It’s a healthy exercise at the end of each year to take some time to look back on the past 365 days and think about what you’ve learned, how you’ve grown and in what areas you’d like to improve in the coming year.
And, of course, to reminisce about your best dining experiences.
2017 was a wonderful year for me dining-wise. I learned that Omaha is a wondrous pizza town, giant beef ribs are one of God’s finest gifts to man and some truly amazing food can come out of the back of a truck. I sampled cuisine in Kansas City, Las Vegas and Boston, where I had the revelation that lobster rolls need to be a much larger part of my life.
Simply put, this was a real year of growth for me food-wise. I dedicated much more time and energy to this blog (and was even invited to a speaking event because of it!), which led to some wonderful culinary discussions with friends, family and complete strangers on Twitter. And that’s honestly been my favorite part of diving deeper into this side project–interacting with people and getting a wide variety of opinions on food. If you regularly read this blog and/or follow me on Twitter, feel free to reach out and share your thoughts. I love hearing from the people.
OK, enough with the sappy words. You came here for food pics, so here ya go.
Best Meal in Nebraska: Ribs and Cornbread, Lippy’s BBQ
Lippy’s ribs and cornbread
Anyone who knows me or frequents this blog knows my affection for Lippy’s BBQ, located just outside of Lincoln in Malcolm. It’s my favorite restaurant in the state, a place I frequent so often that the owners know my order every time I come in. While all Lippy’s meats are good, there is simply no topping the ribs. These massive spares are cooked perfectly, tender yet requiring a bit of tug from the bone. The brown sugar-based rub adds a touch of sweet, and a half rack comes with seven massive bones. The perfect complement is the cornbread, which is cakey, moist and deliciously sweet. I hate to be boring, but choosing anything other than Lippy’s would be a disservice.
Runner Up: Diavolo Pizza and Meatballs, Dante Pizzeria
I knew my runner up would be pizza, as I’ve discovered some incredible joints in Omaha this year. So with my most sincere apologies to Virtuoso, Pitch and Noli’s, Dante wins by the slimmest of margins. The pizza itself is incredible. The New York-style crust is light and airy with brilliant pockets of char. The toppings are generous and fantastic (especially the sausage and the soppressata), the sauce has a hearty tomato flavor with a hint of sweet, and the cheese is distributed in perfect globs that provide nice salty pops.
What elevates Dante over the other pizza options is the meatballs. The pork is cooked brilliantly and has a nice blend of Italian seasonings. The sauce is slightly sweet, which pairs nicely with the salty meatballs for a sweet and savory feel.
Also considered: Croque Garcon, Block 16; Carne pizza, MoMo Pizzeria & Ristorante; Gyro and Peanut Butter Paste, The Parthenon
Best Meal from Another City: Ribs and Burnt Ends, Joe’s Kansas City Barbecue
I’ve taken down quite a bit of barbecue in my time, and I have yet to find anyone worthy of matching wits with Joe’s Kansas City Barbecue. The Z-Man, a brisket sandwich topped with a crispy onion ring, gets plenty of love, but Joe’s ribs are absolutely tremendous. They’re tender, meaty and delicious enough to not need any sauce. The burnt ends are perfection, just perfect, pillowy chunks of fatty, tasty brisket.
Runner up: Lobster Roll, Barking Crab (Boston)
My No.1 goal during my trip to Boston for a work retreat in October was to try a legit lobster roll, a sandwich I’d been told was divine. But even the loftiest compliments can’t fully describe how tremendous the Barking Crab is. The lobster portions were enormous, full of flavor, and so fresh it seemed they were caught five minutes prior to reaching the table. The mayo and slaw are applied sparingly, making the crab the star of the dish while bringing in just a hint of sweetness.
Runners-up: Brisket, pork and ribs, Q39 (Kansas City); Rib plate, Rollin Smoke Barbecue (Las Vegas)
Worst Meal: Undisclosed location
I’m generally a very positive person, and it’s not in my nature to call out a restaurant for one bad meal. Everyone is allowed a misstep here and there, so I won’t put this place on blast. But this joint served me an embarrassingly bad meal late in 2017, and it’s a story I have to tell.
I ordered a barbecue bacon burger, and right when it arrived I was skeptical. This burger featured the saddest bacon I’ve even seen–the strips were tiny and clearly overcooked. The patty was slathered in sauce, which I must admit was very good.
But the first bite into the burger revealed a very unpleasant surprise. The burger was cold. Not lukewarm. Not chilled. It was downright cold. The patty was cooked all the way through, so here’s my assumption–this restaurant cooks its burgers, freezes them, then reheats upon serving. Only mine didn’t get reheated, and the result was very disturbing.
I alerted the waitress of the issue, and while she apologized, she didn’t offer a new burger. She said the restaurant could heat my original burger up, even using the word “nuke”, implying that it would be heated in a microwave. I was so shocked I heard myself mutter, “Um, OK…” The plate reappeared a few minutes later, clearly a victim of the killer microwave sin. To top things off, the bill didn’t include a discount on my sad burger.
To be fair to this restaurant, I emailed the owner about my experience and he sent me a gift card for future visits. But given this meal, I’m not rushing to get back.
Most Surprising Meal: Schillingbridge Cork & Tap House
Western pork burger (brisket, bacon, caramelized onions)
I had never even heard of Schillingbridge before visiting with some friends in May. Tucked back in the Fallbrook area in Lincoln, you probably won’t find it unless you specifically seeking it out. Though I was intrigued after looking up the menu online, I didn’t have super high expectations going in.
I was floored by how good my burger was–in fact, it’s one of the best I’ve had in Nebraska. Schillingbridge prides itself on using locally-sourced pork (burgers are also available with traditional ground beef), and I can see why. The 8-ounce patty was flavorful and cooked well. But the highlight was the brisket. It alone was better than you’ll find at many barbecue restaurants, perfectly fatty and tender. It melded with the salty bacon and sweet caramelized onions for a truly special experience that I was not expecting.
Runner-up: Big Luv BBQ & Catering
It’s really tough to make great barbecue when working in a full-scale restaurant. Pulling off legit ‘que out of a truck seems darn near impossible. So when friends told me Big Luv was the real deal, I was quite skeptical.
The lesson as always–don’t judge a book by its cover. The brisket is tremendous, featuring a brilliant, crispy bark and a smoky flavor throughout. The pork was delicate and had just the right amount of salt flavor. Topping it all of was a delicious barbecue sauce crafted with an oatmeal porter beer from local brewery Zipline. The ribs weren’t quite as successful, as they were a tad overcooked and didn’t feature as much flavor as I was looking for. But Big Luv proves that great barbecue can be served on wheels.
Also considered: Toast
Best New Restaurant: Tired Texan BBQ
Omaha has long needed a standout barbecue spot. Swine Dining is very good, and Fat Shack and Smoking Jay’s both have their positives. But the city, so full of tremendous dining option, longed for anything that even approached the levels of Phat Jack’s or Lippy’s in Lincoln.
It now has that spot.
Alabama native Chip Holland brought his barbecue knowledge to Omaha this spring and showed the city what real care and appreciation for the craft taste like. The ribs are ridiculously good. The rub is among the spicier I’ve ever had, injecting a good deal of heat into the dish. It’s not overwhelming, however, and plays nicely with a hint of sweetness. There’s a good bark the ribs, which are large and have perfect texture.
The brisket is fantastic as well. The 13-18-hour smoking process results in a brilliant smoke ring that traps the wonderful fat inside and results in an explosion of flavor. The pulled pork is solid, and the appetizer of Texas Tumbleweeds (deep-fried balls of bacon, cheese and hashbrowns) are terrific. Tired Texan is a welcome addition to an already tremendous dining scene in Omaha.
Runner-up: Virtuoso Pizzeria
Omaha is a haven for great pizza, and it’s credentials only got stronger when Virtuoso opened this summer. Created by the son of the founders of legendary Italian restaurant Lo Sole Mio, Virtuoso slings out some of the finest New York-style slices you’ll find in the state. Each slice is massive enough to eclipse a diner’s face and is packed with flavor. The crust is thin and airy, yet still a bit crisp. The sauce brings a bit of tang and the dash of extra virgin olive oil added at the end brings a nice pop.
But the standout is the toppings, especially the pepperoni. The pizzas are slid into a piping-hot oven for just a few minutes, causing the tiny pepperonis to crisp up into tiny cups that hold in that perfect salty, greasy flavor that just pops with every bite.
Also considered: Muchacho’s; Korea House
Best Breakfast: 11 Worth Cafe
I’d long heard others sing the praises of 11 Worth, proclaiming it as the best place for breakfast in Omaha. This summer, I finally decided to put those lofty expectations to the test–and somehow, 11 Worth surpassed them.
This is not only the best breakfast in Omaha, but one of the best I’ve had anywhere in America. The hashbrowns were heavenly, the best I’ve ever had. They were crispy and just greasy enough to provide flavor without delving into a wet, goopy mess. The massive omelet was cooked to perfection, and the crunch of the peppers and onions on the inside provided a great texture contrast from the creamy eggs. The ham eventuated the dish with a hint of salt and some protein.
The pancakes were the size of manhole covers and honestly sweet enough on their own to hold up without syrup. A sausage and egg biscuit sandwich evaporated within minutes of arrival. My entire family couldn’t stop raving about how good this breakfast was.
Runner-up: Dugger’s Cafe
As great as 11 Worth is, Duggers isn’t far behind. The portion sizes are outrageous. My three-egg omelet was stuffed to the gills with roast beef, onions and mushrooms and was absolutely delicious. The side of home fries were brilliant–they’re lightly fried, yet still retain that nice crispy texture one expects. A touch of hot sauce sent them over the top.
The pancakes are enormous and pillowy, sweet enough to stand up on their own. But they also soak up syrup nicely and are a meal unto themselves (they somehow come as a side dish to the omelets).
Also considered: Cultiva
Most Shameful Meal: Full-Leaded Jacket (Leadbelly)
A burger itself isn’t exactly a healthy meal, but Leadbelly found a way to truly ramp up the self-loathing aspect of the dish. This burger is served between a split cinnamon roll, doused in chili and queso, and topped with fresh jalapeños for the ultimate cheat meal.
Even months later I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this ode to gluttony. The burger is delicious, as are the cinnamon rolls. The salty/sweet combo of those two works very well together, and the jalapeños add a nice, fresh pop. The cheese is a nice addition, but there is too much of it, turning the burger into a knife-and-fork affair. The chili is completely lost in all the other components, which is a bummer. The Full Leaded Jacket is worth a try, but it’s definitely not something I recommend ordering on the regular.
Runner-up: Pulled Pork Grilled Cheese Sandwich (MotorFood)
Macaroni and cheese is amazing. So is pulled pork. So are grilled cheese sandwiches… so why not just throw all three together into one beautiful guilty pleasure? That’s the basic premise behind the MotorFood truck in Lincoln. This traveling dispenser of flavor offers several options of mac and cheese, waffle fry nachos and pulled pork. It’s not easy on the arteries, but everyone needs a cheat meal every once in a while, right?
This sandwich, which weighs nearly a pound, stuffs succulent pork, creamy mac and cheese and jalapeños between two hefty, crispy pieces of Texas Toast. The butter from the toast adds flavor to every bite. The pork is a bit oversauced, but it’s tender and easy to bite through. The mac is creamy and the elbow noodles are al dente, and additional shredded cheese serves as the binder that holds this monster together. The jalapeños are completely lost amongst the other elements, but all the other components work so well that I’ll let that slide. This sandwich is absolutely worthy of a cheat meal–just bring a defibrillator with you just in case.
Best Side Dish/Appetizer: Crack Fries (Hopcat)
It’s still unsure whether Hopcat named this side dish for the cracked black pepper seasoning or their addictive nature. Either way, they’re incredibly addictive. These beer-battered beauties are sprinkled with that famous black pepper seasoning and are served with a brilliant beer cheese sauce that somehow kicks the flavor up another level.
I’m generally a very disciplined person when it comes to my diet. I obviously enjoy some indulgent meals, but I usually have a strong will that keeps me from going overboard. Yet every time someone orders Crack Fries as an appetizer, I simply can’t help from reaching into the bowl again and again. There is a reason the Food Network named them as one of the top 10 fries in the country. They’re that good.
Runner-up: Cheese-Stuffed Naan Bread (The Oven)
Think of the best cheese bread you’ve ever had, then bump it up two levels. That’s the kind of quality The Oven dishes out with its delicious naan bread. The dish, an unleavened oven-baked bread made popular in Central Asia and India, is soft and a bit doughy, yet firm enough to stand up almost as a pizza slice. The oven cooks a nice char on the outer edges and bottom, providing different texture profiles in each bite.
The bread is delciious on its own, especially when topped with some mint chutney. But The Oven elevates the dish by stuffing it with a number of ingredients, including chicken and cheese, that only accentuate the flavors of an already tasty appetizer.
Also considered: Cornbread (Lippy’s BBQ); Meatballs (Dante Pizzeria)
Best Squashed Myth: Qdoba > Chipotle
Chipotle burrito (left) vs. Qdoba burrito (right)
For years I stayed on the sideline as the Chipotle vs. Qdoba debate raged on between passionate burrito connoisseurs. I preferred Chipotle, but honestly liked both quite a bit, and there wasn’t enough difference for me to make a passionate case for either side.
But when Chipotle released its queso in September, I decided it was time to finally pit the two fast-casual restaurants against each other. To ensure subjectivity, I enlisted the help of my good friend Grant to help me with the taste test. I ordered identical burritos–a steak burrito with white rice, lettuce, pico de gallo and grilled fajita peppers– to truly compare the quality.
Qdoba’s queso, which was thicker and more reminiscent of what you’d typically find in a jar at a grocery store, was better than Chipotle’s. The latter’s resistance to use artificial ingredients hurt it in this battle, as queso is full of preservatives. But while I believe the Chipotle queso has gotten way too much hate, I must award Qdoba the victory here.
Chipotle (left) vs. Qdoba (right)
Every other aspect of the battle, however, went to Chipotle by a mile. The burrito was considerably bigger and featured much fresher ingredients. The steak was better-seasoned and less chewy, and Qdoba’s tortilla was a major bummer. Both Grant and I agreed that Chipotle was superior on every level, and it’s really hard to understand any argument debating Qdoba’s superiority.
And that’s all I have for 2017. It was a tremendous year of trying new restaurants, writing reviews, settling debates, comparing Nebraska coaching to fast food joints and more. I thank everyone for reading and submitting their opinions via Twitter, even those who disagreed with me. Have a great finish to 2017 everyone, and an even better 2018!