Wednesday, September 3, 2008

McKenna's Blues, Booze, and BBQ

Restaurant: McKenna's Blues, Booze, and BBQ
Address: 7425 Pacific St
Genres: BBQ
Check Constraints: None.
Chain: Yes (sort of). | More Omaha Locations: No.

  • Ten-Hour Smoked Brisket Sandwich ($7.99)
  • Red Beans & Rice
  • Jalapeno Cornbread ($1.39)
  • Drink ($1.99)
A while ago, the ownership of McKenna's... changed hands. It was closed for a couple months, and during that time business apparently fell off. We had heard several good things about its barbecue, and we all felt that we wanted to give them a fair shot at serving up some goodness. For that reason we held off, and tried some of the other BBQ places in town, to mixed results. However, the BBQ bug struck one Thursday morning, and we swiftly decided that it was time to try the restaurant.

It doesn't smell very much like wood smoke outside McKenna's, but there's a very good reason for that. The clever yet evil people seem to vent the delicious smells directly into the restaurant. Now, don't get me wrong, it's not actually smoky inside, but when you walk in and the aroma hits you, you suddenly feel like ordering a lot more food. I actually did smell a bit like I'd been near a campfire when I got home from work that day, which was kind of an interesting effect. Regardless, the agony of waiting for food while that smell just hangs in the air is pretty intense. We ordered appetizers as per usual, and though I'll let the others hold forth on those I will say that I preferred the black eyed pea dip - it was definitely a notch above a generic refried bean concoction.

You would hope that with the good smoke aroma hanging around, McKenna's would have a good smoke on their meat. This is quite definitely the case. The brisket, sans sauce, was deliciously meaty and was tender without being overly dry or falling apart. It could have perhaps been a little more moist, but since it's being eaten with barbecue sauce that's less of a complaint. The sauce was deliciously tangy, with strong hints of molasses, and it went pretty well with... well, with just about everything at the table. All McKenna's sandwiches are served between thick slices of what appeared to be an egg bread. The sandwich, then, was several folded strips of brisket, a splash of sauce (not enough to drown the meat, which is a huge thumbs-up), and the bread. It was absolutely delicious, although the size of the bread slices versus the layout of the brisket on the sandwich meant I got some bites that were mostly bread. It tasted good, though, so I didn't much mind. The verdict here is quite definitely Would Eat Again.

I couldn't taste the jalapenos in the cornbread, but it was good... for Northern-style cornbread. It was perhaps a little dry for northern-style, but I repurposed some of the butter delivered to the table and it helped a lot. The butter had some kind of green herb or spice in it, but we couldn't taste anything. It may have just been parsely.

The red beans and rice deserve their own paragraph. Now, I've not been to Louisiana, so it's hard for me to speak to authenticity. I will say that of the red beans and rice dishes I have had, this one was very different. The beans were not cooked until they fell apart, for starters, and so the appearance of the dish was much more a "beans on top of rice" affair, as opposed to a bean-based sauce. There wasn't much attempt to overspice them, either - the bean flavor shone through. I might have used a shorter-grain rice for a little added stickiness, but that's not that big a complaint. Most importantly, the bean flavor was accompanied by a delicious heat which came out of nowhere a second or two after taking a bite. It was probably out of the heat range of everyone else at the table, but man, it was fantastic for me. I can say it with 100% certainty; unless there is an all-you-can-eat ribs special on the next time we go - and there will be a next time - I'm going to get their red beans and rice/smoked sausage platter. Probably with some cornbread to sop up some of the delicious leftovers.

For the price, it's damn hard to beat this much bbq at this quality. McKenna's brings blues acts through the area, and I am positive that between the food, a good beer, and some good music, you'll have trouble finding a better time on Saturday nights.

  • Brisket Dinner Platter ($11.99)
  • Jalapeno Cornbread
  • Cottage Cheese
  • Corn on the Cob
  • Drink ($1.99)
I've been okay with the idea of hitting this place for quite a while. Our adventures in barbecue so far have been disappointing to me, with Ozark Smoked Meat Company coming closest to being actually good. I was pleasantly surprised by McKenna's, for the most part, though I have a maxim to impart that will be good for your dining experience.

The brisket was well smoked, with a readily visible and thick smoke line. Mine came without bread, so I was eating pure meat and sauce. The meat was just tender enough to be edible without falling apart, except for one slice I got that was way too thin, and when rolled up, they were great for dipping.

The corn cob was half a cob or so, and utterly unremarkable. It did remind me of why I don't eat corn on the cob often, though. The cottage cheese was apparently prepared and then let sit out while the rest of the dish was prepared, because it was warm. Not lukewarm, but actually warm. Warm cottage cheese is a travesty and a crying shame. Also, don't listen to those other knuckleheads about not tasting the jalapenos in the cornbread. You can taste them if you're not in the habit of regularly torturing your mouth with absurd amounts of capsaicin. The cornbread is, however, VERY dry. If you don't get butter, ask for some.

The appetizers selected were, strangely, both chips and dip. Mainly because they didn't have much -but- chips and dip. The black eyed pea dip was quality, but not something I can really expound on. The chicken nachos were quite good, and had whole beans rather than refried, but they came layered under a quarter inch of melted cheddar. Well, it HAD been melted, anyway. It was a quarter inch sheet of solid cheese by the time we got it, and it was actually work to get a chunk of nachos out. Aside from that, it was good, and not bogged down with things like tomatoes and onions. If they switched from cheddar to cheddar sauce, they would be perfect.

So anyway, the moral, for your dining enjoyment at McKenna's is this: If it involves barbeque sauce, it will be delicious. If it does not, it will probably be much less so. It was still far and away the best barbeque place we've done thus far, and I would willingly eat there again. I'd just get much different sides with the dinner.

  • BBQ Smoked St. Louis Spare Rib Basket ($8.99)
  • BBQ Baked Beans
  • Drink ($1.99)
It took me a while to find the smaller/cheaper portion of ribs which resides in the "Sandwiches" section. I suppose, if you wanted to stretch a bit, you could call it an open faced rib sandwich--it was a rack of 5 or 6 ribs served on top of a large piece of bread. Nevertheless, they were delicious. They had a good smoke; they didn't have any chunks of char; they were very tender and just fell off the bone; and they weren't drowning in sauce (but they did come with a small side of bbq sauce you could apply yourself). The sauce itself worked really well. It wasn't very sweet and had a a nice little kick and a smokey flavor to it. The BBQ beans were a bit too much. I think they could have gone with about half as much bbq sauce in the beans and been fine. As it was, it was like eating the barbecue sauce.

The appetizers were surprisingly good for just chips and dip. I particularly liked the Smoked Chicken Nachos. Once you got through the quarter inch layer of cheese (I'm disappointed that I have to complain about such, really), you could get a delicious scoop of beans, chicken, and some nice green tomato-y pico de gallo.

The service was pretty good. The waitress got a bit confused with ordering our drinks because the other four of us arrived about 10 minutes after ND, but I can excuse that. She kept our drinks filled. And she was actually able to go through Mecha's rib platter and tell him which was what (and seemed eager to do so).

I'm eager to go back. I'd probably go in the evening when they have their blues acts going.

  • Chicken Nachos (~$7.50?)
  • Ultimate Rib Dinner Sampler ($25.99)
  • Jalapeno Cornbread
  • BBQ Baked Beans
  • Corn on the Cob
I decided to go whole hog, as it were, and get the largest sampler of ribs they had. It was probably about 1.5-2 racks worth of meat, so it was a given I would not finish it.

First, though, the appetizers. The Black Bean Dip + Chips was pretty good. The chips weren't anything amazing, but the dip really did have a pleasant flavor that isn't too common in dips. The chicken nachos were definitely good, and I probably ate too many of them given what I had to deal with. They came with a good chunky salsa, and were indeed buried under some difficult to manage melted cheese, but if you're not too afraid of getting your hands dirty, you can get all the flavors together on a chip.

As for the rib sampler, they had 5 types of ribs. The featherbones were something I'm not familiar with, but apparently they're not only an Omaha thing (see the google for the associations) but supposed to be a good way to get good meat on the cheap. Unfortunately, these were pretty darn tough. The flavor was good, but tough. The Country Pork Ribs were pretty darn juicy, being boneless, although perhaps a bit fatty for some. Think real boneless BBQ with big pieces of meat. The BBQ smoked pork baby backs came a bit tough, but again, the sauce was decent and the flavor decent, just old/overcooked. The St. Louis style, which I'm also not particularly familiar with, was again somewhat tender and easy to get at, and I remember it as a bit more pure.

The shining part here, which I've waited to describe until we were through the the batch of lunchtime inconsistency, was the Hawaiian. The Hawaiian style ribs were exactly what ribs should be. Fall off the bone tender, flavorful, smoky, and they came with a plum-based sauce which 1) worked extremely well with them 2) most of the table was convinced was 80 proof. I refused to leave a single bit of that particular flavor on my plate, and you should as well. On the overall, the platter was decent, but if it had not had inconsistency issues, it could have been amazing on a scale I'd never had before on both scale and flavor. The place was sparsely populated, and I imagined few people were getting what I'd gotten. Nothing was too particularly spicy, but that's not a bad thing. Just a note.

Red beans and rice is not something I have a lot, but this had both strong heat and a good flavor for the beans. A bit too strong on the heat, but the place unabashedly sells milk (which is good to keep in mind if you head for something spicy.) The cornbread I didn't really get through, due to the large plate of food.

I would definitely try this place again, and I want to try it when it's busy enough and I'm not in a rush, because I think then it'll move away from 'frustratingly inconsistent' into something... well, hopefully as good as those Hawaiian-style ribs hinted that they could be.

  • BBQ Smoked Badwich ($7.99)
  • Coleslaw
  • Black-eyed-pea Dip with Chips ($5.29)
  • Lemonade ($1.99)
The nachos were tasty. There were a lot of interesting things mixed in. It was a little bit dry though, so it was harder to keep things on the chips. That seemed to be the style, though (as opposed to accidentally dry or overcooked). The chicken was good and the flavors mixed well. The dip was really good. This one seemed a little too soupy, but it didn't end up being a problem. The peas were whole and the dip held together well enough. The flavor was pretty mild, and made for a great change from regular refried bean dips. The lemonade was pretty good too. It wasn't too sour or too sweet. You get unlimited refills with it too. That may mean it's fountain-style, but I didn't really notice.

The main attraction, the Badwich sandwich, was an interesting beast. It's a pulled pork AND beef sandwich. It was slightly over sauced, but that was about what I was looking for that day. It definitely wasn't flooded, which is good. It came between two large pieces of bread and was a pretty good size. The meat was pretty tender. The BBQ sauce was good, but I didn't taste the meat too much over the sauce. It had a good amount of heat to it. I had a bit of the jalepeno cornbread too. I couldn't detect any heat due to the sauce, but I could taste the jalepeno peppers. The creamy coleslaw was a little light on the "creamy". I didn't realize before, but after ND mentioned that his cottage cheese was warm, I noticed that the coleslaw wasn't very cold. I wasn't a fan.

I would come back. I'd say stick to the intentionally warm side dishes, and go for some of their more unique dishes. They have plenty of interesting options that are off the beaten path.

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