Restaurant Review: Grey Whale Poke Bowl

I’ll never forget July 13, 2016 as the day my eyes were opened to one of my biggest food obsessions.

Poke

Mind-bendingly delicious poke at Coconut’s Fish Cafe (Maui)

The scene was Coconut’s Fish Cafe on the island of Maui. Coconut’s was just one of several wonderful meals my family enjoyed while visiting Hawaii, but none stood out like this. The raw tuna was so fresh, succulent and delicious. It also made me kind of sad, because I knew even in that moment that I would likely never again have poke that good.

My fears were confirmed when I sampled Poukei in Las Vegas last summer. It was still very good, don’t get me wrong. But it didn’t hold a candle to the island freshness.

So when I heard that a poke joint was opening in downtown Lincoln earlier this year, I tried to temper my excitement. Nebraska is literally as far as you can get from the coast in the U.S., so how could raw fish retain that freshness? Could Grey Whale Poke Bowl crack the code?

Despite my skepticism, I knew I had to give it a shot. I love poke (clearly), and my positive experience at Grey Whale Sushi gave me hope that its sister restaurant could pull this off.

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Grey Whale is the Chipotle of poke restaurants. After choosing white or brown rice and a protein, diners get to add as many of the 22 offered toppings as they please to their bowl, including pineapple, sweet onion, avocado, pickled ginger, edamame and much, much more. They can then add some of Grey Whale’s 11 sauces and nine “crunch” options, making the combinations seemingly limitless. For those intimidated by so many choices, there are several signature bowls to choose from as well.

The proteins are the most important part of the dish. Those that like traditional poke can get ahi tuna or salmon (both offered as regular and spicy) or crab stick. But patrons who shy away from raw fish have options of boiled shrimp, chicken or tofu.

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Spicy salmon bowl with tomatoes, jalapenos, avocado, mango, red onion and wasabi

The spicy salmon is absolutely delicious. It’s basically just salmon rubbed in a spicy mayo, but it adds just enough heat to stand out. The salmon is fantastic on its own, but its a wonderful complement to the tender, starchy rice.

The onions added crunch, the mango sweetness, and the touch of wasabi was enough to clear out the sinuses for a week. The creamy avocado found its way into almost every bit, and the fresh jalapeños provided a brilliant kick that their picked cousins simply don’t have.

My one regret was adding tomatoes. These large chunks are appetizing and fine individually, but they don’t really work with the dish.

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Hawaiian Spam Musubi

The surprise of the meal was the Hawaiian Spam Musubi, a grilled hunk of spam wrapped in rice and seaweed. I’m not a big fan of spam and had heavy reservations about this side dish, but it actually turned out excellent. The creamy rice offsets some of the heavy salt from the spam, which brought more of a fatty bacon flavor than I was expecting. Against all odds, this side was awesome and I’d absolutely order it again.

The portions were massive and, at around $10 apiece, the price for a bowl felt very fair.

Let’s be clear – Grey Whale Poke Bowl is not in the same stratosphere as Coconut’s Fish Cafe. That freshness simply cannot be replicated hundreds of miles away. But it’s still very tasty and provides a peak into why poke is sweeping the nation as one of America’s top fads.

Hoppen Hierarchy: 8.4 out of 10

Pros: Delicious fish (at least for Nebraska); large portion sizes; tons of toppings; fantastic spam musui

Cons: Fish simply can’t be all that fresh in Nebraska; service can be a bit slow during peak hours

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Restaurant Review: Timber Wood Fire Bistro

The pairing of fire and food is nearly as old as the human race itself. Man has used fire as a cooking vehicle for thousands of years, turning raw meat into delicious flavors plants simply cannot provide.

So when a local restaurant stakes its reputation on made-from-scratch dishes, nearly all of which are cooked in a wood over, it has my attention.

Owner Jared Clarke, who also owns Railcar, decided to make fire the star when he opened Timber Wood Fire Bistro a few years back. The concept is great – Timber offers a varied menu with an upscale atmosphere. It’s a bit dark inside and could use more natural light, but it has an unusual upscale vibe mixed with a casual attitude, and it works.

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The menu is littered with great options, starting with eight French-style pizzas. The pies are very creative and feature ingredients such as poached pears, roasted vegetables, bechamel sauce and a sunny-side-up egg. There are more traditional toppings as well, but Timber allows you to walk on the wild side of pizza.

It’s not all about the pies, though. Other options include mac & cheese, salmon, paella, wood-roasted scallops, sandwiches, duck, steak and more. Each menu description reads like a masterpiece, making the entree decision a difficult one.

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Smoked Potato pizza

The fiance and I are big pizza fans, so we both went in that direction. I ordered the Smoked Potato pizza, a combination of braised pecan bacon, smoked fingerling potatoes, green onion vichyssoise and cabernet BBQ sauce.

If a restaurant is going to boast about the wood-fired treatment of its pies, the crust had better stand out. Timber’s wasn’t bad, but it didn’t wow me either. It had decent char on the bottom and the firing treatment produced some pleasant dough bubbles, but it was a bit softer than I expected. The BBQ sauce added a hint of welcomed sweetness and served as a nice base.

But the rest of the dish was just OK. The “bacon” was more like pulled pork, and it was rather bland, even when sampled on its own. The potatoes were a bit soft, and the vichyssoise sauce added creaminess but not much flavor. It wasn’t bad pizza by any means, but I expected this crazy concoction of ingredients to bring a punch of flavor, and it failed to do so.

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Mushroom and Fennel Sausage pizza

The Mushroom and Fennel Sausage pizza was better, but it still missed the mark. I preferred the red sauce to the BBQ, and the sausage brought a nice smoky, salty kick. But the mushrooms, garlic and onions were completely absent. The shaved pecorino cheese on top provided a nice bite. Both pizzas were about eight inches, too small in my opinion for the $14 cost.

We dined with another couple, one of whom ordered the grilled chicken club. He said it was decent, but complained that the juices of the patty and the tomato turned the bottom bun into a gummy mess. The other went with the wood-roasted chicken salad, which she said was good but did not finish.

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Warm board – from left to right: focaccia bread, speck, sopressata, olive mix, marin triple cream cheese, grain mustard, raspberry jalapeno jam

The appetizer may have been the highlight of the meal. We ordered the Warm Board, a smorgasbord of offerings. The house-made focaccia was delicious, as the wood-fire treatment produced crunchy edges around a soft, buttery center. It was especially delicious when topped with the jalapeno jam (which was more sweet than spicy) or the chunky grain mustard.

Both meats were heavy on the salt but passable, and the olives were essentially what you’d find in your local grocery store. The cheese had a nice creamy bite.

The service was not great. At times our server was very attentive, refilling water glasses and checking in every few minutes. But we also had times where we wouldn’t see her for 15 minutes, such as when we were ready to order or pick up the check. She also interrupted our conversation a few times instead of waiting for us to pause and address her.

And the meals don’t come cheap. The pizzas are all $14, which as mentioned above, feels a bit exorbitant for the size. Nearly all the appetizers run north of $10, and most of the entrees range from $18 to $34. We obviously didn’t try everything on the menu, but based on the quality of what we received, that’s a bit rich for my taste.

Timber was by no means bad, and I’d like to return and try some of the menu’s other options. But my initial experience doesn’t have me running to return. I had high expectations coming in, and my initial visit fell far short.

When a restaurant prides itself on wood-fired greatness, the product should be extraordinary. Timber’s is not.

Hoppen Hierarchy: 7.6 out of 10

Pros: Awesome focaccia bread; fun atmosphere; expansive menu; dedication to wood-fired recipes

Cons: Overpriced; spotty service; food is good, but nothing stood out

Restaurant Review: Amsterdam Falafel & Kabob

With the great number and wide variety of restaurants in Omaha, it’s not often you find something unique and noteworthy. Nearly every type and style of food is represented, often by several restaurants.

That’s part of what makes Amsterdam Falafel & Kabob a different experience. If there’s another Omaha restaurant combining Indian, African, Turkish and Egyptian flavors, I have yet to see it. The restaurant owners spent years experiencing food abroad and learning the ins and outs of European street food before eventually opening Amsterdam’s first location in Dundee in 2008. A second location popped up in the Flagship Commons food hall in Westroads Mall late in 2015.

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Flagship Commons location

Amsterdam promises casual, fast counter service that exposes Omaha’s palettes to a new cuisine. The concept is simple – diners pick a style (sandwich, salad, or plate with hummus), a “protein” (falafel, chicken or beef/lamb) and sauces (garlic, herb, spicy green or spicy red). Sides such as curry fries and Moroccan pea soup complement the entree.

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Doner kabob sandwich with garlic sauce

The doner kabob is essentially gyro meat, a combination of beef and lamb. It’s salty and flavorful on its own, but the garlic sauce brings to mind the yogurt-y, tzatziki sauce of a traditional gyro. The tabouli, which is a mixture of tomatoes, mint, olive oil, pepper, lemon juice and onion,  accentuates the dish nicely and provides nice fresh bursts. The chickpeas and red cabbage are mostly lost and forgettable. The flatbread receives a nice outside char from the grill, giving the sandwich a crisp bite. The meal was only evaluated by the spicy red sauce.

I really enjoyed the doner kabob and, as a card-carrying carnivore, will choose meat over a vegetarian option eight days a week. But with falafel in the restaurant’s title, I felt compelled to at least give the namesake a try. I’ve never felt drawn to falafel, which basically a deep-fried dough ball stuffed with ground-up chickpeas. Sounds super appetizing, right?


Another Flagship Commons Option: Blatt Beer and Table


Crazy thing is, this kind of works. It’s not better than the meat options by any extent, but you can deep fry just about anything and at least make it passable. That’s the case with this dish, as even a deep-fried ball of mush transforms into a respectable and even enjoyable item. I sampled the falafel on its own, but I can only imagine it’s good in sandwich form as well.

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Curry fries

I was very disappointed in the curry fries, which I’d heard good things about. But these were, in my opinion, utterly forgettable. The curry seasoning  brings a touch of sweet and spicy to the table and is an interesting addition to the American staple.

But the fries themselves were disappointing.  I prefer thicker fries that focus more on the potato than oily batter, and these thin options definitely trended towards the latter. They were as much batter as potato, so while they were crispy, they didn’t do much for me.

For a restaurant that prides itself on speed, I was very disappointed. I waited more than 10 minutes for my meal. My fiance ordered from a different Flagship Commons restaurant and was left waiting at the table for five minutes before I received my entree.

The prices were mostly fair. My sandwich was $8 – it was a bit small for that price point, but it was stuffed to the gills with ingredients, so I don’t really have a gripe there. The curry fries were $2, so while they’re not my cup of tea, it’s not a bad price. The falafel ball was $2.50, an amount I would not pay if I visited again.

And I would totally go back to Amsterdam. I appreciate the restaurant trying to do something new and different. I imagine this place would be awesome for vegetarians and vegans with the falafel option, and I’d really like to return and try the soup.

But ultimately, the sandwich came across as a discount gyro to me, and with so many standout gyro options in Omaha, I can’t imagine choosing this sandwich over many of them. But if you’re in Westroads and need a meal on the go, Amsterdam is a solid option.

Hoppen Hierarchy: 7.3 out of 10

Pros: Delicious sandwich; large portion sizes; excellent sauces; tasty falafel

Cons: Slow service; fries are forgettable; small menu

Restaurant Review: Ika Ramen & Izakaya

The term “ramen” tends to conjure memories of college, when undergrads with little income resorted to the salty noodle and broth dish because it was dirt cheap and readily available in the local supermarket. About a dollar and a few minutes in the microwave were all that separated a poor college student from a sustaining meal.

But traditional ramen is much more sophisticated and complex. The dish, which consists of Chinese noodles in a meat-based broth and accompanied with meat and vegetables, has been a Japanese staple for a few hundred years. And now it’s having its moment.

The dish has seen a drastic rise in popularity in recent years, and it’s become the signature offering of many restaurants. Omaha has joined the trend with Ika Ramen & Izakaya, which moved to the Benson district in March 2017.

Located in a thin restaurant just off Maple St., Ika Ramen has a modern, borderline hipster atmosphere. Guests seat themselves and order from a menu filled with different broth and protein combinations. If ramen isn’t your thing, there are several rice dishes, meat skewers and tempting appetizers, including chicharrones, fried dumplings, edamame and riblets.

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Pork belly steam buns

But the star of the appetizer menu is the steam buns, which can be ordered with pork belly, lamb belly, fried chicken or shredded pork. The pork bell option is tremendous, as the steam buns are the perfect pillowy device, a soft carriage for the salty, fatty pork belly inside. The dish is rounded out with a slightly spicy mayo and pickled vegetables. My only complaint was the size – each order comes with just two buns, and they’re only about three bites apiece. The flavor is tremendous, but it leaves one wanting more.

RamenSarah

Tonkotsu ramen

Ika offers eight different varieties of ramen, the most popular of which is the Tonkotsu. It’s described on the menu as a rich pork broth with ajitama (soft-boiled egg), negi (seaweed), char sui (pork belly), pickled ginger and garlic. The salty broth is far and away the star of the dish. The creamy liquid has a solid pork flavor and is so tasty that one is tempted to simply drink it once the rest of the dish is consumed.

The other elements of the meal are solid, but they don’t come together well. The pork belly arrives in one slab, which is hard to take apart and mix in with a fork, much less chopsticks. Ditto for the egg. The noodles are perfectly tender, and all the flavors play very well when combined. It’s just difficult getting them all into one bite.

The Kimchi ramen (pictured in the header photo) is similar, replacing the ginger with kimchi, which is spicy fermented cabbage (it sounds gross, but trust me, it’s delicious). It also features a spicy pork broth that brings a good deal more heat than the Tonkotsu.

The service is friendly and helpful, which is key for ramen newcomers, as the menu can be a bit difficult to understand. Seating is somewhat limited and the restaurant can fill up quickly.

It’s also not cheap. The ramen bowls are about $12 apiece, and the pork buns, while delicious, are two small for a $6 appetizer.

That being said, Ika Ramen is a fun restaurant and is an overall positive experience. The meals are delicious, and all the broths are so delicious I’d drink them out of a glass. It’s not a perfect meal, but it beats the heck out of anything coming from your college microwave.

Hoppen Hierarchy: 7.7 out of 10

Pros: Friendly staff; fun vibe; tremendous broth; excellent pork buns

Cons: Expensive; ramen dishes struggle to come together

Restaurant Review: Tasty Pizza

I’m commonly asked how I choose what restaurants to try. Among the most common are trying out recommendations from Twitter followers, following the excellent work of Sarah Baker Hansen, the World-Herald’s food extraordinaire, or being intrigued by a new restaurant while driving. Inspiration comes from plenty of different avenues.

But when a trusted friends excitedly texts a glowing endorsement, that really catches my attention. That very thing happened last month, when a buddy proclaimed Tasty Pizza, a place I’d never even heard of, was easily a top three pizza joint in Omaha, and maybe his favorite.

That had me interested. And to be honest, pretty dubious.

Look, Omaha is an amazing city for pizza. In no particular ranking, we have Pitch, La Casa, Virtuoso, Dante, Noli’s, Lighthouse, Piezon’s, Brick OvenMangia Italiana… to crack that list, you had better bring something really impressive to the table.

PizzaOutside

While skeptical, I couldn’t ignore a recommendation like that from a friend. I’ll admit my surprise when we arrived – located off 56th and Leavenworth, Tasty Pizza lives in what appears to be a former house. It has only a few parking spots and about seven or eight tables in its skinny exterior. It’s incredibly casual. Diner order at the counter then seat themselves for about 10 minutes (depending on how busy the restaurant is) for their pizza.

PizzaInside

The menu features 16 different pies in the 8-inch, personal-style variety, as well as cheese, pepperoni and margarita in full 16-inch form. Each pizza is crafted in full view of the customer, then fed through an oven that perfectly melts the cheese and crisps the crust. Basic options such as cheese and hamburger are available, but Tasty Pizza gets creative with pies like the Pesto Bruschetta (pesto and bruschetta with grilled chicken and artichokes), Buffalo Chicken, and McKenna Macarena (mozzarella, chicken, pepperoncinis, buffalo sauce and ranch).

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Meatball pie slice

The meatball pizza is tremendous. Instead of crumbling or thinly slicing meatballs, Tasty Pizza just cuts them in half, producing enormous chunks of salty, meaty flavor. The diced cherry tomatoes add flecks of freshness that pairs well with the sweet tomato sauce.

The crust is the secret MVP. The dough is tasty on its own, with a nice char from the baking process. It held its integrity even with the giant meatballs and serves as a perfect delivery device for all the toppings.

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Bacon and gouda pizza

The bacon and gouda is nearly as good. Several chopped pieces of bacon permeate every bite, and the sharp, sweet gouda cheese helps you forget this pizza is sauce-less.

The staff is very friendly and the prices are ridiculously fair. The pizzas range from $3.65 to $5.02. The 8-inch pies aren’t really enough to tackle a large appetite, but the flavor-to-price ratio is off the charts.

Tasty Pizza is such a different experience, and that makes it hard to rate it against other Omaha spots. The pizzas and location are smaller, but so is the price, and the flavors certainly aren’t lacking. I can’t put Tasty Pizza among my top recommendations in Omaha, but it’s very good and absolutely worth a visit.

Hoppen Hierarchy:  8.8 out of 10

Pros: Incredible prices; fun, laid-back atmosphere; tremendous pizzas; delicious charred crust; plenty of menu options

Cons: Limited seating; smaller pies; very little parking spots

Restaurant Review: Green Gateau

Ask any Omahan what restaurant serves the best breakfast and you’re likely to get a variety of answers. My favorite is 11 Worth Cafe, but others might prefer Bailey’s, Early Bird, Saddle Creek Breakfast Club or others (RIP to the now-closed Dugger’s Cafe). The point is there are a lot of great options.

But ask the same question of a Lincoln resident and you’re likely to get the same answer. Some may respond with Cultiva, Engine House Cafe or Tina’s, but my money says the vast majority of residents would agree Green Gateau rules supreme in the capital city.

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A downtown hub for more than 25 years, Green Gateau isn’t strictly a breakfast joint. In fact, it only serves brunch on the weekends, opting for a lunch and dinner only schedule during the week. But the amazing dishes they serve on the weekends are enough to make the restaurant stand out despite limited availability.

The long, narrow restaurant is designed with inspiration from European country inns. The atmosphere is warm and friendly, and there’s a French influence present throughout. Just about everything on the menu is tantalizing, ranging from appetizers like the fried calamari and various lavoshes, to delicious twists on American classics such as steak and eggs, a pancake sandwich with bacon and eggs, customizable mac and cheese dishes and a croque madame.

Though I’ve tried a number of dishes, I can’t stay away from GG’s take on hash. Quartered, grilled red potatoes are topped with sautéed peppers and onions and one of three meats – corned beef, duck sausage or steak. The traditional corned beef is salty, fatty and brilliant, but I opted for the duck on my most recent trip (pictured at the top of this post). The sausage is absolutely fantastic, crispy and cooked to perfection. It plays well with the tender tomatoes and the sweetness of the sautéed vegetables. The creamy yolk of the two eggs, which can be ordered any style (I went over easy), almost provides a sauce that brings the whole dish together.

GGBenedict

Lobster Eggs Benedict with potato pancake

Eggs Benedict is a wonderful dish on its own, but GG takes its offerings to the next level. Two English muffins are topped with poached eggs and Hollandaise sauce and crab cakes, salmon, shrimp or sirloin tips. The salmon and shrimp options are both delicious, but the best version was a weekly special during my most recent visit. GG combined tender, buttery lunks of lobster claws with this classic. The creamy, fatty Hollandaise is actually a bit much, but the eggs are cooked to perfection.

Almost as delicious is the side dish, a potato pancake. Hash browns are combined with pancake batter to create a tremendous pairing of sweet and savory. The crispy hash browns receive a hint of sugar from the pancake batter, which fuses the offering together.

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Shrimp and grits

Another weekly special, the shrimp and grits are a wonderful delicacy. The savory grits are thicker than the traditional offering, presented as more of a puck than a bed of soupy ground maize. This version manages to retain the creamy texture of normal grits, which is perfect when sampled with the enormous, succulent shrimp and rich duck eggs.

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Huevos Rancheros with potato pancake

Then there are the huevos rancheros, which feature a spectacular and slightly spicy green pork chili along with two eggs (any style) atop a grilled tortilla. The Literally everything on GG’s menu sounds incredible, making it very difficult to order the same thing twice.

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Rib tips lavosh

I advise saving plenty of room for the entrees, which are large enough to handle most appetites. But if you’re particularly hungry or can spare the stomach space, go for one of Green Gateau’s five lavosh options. Served on a crispy cracker crust with mozzarella cheese, all of the offerings sound delicious, but I can confirm the rib tips lavosh is truly decadent. Adorned with salty, smoked rib tips, chicken, prosciutto, sliced tomato and sun-dried tomato pesto, it’s nearly impossible to stop reaching for more bites of this delectable appetizer.

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Coconut shrimp lollipops

Also excellent are the coconut shrimp lollipops. A fried shrimp is stretched out on a skewer and served with a delicious, sweet mango salsa. These crispy crustaceans are the perfect start to a meal.

My one complaint about this appetizer extends to much of the menu – it’s very expensive. These four shrimp run you $11. The hash and Eggs Benedict were both north of $15, a common theme on the menu. The portion size and awesome flavors help justify the lofty bill, but paying $60 for brunch (after tip) feels pretty exorbitant.

That’s basically where my gripes with Green Gateau end, however. The vast menu allows diners to try something new and delicious any time if they please. The service is friendly and helpful, and food arrives quickly at the table. Every experience I’ve had at the Green Gateau has been a memorable experience, and there’s a reason Lincoln can’t get enough of it.

Hoppen Hierarchy:  9.3 out of 10

Pros: Vast menu full of tempting options; incredible hash; brilliant Eggs Benedict dishes with varying proteins; tremendous service; inviting atmosphere

Cons: Expensive; can experience long wait times during peak brunch hours

When Food Becomes Far More Than Food

At its core, food is sustenance. Ultimately, we eat to survive–failing to provide your body with fuel will result in death.

But food has evolved into so much more. It’s become a way to experience pleasure, to experiment with flavors. It can be an adventure for both the creator and the eater, connecting people in ways that language often fails to do. Entire regions and countries are proud of and defined by their cuisine–it’s a part of their core, their identity.

I got engaged this weekend to the love of my life, Sarah. It’s been a whirlwind of emotions (all of them positive), phone calls, text messages, congratulations, and early wedding plans. But when I sat down and thought about our relationship, I couldn’t help but notice how food played a pivotal role.

Don’t get me wrong, our relationship is not in any way, shape or form defined by food. But there is a the trail of breadcrumbs (no pun intended) food laid out that helped us along.

My fiance and I met at a wedding about a year and a half ago. I was instantly taken by her beauty, and we got a chance to talk after the ceremony. One of the topics was this very blog, of which I was a bit embarrassed–calling myself a “food blogger” sounds kind of nerdy in my opinion. But she showed genuine interest and wanted to read it, an encouraging sign to be sure.

After reconnecting at another wedding a few months later and chatting through Facebook and text, I finally managed to work up the courage and ask her out to a College World Series game. She agreed and we had a wonderful time. We connected over many things, including our love of the Food Network, and near the end of the date she mentioned her love of Pitch Pizzeria. Boom. I had my in for a second date.

Date No. 2 was just as great as the first, as our discussion was the only thing that could top the tremendous pies and cocktails. I asked to see her again, but she said she had to make breakfast burritos for work (she swears she wasn’t trying to dodge me with this response). Undeterred, I offered to help. She accepted, and we bonded over dicing peppers, scrambling eggs and rolling burritos.

There are many, many things I love about Sarah, and one is her willingness to try new restaurants with me on dates. Because of this blog, I rarely return to restaurants I’ve previously been to unless they leave a real impression on me. I’m constantly looking to try new spots and provide fresh content, and Sarah was always willing to go along with me. After about seven months, we realized we hadn’t been to the same restaurant twice. We then made it our goal to go a year without a return visit, a quest that proved to be rather easy thanks to the numerous, diverse options in Omaha.

All of our dates were tremendous, but some of the food-related ones stick out. We shamefully and happily devoured mac-n-cheese pulled pork grilled cheese sandwiches at a food truck rally, shared a ton of options at Taste of Omaha, sampled some killer donuts from Hello Sugar, drank the best cocktails in Chicago, and so much more. I want to try as many restaurants as possible, and Sarah has been my willing partner in crime along the way.

While trying new places became our thing, we agreed to break our streak on June 22, the one-year anniversary of our first date, and return to Pitch. At this point, marriage was already on my mind, and we’d discussed it on several occasions previously. I decided this would be the day.

Sarah is passionate about many things, and cupcakes are one of them. They’re her favorite dessert, and we had always enjoyed our options from Le Cupcake, a nationally-recognized shop in Lincoln. We particularly loved the Pancakes and Bacon cupcake (honestly the best I’ve ever had), and I decided to make this part of my proposal. The fine people at Le Cupcake were more than willing to oblige and created a cupcake with “Marry Me?” frosted on top.

The day arrived and we returned to Pitch, devouring delicious meatballs and a buffalo chicken pizza that blew us both away. We then retreated to Lawrence Youngman Lake off 192 and Dodge, where we exchanged anniversary gifts. Sarah’s was perfect and incredibly thoughtful. Then she looked into the bag I presented her, confused by the lunchbox inside. Once she opened it and saw the message on the cupcake, I dropped to a knee and asked the most meaningful question of my life. Thank goodness she said yes!

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We had a wonderful night of celebration, but the next morning put a beautiful bow on our food journey. We had brunch at a Summer Kitchen by my apartment, and at the conclusion of our meal the waiter told us our bill had been covered and we were free to leave. Confused, we asked for more information. He simply told us someone had paid for our meal anonymously. Upon further inspection we discovered no one else we knew in the restaurant. Maybe someone just performed a random act of kindness out of the goodness of their heart. Or maybe they saw the ring, overheard us discussing our future or saw the way we looked at each other. We’ll never truly know, but I prefer to think it’s the latter.

We’re in the very early stages of planning our wedding, a day I already cannot await to arrive. I’m completely taken with Sarah and would be without any of our shared food experiences. But I can’t help but recognize the ways that meals helped push our relationship forward. It provided awesome shared experiences and, in an indirect way, helped bring us together. Honestly, some of our best memories are curling up on the couch, flipping on Food Network and laughing at Guy Fieri’s ridiculous sayings and commenting on the delicious-looking food.

I won’t be doing this on my wedding night because it would be extremely weird, so I’ll do it here in written form. Raise a glass and cheers to food for all that it gives us.

Restaurant Review: Ray’s Original Buffalo Wings

When it was announced that Ray’s Original Buffalo Wings would be opening at Midtown Crossing in Omaha last summer, long-time Omahans did a double take. The city was home to a restaurant by the same name in the early 2000s… was this a new joint, or had the original resurfaced?

The original Ray’s, located off South 96th St., was an Omaha staple in the 1990s and won several awards as the best wing joint in the city. But proprietors Ray and Lorri Bullock both had full-time jobs and were raising a family, so they closed up shop in the early 2000s. But once the kids moved out and Ray’s job situation changed, the New York native knew it was time to return to his hometown staple.

 

The new location is spacious and modern, with a welcoming patio overlooking Turner Park and an abundance of TVs inside. It has a classic sports bar feel, but, at least on our visit, wasn’t very welcoming. After seating ourselves, we waited a few minutes before a waitress visited, took our drink orders and vanished for most of the meal.

The menu’s highlight is its namesake–chicken wings. Available in orders of six, 10 or 20, Ray’s wings come with 10 sauces, ranging from original to Caribbean jerk, tropical Asian chili, honey dijon mustard and more. Unfortunately, Ray’s doesn’t allow you to try multiple sauces. You can only select one per order, which limits the ability to try different offerings.

The rest of the menu consists of burgers, sandwiches and a healthy selection of appetizers, including stuffed nachos, cheese curds and beer-battered onion rings.

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Garlic parmesan wings

The wings are plump and meaty, larger than you’ll find at chains like Buffalo Wild Wings. The skin isn’t very crispy, but the meat hangs nicely to the bone and is tender.

Our party tried three different sauces. A quick review on each:

  • Bourbon SrirachaThe best of the bunch. Pictured at the top of this post, these were drowning in sauce, almost to a disturbing level. But the thick, almost-syrup like sauce was absolutely delicious. It wasn’t terribly spicy, though I did feel a pleasant burn in my mouth upon my meal’s completion. The bourbon flavor isn’t as present but added a bit of tang, and there was a nice sweetness to these wings.
  • Garlic Parmesan: Heavy on the garlic flavor, this sauce provided everything a garlic parmesan fan wants. It was salty and buttery and had flecks of parmesan cheese.
  • Tequila Lime: Heavy on the lime, light on the tequila. This tangy, acidic sauce was fine, but it didn’t really stand out.

RayFries

The house cut french fries were pretty blah. While they were well-seasoned, they too lacked crisp and were rather limp. Though listed as an appetizer, they arrived at the same time as the rest of our meal, which was a good 20-minute wait despite the restaurant not being very crowded.

Now a quick rant about the price of chicken wings–as recently as 5-10 years ago, wings were 60-70 cents apiece. Now you’re lucky to find a restaurant that serves them at less than a dollar per wing. Ray’s falls into this category, as its offerings come to about $1.10 per wing. I get that demand creates price, and America loves chicken wings. But I just can’t believe that this piece of the bird, which 20 years ago was simply discarded as garbage, is now priced at such a premium.

I am now stepping off my soapbox. Thank you for obliging me.

There is nothing wrong with Ray’s. It’s a fine sports bar serving above average chicken wings. But I’ve had far better in Omaha (cough cough, Oscar’s), and both the price and service at Ray’s are a bit of a bummer. It wasn’t necessarily a disappointing experience, but given its reputation, I expected more from Ray’s.

Hoppen Hierarchy: 7.3 out of 10

Pros: Cool atmosphere; beautiful patio; delicious Bourbon Sriracha sauce; plenty of sauces to choose from

Cons: Too expensive; inattentive service; diners can’t order multiple sauces; wings aren’t crispy enough and simply don’t stand out

Restaurant Review: Mercy Thai

A few months ago, I visited Salween Thai and came away very impressed. Upon posting my blog, I received several text messages from my mom inquiring about the restaurant. My parents have an affinity for Thai food, and my post sparked her interest and she wanted to visit soon.

Later that night I received a text with a picture of drunken noodles from her, but I could tell from the background my parents were not at Salween. My mom confessed that while my blog had caused a craving for Thai food, they’d returned to Mercy Thai, their favorite, instead of trying a new place. It was at this point that I realized if my parents love this place that much, I had to check it out.

Mercy Thai certainly isn’t much to look at from the outside. Located in a strip mall off the corner of 96th and L, it’s a smaller location that seats maybe 50 people, though many diners opt for take out or deliveries.

Thailand natives Bablue and Lily Taddy set up shop in May of 2016 and have been dishing out authentic dishes ever since. The menu has a number of tempting options, many of which would be completely foreign to most Americans. Items like Pla Tot Khay Tun (tilapia, eggplant, green and red bell peppers, garlic, basil, and oyster sauce over rice) and Pa Nang curry (chili paste, green and red bell peppers, coconut milk, and lemon leaves over rice) may be unfamiliar, but that doesn’t mean they’re not delicious. Most of Mercy’s dishes can be ordered with beef, pork, seafood or chicken as the base, and all meals are offered with a spice level of 1-10.

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Pork pad thai

I kept it simple and went with the pork pad thai. I’m a sucker for heat, so I went with a 10 on the spice scale. This definitely packed some punch and caused a bit of a nose run, but it was far from overwhelming. Mercy Thai’s spice levels really aren’t all that hot, even for the less adventurous diner.

But the flavors were on point. The noodles were perfectly tender, and the pork was both plentiful and tasty. The sauce was the kicker though, combining a pleasant salty flavor with a hint of sweetness from the oyster sauce. The vegetables were a welcome, fresh bonus.

MercyFaith

Chicken Gang Naw Mai Curry

My sister was more adventurous than I, selecting a dish she’d never tried before–the Gang Naw Mai Curry, which tops a bed of rice with bamboo shoots, basil, coconut milk, and chili paste. Her intrepid spirt paid off, as this was a delicious meal. The coconut milk brought a nice sweetness to complement the heat of the chili paste, and the rice did a solid job of soaking up the juices. The bamboo shoots were a pleasant surprise, as they served as faux noodles.

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Spring rolls

Mercy Thai has a number of entrees, ranging from classics like crab rangoon and egg rolls with lesser-known options such as so moo swa (deep-fried dough pastries filled with potatoes, beef and onions). The spring rolls were a bit light on shrimp, but they were firm, fresh and delicious, especially when dipped in the provided chili sauce.

Most of Merci’s entrees are either $9 or $10, which is fair for the quality and portion size delivered. I ordered over the phone and picked up our meal, so while I can’t really comment on the quality of care in the restaurant, every interaction I had with the employees was friendly, helpful and positive.

Mercy Thai is very solid. Its expansive menu has lots of great options, and what my sister and I sampled was very good. But it fell short of being great, and I would have appreciated more spice considering I ordered the max level. I highly encourage anyone looking for Thai food to visit Mercy, but I’m not sure it quite lives up to Salween’s high bar.

Sorry, Mom.

Hoppen Hierarchy: 8.4 out of 10

Pros: Above average Thai food; lengthy menu; generous portion sizes and fair prices

Cons: Nothing truly stands out; dishes could use more heat

Good Eats in the Windy City: Sampling Some of Chicago’s Fine Restaurants

Chicago has become one of America’s most iconic cities for its history, architecture, diversity, arts, sports teams (go Cubs go) and more.

The Windy City is also known as the home of an eclectic, delicious array of restaurants able to satisfy any palette. The city is famous for deep dish pizza, Italian beef sandwiches and Chicago-style hot dogs. It houses famous joints like Harry Carry’s Steakhouse and the Billy Goat Tavern, and several of the world’s top chefs have chosen to open restaurants there.

Anyone can tell you that a deep dish pie from Lou Malnati’s or a sandwich from Al’s Italian Beef are great options. So on my most recent trip to Chicago, I wanted to find some places of the beaten tourist path, a few places you might not have heard of but definitely need your attention.

Must Visits


Au Chavel

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The Au Chavel burger does come with its share of acclaim, as Food Network and Bon Appetit named it the best burger in America. The humble restaurant, which can maybe serve 50 diners at a tiny in its skinny, corner-side location, offers a number of upscale menu items such as bone marrow, foie gras with scrambled eggs and toast, and honey-fried chicken.

But the real draw is the burger. I made sure to glance at each table upon leaving the restaurant and, I kid you not, every single patron had this glorious option in front of them. Its reputation has clearly spread, a factor I did not account for on my first attempt to visit. We arrived around 11 AM on a Saturday and were told we would likely have a three-hour wait. No burger could be worth that, right?

This rejection only strengthened my resolve, and I returned on a Wednesday around 10:45. The restaurant was almost full, but fortunately we were seated this time. There are few options with the burger–it can be ordered with one or two patties and with a fried egg (additional $1) and/or bacon ($3.50).

This burger is worth every penny. While I absolutely adore the Croque Garcon from Block 16 in Omaha, another burger that has received national praise, this was the best burger I’ve ever eaten. The patties alone are tremendous. Even a “single” burger has two thinly-sliced patties, which puts extra char on each slab of meat.

The yolk from the fried egg adds a creamy texture to the dish, but the MVP is the bacon. Two thick, salty slabs adorn the burger, each of which is candied to provide a nice sweetness to the meal. Tart pickles and a creamy sauce round out this masterpiece.

It’s tough for me to endorse a burger that costs nearly $20 and can cause a near three-hour wait. But if such a beast exists, it’s at Au Chavel. The hype is deserved.

Smoque BBQ

Smoque

If you want more detail on Smoque BBQ, visit this earlier post. The restaurant serves the best brisket I’ve ever had, upending some of the famous spots in Texas and Kansas City. It’s the perfect combination of fatty, tender and succulent, all contained within a salty, firm bark. You won’t find better brisket in the Midwest.

Brisket

The ribs are tremendous as well, and the sides are solid. The only way you can go wrong at Smoque is if you arrive at peak lunch of dinner hours, as the line typically stretches out the door. But if you’re willing to bear the wait, it’s more than worth your time.

Around Wrigley Field


Mordecai

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Duped By Three Fingers (wheated bourbon, carob, gunpowder tea bitters)

Picture this scenario: a Cubs game has just concluded and you’re looking for a high-end establishment to relax/celebrate. Addison Street staples like the Cubby Bear are fantastic, but you’re seeking something a bit more sophisticated and low-key.

ChicagoBar

I doubt you’ll find a better location than Mordecai, a two-tiered addition for cocktail fanatics on Clark St. The bar has a swanky, upscale atmosphere with the drinks to match. It features wine, beer and 12 signature cocktails that are nearly guaranteed to have you ordering more than you originally anticipated.

If you enjoy whiskey, I cannot recommend the Duped by Three Fingers highly enough. A combination of bourbon, carob and bitters, it’s the best version of an Old Fashioned I’ve ever had. The Peerless Leader (bonded rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, benedictine, amer picon), Mordecai’s take on a Manhattan, is excellent as well.

My girlfriend enjoyed all her drinks as well, and we found ourself staying at the bar far longer than anticipated. Originally planning on stopping in for a quick drink to allow the postgame crowd to dissipate, we ended up sticking at Mordecai for almost three hours, a testament to the amazing drinks and inviting atmosphere.

Big Star

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Clockwise from top left: Taco de papas con rojas; Taco de panza; taco el pastor

Located steps away from Mordecai is Big Star, another recent addition to the Wrigley scene. Big Star built its reputation in Wicker Park but opened a second location to satisfy diners in Wrigleyville.

The joint is famous for its street tacos, which come in five varieties–pork belly, al pastor, potato, fish and chicken. The portions are on the smaller side, but what they lack in size, they make up for in flavor. The al pastor was a real hit, as the delicious marinated pork shoulder is amped up by a hit of sweetness from grilled pineapple chunks. The papas con rojas was a bit of a wild card, as it replaced the traditional protein in a taco with diced potatoes. But the chopped bits of starch were coated in a pleasantly spicy sauce that was amplified by the poblano peppers and cotija cheese.

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Taco de panza

The taco de panza, which features chunks of pork belly, didn’t quite reach my lofty expectations. The pork belly is fatty and flavorful, but I expected more of a punch. It’s still a solid option, and the tortillas were tasty and didn’t tear.

BigStarGuac

The chips and guacamole are definitely worth your time. The crispy, salty chips are delicious on their own, as the deep fry adds a brilliant crunch. The guacamole is top notch, and the provided salsas (verde and chipotle) both bring a nice balance of heat and flavor.

Big Star isn’t perfect–it’s expensive for the amount of food, and it gets packed around game time. Arrive within an hour of a Cubs game and your best bet is hunting for a spot at one of the two bars. You have little chance of earning a seat otherwise. But if you have time and are craving Mexican, Big Star is a solid move.

Merkle’s

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California chicken sandwich

Full disclosure here–Merkle’s is an Iowa bar that embraces all things Hawkeye. That may be enough to turn off most Nebraska fans, and I completely respect that. I admit that I didn’t notice the bar’s Iowa lean until we had already ordered, and had I done so I likely would’ve chosen elsewhere. I also would have missed out on a fine meal.

To be clear, Merkle’s isn’t necessarily breaking down any barriers. It’s typical bar food, most burgers, wings and sandwiches. But for it’s a solid option within walking distance of Wrigley Field, has plenty of TVs and a fast, friendly atmosphere and, while the food might not be anything to write home about, it’s better than most bar options.

The portions are massive, and the California chicken is a solid choice, especially if you’re searching for something not deep-fried or drowning in fat. A healthy chicken breast gets amped up with a healthy dose of avocado, bacon and monterey jack cheese, all housed by a delicious pretzel bun. The meals can be ordered with tots, which are perfectly crispy and fairly irresistible.

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Tacos (clockwise from top left): chicken tinga, blackened cod, al pastor

The tacos are another fine option. These street tacos are small, but at $2 apiece and very flavorful, they’re more than worth it. The slightly spicy blackened cod and marinated pork of the al pastor are worth your time.

Merkle’s is not a gourmet experience by any means, but if you’re looking for a place to catch up on the day’s sporting events and have a quick meal and/or drink before the game, it’s a fine Wrigleyville option.

Italian


Bar Siena

ChicagoCalzone

I was very disappointed upon being rebuffed on my first attempt to visit Au Chavel, but that frustration melted into satisfaction after audibiling to the nearby Bar Siena. This two-story West Loop restaurant boasts a large Italian menu of dishes made entirely from scratch in house. While most of the options are Italian staples like pizzas and pastas, brunch is also available on the weekends.

We visited on a Saturday, opening our eyes to the glory that is a breakfast calzone. Bar Siena stuffs its calzone, which is the size of a small child, with sausage, scrambled eggs, cheddar cheese, bacon and a spicy tomato sauce. All the elements complement each other perfect, and the bites of salty bacon are a particular treat. The dough itself is airy and delicious, especially when dipped in provided tomato sauce.

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Meatball & mozzarella calzone

If something traditional is more your style, the meatball and mozzarella calzone has you covered. Stringy, fresh mozzarella cheese hugs the generous hearty meatballs, which combine with their doughy home to create an elevated version of a meatball sub. With its patio seating, expansive menu full of fresh Italian and delicious drinks, Bar Siena is worth a visit.

Breakfast


Yolk

YolkHash

Corned beef hash

I generally prefer local restaurants over chains, and I must admit I was wary when Yolk‘s menu boasted it was voted the best breakfast in Chicago, Indianapolis, Dallas and Forth Worth, I was more than skeptical. But the restaurant originated in the Windy City in 2006, and its menu was tempting enough to get me past my chain-related biases.

I’m glad I did, because Yolk is far from a traditional chain. The menu is overflowing with tempting choices, ranging from multiple omelets, variations on eggs benedict, chicken and waffles, cinnamon roll French toast and much more. Simply choosing an entree is a bit of a chore.

The corned beef hash, served with two eggs any style, is a win. The salty, flavorful corned beef sits atop a plentiful, crispy mound of seasoned potatoes, green peppers and onions. The yolk from the eggs oozes through the dish and permeates every bite, and the meal is only amplified by Yolk’s duo of delicious hot sauces (signature and habanero).

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Pancakes

The dish is more than a meal in and of itself, but it comes accompanied with a pair of enormous pancakes. These frisbee-sized morsels have great consistency and are plenty sweet on their own, even without syrup. The cheesy egg sandwich, even with pesto, is a bit bland, but the bacon waffle is an awesome twist on the original dish, planting large, salty bursts throughout the sweet waffle.

On-the-Go


Naf Naf Grill

ChicagoNafNaf

This last one is admittedly a bit of a wild card. Normally I research restaurant destinations fervently to ensure I’m hitting some of the top spots, but my girlfriend and I stumbled into this place while just walking around downtown Chicago.

Think of Naf Naf (which means “fan the flame”) as a Middle Eastern-style Chipotle. It offers very customizable meals, which start with a base of bismanti rice, couscous, romaine lettuce, hummus or a pita. Diners then choose a protein (chicken shawarma, steak or falafel) and one of five sauces with varying flavors and heat levels before adding Middle Eastern pickles, purple cabbage, sumac onions and/or chopped salad. Everything is cooked and plated in plain view.

I’m a huge fan of couscous, a lighter, airier version or rice. It’s delicious on its own, but combining it with the delicious, tender chicken shawarma, which is sliced from a giant meat cone upon ordering, is just brilliant. The harissa sauce, Naf Naf’s spiciest offering, puts a nice punch on the dish.

Tasty as the bowl was, the pita was the real hero. Naf Naf markets its pita bread as a “cloud-like circle of yum”, which sounds ridiculous until you take the first bite. The dough is so soft and tender that it practically melts in your mouth, and it’s appetizing enough on its own. These fresh morsels, which are cooked fresh daily, are only amplified by dipping them in sauce or stuffing them with meat.


I by no means fault anyone who visits Chicago and heads for the classics. I love a good deep dish pizza or Italian beef sandwich and highly encourage anyone to try these options. But if you’ve been to Chicago a few times and are looking for some things off the beaten path, I hope this list helps. From killer burgers, cocktails, street tacos and calzones, Chicago has a lot to offer. So if you’re searching for something outside a Chicago dog, this list should help you out.