally they cook the crust too dark for my wife's family. My mother-in-law has said that she always asks for the crust "light", and in my opinion it's still pretty thoroghly done. It's also cut irregularly such that you get some really long, skinny slices or some huge ones. This time around we had a cheese pizza. Like I said it's quite greasy, but it's good stuff and very filling.

Senor Matias Mexican Restaurant

Restaurant: Senor Matias Mexican Restaurant
Address: 2505 S 90th St
Website: None known.
Genres: Mexican, American
Check Constraints: 18% for groups of 8 or more.
Chain: No. | More Omaha Locations: No.

  • Diet Coke ($1.79)
  • Mexi-Potato-Skins ($7.99)
  • Cup of Mexican Chili ($3.25)
  • Mexican Lasagna ($7.99)
You may think it overkill for menu items at a Mexican restaurant to essentially be labeled as such. You'd think it implicit, right? Well, Senor Matias is a Mexican/American restaurant, and they take both sides of their heritage pretty seriously. You can pick either of the genres here, or dabble in both if you like. That means their menu isn't quite as expansive as if they were single-genre, and the loss of focus results in some foods that just aren't that appetizing - like their guacamole. None of us got it on this visit but we've been before, and the guacamole here is little more than crushed avocado. Stirring in large amounts of the table salsa didn't seem to change the taste even a little; definitely steer clear unless you're fond of just peeling an avocado and snacking now and then.

However, if you're willing to pick and choose around the menu, you can get a pretty big lunch here of acceptable quality for reasonable prices. The Mexi-Potato-Skins are fairly copious in servings, with the main difference from your average potato skins being ground beef and black olive slices lumped in with the cheese and bacon. They're tasty, and while I wouldn't call them gourmet, they're about as good as you get without finding a steakhouse that serves them with New York Strip on top.

The Mexican Lasagna, a Thursday special, was also fairly good. Matias' ground beef has a light but noticeable spicing to it, an improvement over the plain beef at some places or the "disguise-bad-meat" level spice at some unmentionable fast food taco joints. The "lasagna" itself is essentially a layering of flat flour tortillas, ground beef, and refried beans topped with tomatoes, lettuce, etc. It's a short tower of flat soft tacos, and though compared to some of the other entrees it comes in a little light on serving size, I'd recommend it. The real star for me though is their chili.

Large chunks of beef are the primary ingredient, and it sure tastes like spice is the secondary. I admit to railing about overspiced food mere paragraphs above, but the heavy spicing of the chili works very well with the strong beef taste and the heavy flavor of vinegar present. It's also very spicy; trying this without a dollop of sour cream to cool it down is asking for some pain. I'm a major capsaicin fan, and even I barely finished the cup. They serve a dish here called a tamale float, which is a tamale nestled in a bowl of this chili, and while it is delicious it is truly a test for the person who is proud of their iron tongue.

  • Root Beer($1.79)
  • Chicken Quesadillas($8)
  • Orange Shake ($3.25)
  • Combo Platter(Chicken Enchilada and Beef Enchilada) ($9.95)

The prices I've listed are educated guesses. I almost always get a shake or float of some kind when I eat at a mexican restaurant, mainly because unlike Cham, I am not a capsaicin fiend. Were it not for that shake, I would not have been able to finish the chicken enchilada, as the chicken here is a bit on the spicy side for me. Last time, I got a plain vanilla shake, and it was okay. I randomly opted for orange this time, and it tasted like the vanilla shake with just a slight hint of orange. It's rather like a very thick orange cream soda. Luckily, I love orange cream soda.

The chicken quesadillas are top notch, soft taco shells wrapped around an astounding amount of shredded spicy chicken and cheese, then fried. You get two of them for the price, and it's practically a meal in and of itself. If you want a Mexican appetizer, go for this and not the chips and dip.

This is the second time I've got a combo here. I knew from my epic defeat last time that ordering a triple combo would be the death of me, so I ordered two. That was still too much food. When you order a chicken enchilada here, they take half a chicken, shred it, spice it liberally, wrap a tortilla around it, then drizzle sauce over the top and about a pound of cheese over the top of that. I had two of those, though one was ground beef, and it comes with liberal portions of spanish rice and refried beans, and some lettuce on the side. If you're in the mood for a lot of food for a little money, and don't feel like risking some of the crazy heat like the chili has, grab a double or triple combo. You'll have to loosen your belt.

  • Diet Cola ($1.79)
  • Combo Platter(Chicken Enchilada and Chicken Burrito) ($9.95)
The chicken quesadillas were great. They weren't the standard flat quesadillas where they put them in that device that mashes the tortilla down and grills it on both sides. It was more like they took a medium sized flour tortilla, stuffed it with cheese and chicken, then mashed it down by hand and put it in the oven to melt a bit, so it was still half open when it arrived at your table.

The chicken they use resembles pulled chicken. It's stringy, but still juicy and delicious with a nice kick from the spice. They put the lettuce and such on the side, so the burrito was very simple, with just spiced chicken inside a shell with melted cheese smothered all over the top. The enchilada was the same, but with the red sauce instead of the cheese. I'm usually a great fan of red sauce and enchiladas, but it just didn't work this time and I ended up favoring the burrito very much over the enchilada.

I also tried a bit of Cham's chili. I was very impressed. It was a kind of spicy that I'd never tasted before. It was almost like a vinegary chili spice. Next time I go, I'll be getting my own bowl, I think.

  • The Ole #7 Burrito ($9.25)
The potato skins and quesadilla were both pretty good. They both were pretty well stuffed. The others have described them pretty well. The quesadillas were a bit small for the five of us to share though.

The burrito was a big one. You definitely get large portions here. It's deep fried and buried in cheese. I think the only thing inside was seasoned ground beef with maybe a bit more cheese. That is probably the only reason I managed to finish it. It was quite tasty and vanished quickly. It came with a bit of refried beans and rice on the side. I thought both of those were decent as well.

I did try a bite of chili as well, and it's pretty hot and hits you fast. I'm not one to shy away from the hot stuff, but I'd probably have trouble eating a whole bowl without something to calm the heat a bit.


  • Cup of Chili ($3.25)
  • Combo Platter(Beef Burrito and Cheese Burrito) ($9.95)
The place is a bit hit and miss (nobody mentioned the refried beans, which I had heard were a bit burnt this time?) but it tends to have some very solid basic hits. The chili was indeed fantastic... for as much of it as I could tolerate eating. It's mighty spicy, and complex spicy besides, with both heat at the front and at the back, but the heat doesn't kill the flavor. If I hadn't been so full in general, I'd have probably gotten some milk besides sour cream to cut the heat with to finish it. I didn't taste the vinegar that Maple did (which is good, because I'm not a huge vinegar fan.) I did like those skins (I'm generally a fan of potato skins, and these were pretty flavorful), and the quesedilla was fine, but didn't leap out at me.

As for my main plate, both my Beef burrito and my Cheese burrito came covered in cheese. And inside one, nothing but beef. Inside the other, nothing but cheese. It's tough to get simpler than that. But it was really good. The ground beef is more than just 'there', and I like me some cheese. Now, these burritos are more normal sized burritos, as opposed to the single big one Moogle got, or big ones we've had elsewhere, but 2 burritos, with appetizers, is still a very sizable amount of food. ND is right: know what you're getting into with portions here, but be sure to give it a shot if you're ready for a solid meal.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Mama's Pizza

Restaurant: Mama's Pizza
Address: 715 Saddle Creek Rd
Genres: pizza, american
Check Constraints: None.
Chain: Local.| More Omaha Locations: Yes.

  • Italian Cheese Bread ($4.50, 4 slices)
  • Breaded Raviolis ($5.25)
  • Onion Rings (Full order, $6.75)
  • 4 oz Creamy Garlic House Dressing ($1)
  • Medium Garlic Chicken Alfredo Pizza ($13.50)
  • Medium Spicy Italian Sausage with Red Pepper (Special, $13.50)
  • 2 Pitchers (Diet Coke, Root Beer, $5)
Just in case you were wondering, that's the food for the whole group. This arrangement shall henceforth be known as the Pizza Protocol, to be enacted whenever we're eating someplace that's serving large items, pizza, or family-style dishes. And Mama's Pizza definitely served pizza. I'm sure you're all surprised.

Before we hit the food, a moment to talk about the place itself. Mama's has a reasonably unique ordering setup, where you order your food actually at the bar, and pick it up at a window when the kitchen crew's done with it. This sort of thing would never fly in Indiana, but since Nebraska's a lot looser on letting kids into the "bar area", it works pretty well. It certainly means you save on a tip. Since there's no Keno, there's no smoke, and thus it really doesn't matter whether you sit in the bar area, or in the area outside it. Well, that's not entirely true. There aren't TVs outside the bar, so you'll miss your soap operas otherwise. The place in general reminds me of pizza parlors of the days of yore (of my youth, anyhow), possibly because it actually has an arcade! All the pizza places of my youth had arcades, because really, if you're waiting for a pizza, why not be sinking quarter after quarter into a large beeping machine? The selection of games wasn't ideal, especially because the Simpson's game - if you remember that old beat-em-up - was out of order. That would have been a great trip down memory lane.

One last note about the building - apparently, up until 2002, the place had red shag carpeting on the walls. They kept a piece and framed it, is how I know.

The time for the pizza to be done wasn't overly long, and they called us for one before the other arrived, so it wasn't just sitting there getting cold. And the appetizers, of course, came out first. I don't have much to say about them, except that the onion rings were unique and delicious, and that their house dressing is good, but not all it's cracked up to be. The pizza itself was very good. It's not the best I've had in Omaha, but it runs a pretty close second, and it definitely beats out anything I could get from a non-local chain. The alfredo pizza was smothered in cheese, and though it was very good when I got a bit where I could taste the alfredo or chicken, it tasted primarily of cheese.

So naturally I put parmesan on it. And red pepper flakes. Don't look at me like that, it's pizza, it needs parmesan. Anyhow, it was pretty good. The spicy sausage pizza was even better, though the sausage came out more like meatballs and there was way too much sauce on it to properly eat it without a fork. And yes, it tasted even better with red pepper flakes and parmesan.

At a sum total of $51.55 after tax, Mama's is good food for a nice price, though I still wish they'd have fixed that Simpson's machine.


The Simpsons arcade game was Konami. I'm not sure if Konami used Capcom's infamous self-destructing arcade boards or not, but it's possible that it simply -can't- be repaired. That would be a tragedy.

I refrained from trying the sausage and pepper pizza, mainly on the basis of the peppers looking disturbingly like cooked whole tomatoes, which, as many of you know, I cannot stomach due to a tragic childhood incident.

The alfredo pizza, on the other hand, was pretty good. It could have used more garlic, and did well with more parmesan. Unfortunately, I didn't get to try the alfredo pizza at Roman Coin, but I wouldn't mind having this again, even though it did give me acid reflux. That's pretty common for me after pizza, though.

The appetizers were surprising. The onion rings were definitely done in-house. I'm not a big fan of onion rings, but the breading was well done, in my personal favorite style of ultra-smooth breading. The cheese bread was above average, but not amazingly so. What was impressive was the breaded ravioli, which Cham got for some inexplicable reason. It was golden brown, soft, moist, and just all around head and shoulders above any I've had before. This place knows how to do the ravioli.


The ravioli, I agree, were the best appetizer. ND said it well. The cheese bread was more like cheese toast to me. Buttered toast with cheese on top. Pretty good. The onion rings were on the odd side of unique for me, but they weren't bad. I don't think I'd need to get them again though.

The chicken alfredo pizza was good. Like was said before though, it was heavy on the cheese and light on the sauce. Both the pizzas we got were pretty heavy on cheese, which I consider to be a good thing. The large sausages in the sausage/pepper pizza were fun, if a little difficult to eat. That pizza also had the added difficulty of tons of sauce. It may have been a bit too much sauce. Since the sausage/pepper pizza was a specialty pizza not on the menu, we wondered if the sauce level was the same for their other pizzas. We're unable to make any real comment on typical sauce levels though. The menu does have a good variety of non-pizza options too, which I thought was pretty nice. None of us tried the other main dishes this time around. What we did get was great, though.


At $10 a head, you can't beat the price. I didn't get a chance to try the breaded ravioli, so I'll have to assume it was very good. The onion rings, I will contend, are the best I've ever had. They were all good-sized rings--none of the endcaps. The breading, as ND said, was very smooth. It wasn't the coarse breading that you sometimes see. The best part was this powder on the outside that was reminiscent of popcorn salt. I'm not sure if it was something they added afterward or an artifact of the batter, but it added something I've never seen before with onion rings. A++. Will eat again. I agree with the others on the cheese bread. It just wasn't special enough for the price and quantity.

I really liked the specialty pizza. It was very saucy and the chunks of sausage were pretty big, so it was more like a spicy meatball pizza. The chicken alfredo pizza was pretty disappointing. It tasted mostly of cheese. I recall a couple of vague hints of alfredo and chicken, but that was all.


All three of the appetizers were reasonably solid, although the onion rings and ravioli were definitely the standouts. The ravioli was full and not done to the point of super-crispiness, unlike many places, and Maple covered the onion rings in reasonable depth. It's worth noting that the breading didn't fall off in a slimy fashion either. They put together some solid rings. (And I maintain that the salt in the breading is good, although a little saltier than necessary to sell more soda. ;)

The alfredo pizza really did have trouble punching through with the alfredo sauce's flavor instead of the cheese, but I'm not the world's largest fan of alfredo flavoring anyway, so I wasn't too bothered. It wasn't bad, though, even with that. The specialty pizza was better, in my mind, with large meaty chunks and the peppers being very strong in the taste component. The big 'problem' that both of those hint at is inconsistency in flavor, where you get some bites which are nothing, and then some bites which are everything. That's not uncommon in pizza, but I prefer a bit more consistency than this place gives (at least with those two.) I don't think I'd go with it as second for taste, but it's definitely a strong contender, especially with it being farther away from the normal haunts than either Roman Coin or Zio's, making it a much closer and fairly enjoyable option for people in that area. Also, it wasn't super-busy, so that certainly could have helped the speed with which we got our food out.

As for what we didn't do, the bar was mentioned above, and we didn't play with that any, although I didn't see any big notes about 'specialties', so they probably focus on beer. There are a number of other things to eat there, such as sandwiches and salads, and we didn't get to any of that, as Moogle mentioned. Still, little to be sad about foodwise here, and that price point is very worth a consideration or two.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Vincenzo's Italian Ristorante

Restaurant: Vincenzo's Italian Ristorante (Midtown)
Address: 7605 Pacific St
Genres: Italian
Check Constraints: No separate checks.
Chain: Regional. | More Omaha Locations: Yes.

  • Iced Tea ($1.50)
  • Carciofi Farciti ($8.95)
  • Penne Diavolo ($10.95)
Though Vincenzo's is a fairly well-known regional chain (with two other Omaha locations and one in Lincoln), this appears to be the Vincenzo's everyone forgot. It's not on the website, and even though that hasn't been updated since 2006 I can find reference to this location having existed before that. Since Vincenzo's has different menus for each location, that makes figuring out what you want in advance a little hard. Additionally, the prices are off on the menus, which makes sense if the website really hasn't been touched in two years.

The building itself echoes this neglected feel. The smell when you walk in is, we all agreed, "musty". The tables are pocked with wears in the veneer, and I'm pretty sure the dim lighting was the only thing saving the place from looking worse, but as it was it looked like a mafioso hangout gone south. All of this was a large shame because, you know what? I really liked the food.

Carciofi farciti was a new dish on me; Google tells me it means "stuffed artichoke". In this case, it was stuffed with a pimento, lemon, olive, and red pepper paste, and then breaded and fried. It was an interesting flavor, but I'm a large fan of artichokes and wound up liking it a lot. We also tried their garlic bread, but I'll let ND and the rest expound on that. The Penne Diavolo was delicious - spicy sausage, sweet red peppers, black olives, mushrooms, and penne pasta in a marinara sauce with a touch of cream, as the menu says. It was perhaps a tad small for the cost, but I'm definitely glad I got it. I'd be interested in going back to see how they approached some of the slightly more traditional dishes - from mine and the other guys' meals, they apparently don't shy away from cream or butter in the search for flavor here, and I can get behind that, though I bet my doctor can't.

All in all, it was a good meal. Though the place wasn't packed while we were there, it was far from empty, so it's clear other people share that opinion as well. At some point we may hit another of their locations, though we've got a lot of restaurants to get through before we start repeating.

  • Iced Tea ($1.50)
  • Blackened Parmesan Chicken Breast on Angel Hair (Special, $10.95)
  • Garlic Cheese Bread ($6.95)
This place was really gloomy, and all the tables were sorta spotlighted. It really did feel sorta like a dilapidated mob joint. I'm not sure what to make of that. Cham's right, though, the food is very worth it. I had never before tried artichoke hearts, let alone done this way. The taste was strange, but not bad. The garlic bread, on the other hand, was premium. Nearly as good, if not on par with, the amazing bread at Brazen Head. As near we can tell, they take uncooked bread dough, slather the inside with garlic and butter, then fold it in half, sealing the garlic and butter inside. Sprinkle the top with more butter and herbs, and then bake and cover generously with cheese. The whole loaf is served uncut, hot, and delicious, and is well worth the cost.

I don't think the blackened Parmesan chicken had a specific dish name, but it really deserves one. I'm not a huge fan of angel hair pasta, I'm more a fettuccine guy, but that didn't matter so much. The sauce was supposed to be a cream/garlic/lemon sauce, but I couldn't taste any lemon, so the overall effect was basically Alfredo without the parmesan. The real star, though, was the chicken. It was a large chicken breast, done to juicy perfection, wrapped in breading that consisted almost entirely of Parmesan cheese. I cannot adequately describe how absolutely delicious this breading was, and when combined with the chicken and pasta, it made the whole thing absolutely worth not grabbing my standby of chicken alfredo.

  • Chicken Soto ($10.95)
I thought the artichoke appetizer was good, but it may not be for everyone. It had a somewhat sharp taste and the red pepper sauce was something you don't see every day. The garlic bread was amazing though. It wasn't dry like a typical garlic bread, and it was very cheesy.

The chicken soto was a new thing for me. It was a chicken breast with that cream/garlic/lemon sauce and their provel cheese (that seems to be on a large number of dishes). It seemed somewhat small on the plate, but then it was the only thing on the plate. I'd give it a good 5 or 6 ounces of chicken though, and it was swimming in the sauce. There was a reasonable sized plate of steamed, lightly seasoned, and possibly buttered vegetables on the side as well. It felt a little small for the price, but it just about the right portion size in the end.

  • Soda Pop ($1.50)
  • Fettucini Alfredo con Pollo ($9.95)
I echo everyone's sentiments on the Garlic Bread. It wasn't the typical toasted Italian bread with garlic butter slathered on top. It was slathered with their Provel cheese and would be better termed Cheesey (garlic) Bread. There was no way that the bread wasn't baked in house.

My Fettucini Alfredo con Pollo was ok. The noodles were cooked very well. The chicken was juicy and spiced wonderfully. Usually, I'm a big fan of alfredo and a big fan of garlic, however, this just didn't do it for me. The sauce was noticeably sour. Cham tasted it and claimed that they just went overboard on the garlic and butter in the sauce, but I don't know. It didn't taste as much over-garlicked as it did just sour. I wouldn't order it again, especially since the portion was a little small.

  • Chicken Soto ($10.95)
  • Chocolate Cannoli ($4.95)
I also was in the 'boy, that artichoke thing is weird, but not bad' camp, myself. Might have been the pimento. Might just be an acquired taste. The garlic bread was pretty good, even though I got the butt-end of it so I don't think I got as much cheese.

The Chicken Soto, which I didn't realize Jay got as well until the plates came, came with some very enjoyable mixed vegetation, squash/zucchini, broccoli, few other things. The dish itself had a very good butter/garlic/lemon sauce, with just the right hint of lemon to be intriguing without being overpoweringly ew. The mushrooms did a good job of carrying and adding to the flavor of the dish, and the chicken was well cooked.

The desert, as I was the only one left with space, was actually very good with one odd caveat (which I didn't give them the chance to address as we were already out the door when I figured it out.) It was filled with a very good mousse, in a hard chocolate shell, with whipped cream, and caramel and raspberry sauces drizzeled over it. However, there was an odd small segment in it where the mousse had gone bad. Cham theorized possibly a bad bit of cream. A one-off sad end to what was otherwise a very delicious (almost decadent) meal. And I don't know what those guys were complaining about with respect to atmosphere. You'd think they'd never been to a non-tie-based italian restaurant before.