Restaurant Review: Jaipur

My introduction to Indian food came via an eye-opening experience at The Oven, and my culinary world was forever changed. The wondrous combination of spices and herbs opened a new portal for me, one that I wanted to step through time and again.

Since moving to Omaha in January 2018, however, I’d been searching for an Indian experience that could take me back to that place The Oven (which does have a location in downtown Omaha) did. My quest brought me to an encounter vastly different from the cuisine I had at The Oven… but that’s not a bad thing.

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Located in the Rockbrook Village area, Jaipur has long been an Omaha institution known for terrific Indian cuisine and its on-site brewery. It’s dim lighting, vast drink menu, and exquisite decor have earned the it recognition as one of Omaha’s most romantic restaurants.

The ambiance is fantastic, and our waiter was both knowledgable and friendly, even if he disappeared for long stretches. As we were seated, I noticed several of our fellow diners had dishes with bright red chicken, which the waiter identified as the tandoori chicken. He also highly recommended it, so who was I to say no?

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Tandoori chicken

The tandoor oven is a brilliant device used most prominently in Indian cooking. These circular ovens expose food to live fire and radiant heat, causing extremely high temperatures. The hot air causes the fat and juices to drip down into the charcoal, which reemerges in the smoke to re-infuse the flavor. It’s truly a wonderful invention.

Jaipur uses this cooking process to make true magic with its chicken. While the color is a bit questionable at first, the flavors erase any and all doubts. It’s first marinated in yogurt, which results in just the slightest tang. But the spices are what truly stand out, as the chili powder and cayenne add just the right amount of heat. The meat is perfectly tender and pulls nicely off the bone. The dish is served with a bed of rice, but this chicken needs no starchy partner. It’s a home run all by itself.

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Mixed tandoori grill

Jaipur offers a number of different proteins from the tandoor, including salmon, lamb, tuna, and more. If you want to try multiple items, the mixed tandoori grill dish is the way to go. It offers, shrimp, chicken, and malai seekh, minced meat flavored with ginger, garlic, coriander, and onion.

The chicken is still very good, but lacks that extra flavor punch that the tandoori chicken dish provides. Because it’s cut into chunks and skewered, it misses that flavoring that comes from being grilled on the bone. The malai seekh rolls look odd, but they have a pleasant sausage flavor and are a nice change of pace.

The shrimp were a bit disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, they were good shrimp – large, plump, and quite tender. But while they had the red coloring of the chicken, they lacked the spices I was expecting from Indian fair. The jasmine rice is fine, but nothing special.

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Paneer kulcha

Jaipur offers a number of different Indian breads, ranging from naan to roti, paratha, and kulch, all of which are cooked in the tandoor. The paneer kulcha is delightful. Stuffed with cheese and onions, it’s a bit similar to a quesadilla, though it’s much chewier. The texture is pleasant, and the portion is plentiful.

But the best part about this appetizer is the mint chutney. To steal a phrase from Guy Fieri, I would eat a flip flop if it were dipped in this sauce. Regardless of which dish you choose here, I highly recommend getting a cup of this chutney to dip it in.

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Mulligatawny soup

The Mulligatawny soup, an Indian speciality offered with every entree, is delicious. Crafted with a base of pureed lentils and finished with a dash of rice and coriander, it’s the perfect, creamy start to the meal.

And I’ve just scratched the surface on Jaipur’s menu. There are nearly 100 entree options, and most of them sound amazing. There are dozens of chicken, lamb, and seafood options, not to mention the Indians breads, tandoor entrees, or chef specials. You could come here every day for a month, order something different every time, and leave satisfied.

My complaints with Jaipur are minor. Though our appetizer and soups came out quickly, the entree took about 30 minutes to appear. And our waiter, while understandably busy on a Saturday night, was mostly absent.

I struggle how to rank Jaipur against The Oven. Jaipur is definitely among the best Indian restaurants I’ve visited in Nebraska, and I highly recommend it. The tandoori chicken alone is worthy of a visit. But the dishes I had were just so different from those at The Oven… if I had to choose, I have to side with my original Indian love. But Jaipur is excellent, and I’ll absolutely be back in the near future.

Hoppen Hierarchy: 8.8 out of 10

Pros: amazing tandoori chicken; expansive, different menu; incredible mint chutney

Cons: longer wait times; inattentive/too busy staff; on the expensive side

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Kona Grill

Restaurant Review: Kona Grill

It’s not often that a restaurant is best known for its apps, but Kona Grill‘s lineup is so crave-worthy that’s it has become the restaurant’s defining quality. Talk to most people and the first comment they’ll make about Kona are the apps and drinks, which make the restaurant a popular happy hour haunt.

In fact, I had a coworker recently tell me he and his wife go there consistently for apps, but he’d never tried anything off the regular menu. Delicious as Kona’s starters are, the entrees are worth sticking around for too.

Kona Grill arrived in 2004 when Village Pointe opened and has been serving an eclectic menu ever since. The roster includes ribs, poke bowls, salads, pad thai, burgers, slider, and seven different flatbreads. Oh, and there’s a sushi bar with dozens of different rolls. The menu is wide-ranging and features many different styles of food.

But let’s begin with those famous apps. Diners can choose from edamame, calamari, deviled eggs, several different forms of sashimi, and a tuna tower.

Kona Grill avocado egg rolls

Avocado egg rolls

One of the more clever options are the avocado eggs rolls. Full disclaimer: my fiance and I are complete suckers for avocado and will include it in just about any dish we cook. We were predestined to love these, but I dare anyone to say a bad word about them. The creaminess of the avocado pairs perfectly with the crispy exterior, and not an ounce of unwanted oil seeps into the green flesh.

Some flecks of red pepper and onion provide texture, but the hero is the cilantro honey sauce. The mix of sweet and citrus is seriously addicting, and I found myself consistently pouring the leftover sauce over my entree. It’s that good.

Kona Grill Potstickers

Potstickers

Not to be outdone are the potstickers. The filling of steamed chicken and vegetable dumplings is delicious, and these dumplings are packed with innards. The quick fry produces an exterior that is slightly crispy, yet it still embraces the doughy texture of a dumpling. A dump in the slightly sweet soy sauce only enhances the experience.

The drinks are mostly a hit, and they are strong. While I wasn’t a huge fan of Kona’s take on a Manhattan, the Whiskey Smash (Jack Daniel’s, pineapple juice, ginger beer) is quite delicious. And the Cucumber Southside (vodka, lime, mint leaves, cucumber, soda) is very refreshing. The cocktail menu runs 19 deep, and that doesn’t include the sake and wine options.

One warning about the happy hour: while the prices are great, it’s only available in the indoor patio/bar area of the restaurant. If you sit in the traditional dining area, you will pay full price. The app prices are reasonable, but the drinks are a bit expensive, and this detail was not explained to us until the bill arrived.

Kona Grill sweet-chili glazed salmon

Sweet-chili glazed salmon

The appetizers get all the love, but there is nothing wrong with the entrees. The sweet-chili glazed salmon in particular is a hit. The salmon is cooked perfectly, flaking apart with the tender press of a fork. The chili sauce provides a sweetness without being cloying, but the highlight is the char from the cooking process that produces a crispy, delightful exterior.

The provided brussel sprouts are tender and have just a touch of texture from a light fry. The fried rice, which is peppered with shrimp and bites of pork, would make for a very tasty entree on its own.

Kona Grill lamb tagine

Lamb tagine

Recently welcomed to the menu, the lamb tagine is a welcome addition. It’s not a perfect dish – the lamb was a bit chewy, and there wasn’t enough of it to match the massive bed of rice on which it perched. But the meat was very flavorful and carried hints of cinnamon, cumin, and ginger. The jasmine rice was cooked perfectly and added a touch of buttery flavor. Even the buttered carrots, normally an afterthought, were a nice addition.

In my experiences, I’ve found Kona’s sushi to be good, but not great. You won’t be disappointed with what you receive, but it doesn’t stand out from some of Omaha’s other offerings.


Other Omaha Sushi Highlights

Tokyo Sushi

Ponzu Sushi and Grill

Yoshitomo Sushi


The service is helpful and friendly, and drinks, appetizers, and entrees all arrive within reasonable ordering time. Price, however, can be an issue: on our most recent visit, two drinks, an appetizer, and two entrees cost nearly $100 after tip.

But overall, Kona is a very enjoyable experience. It’s a perfect destination for happy hour, as the appetizers and drinks are excellent, varied, and well-priced. But if you stay for dinner, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Hoppen Hierarchy: 8.4 out of 10

Pros: Awesome appetizers; perfect happy hour spot; varied menu; fun location; solid entrees

Cons: Happy hour is only available in part of the restaurant; expensive prices; sushi is OK but doesn’t stand out

Restaurant Review: Bailey’s

You need something special to stand out from the crowd of awesome breakfast spots in Omaha. 11Worth Cafe has bomb hash browns and that classic diner vibe. Early Bird has a modern vibe and crazy pancake creations. Saddle Creek Breakfast Club‘s tiny location creates a feeling of exclusivity, and its thick-cut bacon is worthy of song.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every visit I’ve made to Bailey’s, a tiny diner near 120th and Pacific. Everything I’ve eaten is delicious, but what makes this place stand out is its challenge: a mountain of breakfast delicacies so massive it earned a prehistoric nickname: the Porkasaurus.

This monstrous plate (pictured in the header photo) is comprised of bacon, sausage patties and links, Canadian bacon, multiple ham steaks, and Andouille sausage, all loaded on top of a spread of red taters with Jack and cheddar cheese. The meal is topped off three eggs, plus a buttered biscuit and four slices of toast.

In other words, bring your appetite. Or else.

But before I dive into the Porkasaurus experience, I want to describe Bailey’s as a whole. As (spoiler alert) delicious as the Porkasaurus is, I understand most diners won’t attempt to tame this beast. So let’s cover the typical aspects of the restaurant before grappling with the monster.

Bailey’s has a very cozy vibe to it, absolutely perfect for the brunch crowd. The staff are all extremely helpful and friendly, and the service is pretty quick. But it’s a small restaurant, and waits during peak brunch hours can be upwards of 45 minutes. Get there early or be prepared to wait – which if you do, that’s OK. It’s worth it.

The menu has everything a breakfast addict could want. There are traditional bacon/sausage and egg dishes, waffles, pancakes, omeletes, enchiladas and burritos, and six different kinds of eggs Benedict. And that’s just breakfast – the lunch menu includes a number of different sandwiches, soups, and salads. The selection is diverse, and just about everything sounds amazing.

Bailey's corned beef hash

Corned beef hash

The corned beef hash is one of the best dishes on the menu. The corned beef, which is cured for three days before being smoked over pecan wood, is divine. It’s the perfect combination of salt and fat, and the bed of roasted red potatoes provide the right starch to balance all the meat. The meal comes with two eggs served any style, and I’d advise sunny-side-up. The yolk spreads throughout the plate, binding the meat, potatoes, and sauteed onions into a beautifully composed dish.

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Creole Shrimp Stack

Bailey’s offers a few specials each week, and as tempting as everything on the traditional menu is, these are worth looking into as well. Take, for example, the Creole Shrimp Stack. Bailey’s is a partner with Absolutely Fresh seafood, the company that sources the brilliant Shuck’s. The dish tops a bed of perfectly crispy hash browns with blackened shrimp, andouille sausage, green peppers, tomatoes, and onions. The shrimp are perfectly tender and add a solid kick of heat that ramps up the starchy potatoes. The sausage adds some brilliant spice and flavor, while the veggies bring freshness. A dash of cheese helps bring everything together, as do two sunny-side-up eggs.

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Bacon

If I have a minor complaint with Bailey’s, it’s the restaurant’s claim that it serves the best bacon in Omaha. It’s not bad bacon by any means, but it doesn’t really stand out in any way. The strips are large and perfectly crispy, but for whatever reason they lack that perfect combo of salt and fat. The flavor is rather muted, which is a disappointment.

But don’t let that temper your feelings on this restaurant. The eggs Benedict dishes are rich and delicious, the pancakes massive and fluffy, and the portion sizes are always on point. Nothing on the menu, at least what I’ve tried, is anything below above average, and most dishes are awesome.

Then there’s the Porkasaurus.

It’s a daunting foe, to be sure. The plates combined were easily 2-3 pounds, but the pursuit of glory (and an awesome T-shirt) were enough to inspire me. To be honest, I didn’t struggle too much with this challenge because everything was delicious. The meats are all perfectly cooked. The potatoes and eggs provide a nice contrast to all the protein, and the biscuit and toast allow you to create a few awesome breakfast sandwiches and steer clear of the dreaded starch wall.

I downed the monster in about 20 minutes, aided by the sheer flavor of the meal and the desire to finish before my stomach realized how full it was. Every bite was a mini-masterpiece – though I didn’t eat for the next 24+ hours. Turns out two plates of meat and starch can be a bit filling.

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Dad and I with our champion shirts

Whether or not you’re crazy (stupid?) enough to take on the Porkasaurus, Bailey’s is well worth a visit. I rank it among the top breakfast haunts in Omaha and recommend just about anything on the menu.

And if you’re looking for a challenge, the chance to topple a wall of delicious meat, try your hand against the Porkasaurus. But bring your appetite, and then some. You’re going to need it.

Hoppen Hierarchy: 8.9 out of 10

Pros: Excellent corned beef and hash; wide-ranging menu; fun specials; most meats stand out; fair prices

Cons: Limited seating leads to longer wait times; bacon doesn’t quite live up to its reputation

Restaurant Review: Blue & Fly Asian Kitchen

Since America’s inception, we’ve had a way of taking other country’s dishes and making our own versions of them. I’m sure native Mexicans would have no idea what to do with the Americanized take on the Chalupa, much less the monstrosity that is the (delicious) Crunchwrap Supreme or a burrito filled with tater tots. Italians scoff at our versions of their famous pasta dishes.

But America’s most egregious heist of another culture’s cuisine is undoubtedly Asian food. Americans believe that sweet and sour chicken, General Tso’s, chow mein, and fortune cookies are staples of the Chinese diet – beliefs that could not be further from the truth. These dishes might be tasty, but you won’t find them on tables in Bejing.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to see a restaurant try to replicate what it’s really like to eat in the Far East. And I give major props to Blue & Fly Asian Kitchen for giving it a shot.

Look, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Blue & Fly is perfectly authentic, that a Chinese visitor would feel completely at home dining on this cuisine. But it makes a better effort than most “Chinese” restaurants. For less adventurous diners, there’s an Americanized side of the menu with familiar favorites like egg rolls, sesame chicken and Mongolian beef. But the other half of the menu is devoted to more traditional options, such as bulgogi, braised spare ribs, and pork intestine.

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Sauteed lamb with cumin flavor

The sauteed lamb with cumin flavor falls on that side of the menu, and it proves that it’s worth venturing out. The lamb is a bit chewy, but it’s lean and bursting with flavor. The cumin adds earthiness and a bit of spice, which is accented by red pepper flakes and small red peppers. I was disappointed in the overall heat of the dish, as this was pretty mild. But I also love spicy food, and this is perfectly acceptable for the normal palette. I really enjoyed the cooked onions and peppers, and the provided sticky rice rounded out the dish nicely.

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Sizzling beef and shrimp

The Americanized side of the menu isn’t quite as fun, but it packs plenty of flavor. The sizzling beef and shrimp arrives as promised, piping hot and steaming on a cast iron pan. The brown sauce is heavy on the sodium, but it’s flavorful and complements the beef well. The shrimp are perfectly cooked, as are the vegetables (though there are a lot of them, onions in particular).

Whichever side of the menu you order from, count on leftovers. The portions are massive, easily enough for two meals for a normal appetite. I enjoyed the lamb so much I scarfed the entire plate down, a fact my bloated stomach painfully reminded me throughout the night. Worth it.

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Potstickers

Between the two menus, thee are dozens of appetizers to choose from. I was a bit disappointed in the potstickers. They were either under-fried or allowed the oil to penetrate, because they lacked that perfect crispiness and were a bit soggy. But they were filled with a nice pork/veggie mix, and the provided dipping sauce, essentially a sweet soy sauce, was excellent. It was a bit odd that they arrived after the entrees, however.

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The restaurant itself is very low-key. Located in a strip mall off 72nd and Dodge, it’s not much to look at outside or in. But it’s cozy and friendly, and the service is very willing to help and explain the menu. Our food arrived quickly (if out of order), and the prices, while mostly in the $13-20 range, are well in line with standards considering the excellent flavor and portion size.

Blue & Fly is not a perfect restaurant, but it has some serious positives going for it. And I sincerely appreciate the joint’s effort to not just fall back on the “Chinese” staples that Americans have come to accept and enjoy. They went out on a limb with some more traditional options, and I think the Omaha restaurant scene is better for it.

Hoppen Hierarchy: 8.3 out of 10

Pros: Huge portions; extensive menu with both traditional and Americanized options; wonderful flavors; fast service

Cons: Soggy dumplings; blah atmosphere; entrees we tried were great, but not transcendent

Restaurant Review: J Coco

Everyone has food opinions, and some of them are not very good. I’m all for people having different thoughts and personal favorites. but when someone tells me Hog Wild is their favorite barbecue in Omaha, I’m probably not going to take their takes seriously until they experience some better cuisine. They might come across as snobby, but hey, this is food we’re talking about. It’s serious business.

On the other side of the coin, when I have a close food confidant, I welcome and cling to their sage advice. I can’t tell you how many times over the years a tip from a trusted friend has led to one of my favorite meals.

Still, when a good friend told me his favorite burger in Omaha was at J Coco, I was skeptical. Don’t get me wrong, I have no beef (no pun intended) with this restaurant. A local gem named after and run by chef Jennifer Coco, J Coco is a wonderful place. But its menu is filled with upscale items like short ribs, beef medallions, grilled octopus, and ribeyes, would it really put the time and care into a humble burger? And could it possibly stand up to the greatness that is the Croque Garcon at Block 16?

Needless to say, I had my doubts. But this experience only served as further proof that, when in doubt, trust your food friends.

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Wagyu beef burger with bacon and avocado

The burger was near perfection. The patty is crafted with Wagyu beef, a highly-marbled cut taken from a Japanese cattle breed. It’s well-known as being a higher standard, as it retains the delicious, fatty flavor of beef without descending into a greasy mess. And J Coco doesn’t play with portion sizes – this monster of a patty is at least eight ounces, probably closer to 10 or 11.

The patty is absolutely fantastic on its own, but J Coco emphasizes customization. The burger can be ordered on either a brioche or pretzel bun and can be topped with caramelized onions, avocado, applewood bacon, a fried egg, and gouda, white cheddar, and bleu cheeses. You get to choose your own burger adventure, and I don’t think there is a wrong path to take.

I chose bacon because… well, duh. BACON. I also opted for avocados because I’m an absolute sucker for anything involving this creamy fruit. The burger came loaded with three enormous strips of crispy, curled-up bacon so fresh off the pan that grease bubbles were popping onto the plate. It was some of the best bacon I’ve ever had on a burger, adding a salty, fatty, crunchy bunch to the glorious patty. The burger and bacon were so flavorful that they mostly drowned out the avocado, but not for J Coco’s lack of trying – I’d estimate half an avocado went onto this masterpiece.

I can’t be 100 percent certain what goes into J Coco’s “special sauce”, but I suspect this orange condiment smeared over every inch of the bun is some form of chipotle mayo, and it hits all the right notes. The secret hero is the bun. One of my few knocks on the restaurant is that J Coco messed up my order: two diners at our table ordered the burger: I opted for the pretzel bread while the other ordered brioche. I was initially disappointed when my burger arrived (I really enjoy pretzel bread), but there is absolutely nothing wrong with the brioche. This pillowly, slightly sweet bun had an unfair task: containing this massive patty and its toppings without becoming soggy under the amount of sauce. Somehow, it accomplished its mission. Don’t get me wrong, this is a messy burger. But the bun didn’t dissolve into a wet-napkin mess like so many do.

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Let’s rewind a bit. J Coco has a fun, upscale atmosphere that avoids feel pretentious and stuffy. It’s a smaller place with limited seating, but its lighting and fun decor bring an entertaining atmosphere. As previously mentioned, the menu features a number of upper-class items, but it also has several salads and sandwiches.

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Lobster Carbonara

In my book, the Wagyu burger takes the cake as the best dish… but the lobster carbonara isn’t far behind. J Coco loads this dish with hunks of tender, buttery lobster that practically dissolve upon hitting your tongue. The rigatoni noodles are soft and pleasant, and the pancetta adds a nice salty punch. But its the rich, creamy sauce that makes the dish, assisted by a bit of bite from the parmesan cheese flakes.

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Moroccan Lamb Meatballs

Everything on the appetizer menu looks awesome, and the Moroccan lamb meatballs certainly fall in that category. The lean lamb meat is packed full of flavor, especially after its swim in the tangy roasted red pepper tomato sauce, enhanced by dollops of whipped goat cheese. The toasted naan is a brilliant kicker, especially when dipped into the sauce.

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Kings Frenchie Bites

I wasn’t as big of a fan of the Kings Frenchie Bites, hunks of American cheese coated with a cornflake crust and deep fried. The product came across as a bit too processed for me, and the breading kind of dominated the cheese. They weren’t bad by any means, and my fellow diners devoured them.

I have a few minor complaints about J Coco. Our service was slow – we arrived hungry enough to gnaw on our own arms, but our waitress wasn’t all that attentive and took awhile to take our orders. Meals take about 20 minutes, which isn’t slow by any means, but it’s not speedy either.

The other knock is price. Most of J Coco’s upscale offerings range between $25-30, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the meatballs, charging $13 for four balls is pretty pricy. But the burger, even with added toppings, was just $14, and that is an absolute STEAL.

And that’s what I keep coming back to as I recall this experience. Everything about the restaurant impressed me, from the ambience to the varied menu to the wonderful taste of everything we ordered. But the burger… oh that burger. I’m not ready to crown it the best in Omaha – the Croque Garcon still has my vote a slight edge. But I’d take this over any of Omaha’s well-known burger joints in an instant.

The lesson as always: keep your friends close, and your food friends closer.

Hoppen Hierarchy: 9.5 out of 10

Pros: Delicious, highly customizable burger; creative, vast menu; fun atmosphere; every item we tried was awesome

Cons: Limited seating and parking; a tad expensive; service isn’t entirely on point

Restaurant Review: Acadian Grille

When it’s done right, there are few things better than legit Cajun food. The spices and blackening seasonings play so well together, especially when paired with a carb base such as rice, grits, or bread.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much middle ground with Cajun cuisine. It’s either LEGIT or it’s not good. Chefs must tread lightly to find just the right amount of seasoning – too must can completely overwhelm a dish, while too little leaves the diner feeling they’re missing out on something special.

Acadian Grille, a new addition to the Omaha scene, finds that perfect medium.

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Located off 114th and Dodge, Acadian is housed in a humble strip mall location, just a few doors down from glorious Feta’s. A long, skinny restaurant with an open kitchen, there isn’t much seating, and I can imagine the place getting packed during peak hours.

The menu has all the Cajun staples, from fried alligator to po boys, etoufee, red beans and rice, mac & cheese, and more. For those wanting something different, they also offer puffy tacos, similar in style to those at Taco Co.

Acadian Grille Po Boy

Blackened shrimp po boy

The po boys are available with roast beef, shrimp or catfish (the latter two can be ordered blackened or fried. The French loaf is very authentic, providing a solid base to contain everything inside. It has a crusty exterior that brings a crunch to each bite while maintaining a softer texture on the interior. The vegetables are fresh, and the onions in particular add a nice bite.

The remolaude provides a tiny bit of heat, but its main contribution is creaminess. There’s a lot going on in this sandwich, and it needs something liquid-y to tie everything together. The remolaude does just that.

I chose blackened shrimp, and they were brilliant. Acadian uses large, plump shrimp that cover every bite of the sandwich, and the blackening technique gives each bite a hint of spice and smoke. The sandwich was a bit of a mess, but it was worth sacrificing a few napkins for.

Acadian Grille cornbread

Cornbread

Each meal comes with a choice of a side: cornbread, dirty rice, collard greens, fried chips, or coleslaw. I highly recommend the cornbread. It’s a bit dense, but the flavor is great. It’s got enough sugar to be sweet without bashing you over the head, and it’s tasty enough to eat without the provided butter.

Acadian Grille Jambalaya

Jambalaya

The jambalaya is tremendous. The chicken is pretty much drowned out by everything else, but the sausage provides nice pops of spice and fat. The rice itself is cooked very well, and there’s just the right amount of heat to this dish. A sprinkling of cilantro on top adds just a touch of freshness.

Acadian Grille Shrimp and Grits

Shrimp and grits

The shrimp and grits are just what you want when you order the dish. The grits are creamy, buttery, and fatty, which pairs nicely with the fresh, tender shrimp. Acadian kicks their offering up by peppering in small chunks of fried tasso ham, which adds a little more fat and a crispy texture to break up the overall soft texture of the dish. A generous dash of paprika rounds things out.

Five-Pepper Cream with Blackened Chicken & Pappardelle

Five-Pepper Cream with Blackened Chicken & Pappardelle

Acadian’s lone pasta offering is a bit heavy on the sauce. The broad, flat noodles are tender but short of al dente, a very pleasing texture. The chicken is cooked well and features the same blackening spice that works so well with the shrimp.

The problem with this dish is the sauce. It tastes good, a smooth, creamy concoction that adds a touch of heat to cut through the richness. But there’s too much of it. The other ingredients are left swimming. This entree could be a real hit if there were just less of it.

The prices are reasonable, as most entrees range from $11-14 and come with a side dish. The service isn’t the most attentive, but they are friendly, and the open kitchen gives the restaurant a fun vibe.

I still have to award Herbe Sainte the Creole crown in Omaha, but Acadian Grille puts up a legitimate fight. I’ve eaten in New Orleans before, and while this obviously isn’t quite on that level, it provides a pretty good glimpse into what Bayou grub is like.

Hoppen Hierarchy: 8.5 out of 10

Pros: Amazing po boys; solid use of spice in all dishes; fast service; plenty of options; inviting atmosphere

Cons: Pasta is a swimming pool of cream; limited seating; sides don’t stand out

Hunan Fusion

Restaurant Review: Hunan Fusion

I should know better by now. Great food can come from anywhere: a swanky, upscale restaurant, a food truck on the side of the road, or anything in between.

But when we pulled up to Hunan Fusion for lunch. Housed in a strip mall just off 132nd and Center in Omaha, it’s not much to look at. The exterior is white and very plain, and dark window coverings prevent you from seeing much inside. If not for a quiet sign, you wouldn’t even know a restaurant lived here.

HunanInside

Things couldn’t be more different the moment you step through the door. The vibe is uptempo, with neon green and purple runner lights zigzagging across the ceiling. The stone floor and pillars somehow evoke that Asian influence, setting your expectations for what’s the come. There’s a sushi bar with a chef preparing rolls in plain sight, a personal favorite of mine.

The upbeat vibe carries over into the meal, as drinks arrive almost immediately and orders are quickly filled and delivered. The menu has a plethora of items, but it’s divided up well into noodle, stir fry, and sushi sections, allowing for a quick scan. Most dishes can be ordered with chicken, beef, or shrimp, and all come with a choice of soup.

HunanRoll

Avocado egg rolls

The avocado egg rolls are the perfect way to kick off a meal. They toe the line of being over-fried but avoid falling over it. They’re very crispy, and the crunchy exterior is a perfect texture match for the creamy avocado inside. Some gooey mozzarella cheese adds creaminess, and the rolls aren’t overly greasy. They’re delicious on their own, but if you want to add some sweetness, a dip in the sweet chili sauce will do the trick.

Other appetizers include traditional egg rolls, crab rangoon, fried dumplings, wings, and fried shrimp. There’s plenty to choose from, and I don’t think you can really go wrong.


More Thai reviews in Omaha: 

Salween Thai

Mercy Thai


The Thai Basil (pictured at the top of this post) is very flavorful. Ironically, I didn’t get much basil and wouldn’t have known it was there if not for the name. But the other elements play well together that I didn’t miss the basil. The freshness of the bell peppers and onions were welcome, and though I would’ve preferred more heat, large jalapeno discs add a bit of flame. The sauce itself is a combination of sweet and spicy. It’s thick but doesn’t cross into gooey territory.

I went with the shrimp and had no regrets. Hunan Fusion uses large, plump shrimp, and they’re not shy about loading the plate. There’s enough to get shrimp in just about every bite, which is more than you can say for some Thai restaurants. The rice was fine, but it didn’t add anything to the meal.

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Triple Delight

The Triple Delight is slightly less successful. Hunan Fusion uses large chunks of beef and chicken, and while both are cooked to a good tenderness, they’re basically just vehicles for the sauce, which overwhelmed this dish more than the Thai Basil. The “special brown sauce” was tasty, but it was heavy on salt and drowned out some of the other elements. In this case the rice helped, as it soaked up some sauce and distributed flavors more evenly.

My favorite of the dishes we tried was the Panang Curry. This creamy, coconut-based sauce caught me off guard with its heat level, but it was a pleasant surprise. It was rich and covered every aspect of the dish, adding a slight peanut flavor.

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Hot and sour soup

I didn’t care much for the hot and sour soup. The scant bits of shredded pork added little to no flavor, and the broth was a bit oily for my tastes. It was very salty, and while I enjoyed the large mushrooms chunks, there were only two or three present. Save your calories on other menu items.

Most entrees are between $10-14, depending on which protein you select (shrimp is the most expensive. It’s an acceptable price but teeters on being too expensive. While the entrees were very good, I would’ve been OK with larger portions.

But Hunan Fusion is an enjoyable experience. There’s plenty to try on the menu, and I’m excited to get back and try some sushi sometime soon. Ultimately, I think Hunan Fusion falls somewhere between its two extremes. It’s definitely more exciting than its bland exterior, but it doesn’t quite live up to the fast-paced, upscale vibe of the interior. It’s solid, but it doesn’t offer a transformative experience from other Thai restaurants in Omaha.

Hoppen Hierarchy: 7.6 out of 10

Pros: Vast menu; avocado egg rolls are great; all entrees were tasty; fast service

Cons: no entrees truly stood out; a tad pricey for the portion sizes

Biaggi's Seafood Pasta

Restaurant Review: Biaggi’s

Italian food is soul food. It must be crafted with love and respect. When I order an Italian dish, I want it to taste like a mother is back in the kitchen serving up recipes she’s spent decades honing.

I generally approach chains with skepticism, but Italian even more so than other styles. The stories of frozen entrees and canned sauces at Olive Garden are plentiful, and while the high-school version of me will be forever grateful to Fazoli’s and those never-ending breadsticks, that’s obviously not a gourmet Italian meal.

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But I try to keep an open mind, and I entered my maiden voyage at Biaggi’s with hope. Originally from Illinois, the restaurant expanded to 23 locations in 12 states, mostly sprinkled through the Midwest. It strives to combine a white-tablecloth atmosphere with a casual environment, a tightrope that is not easy to walk.

I think Biaggi’s does it well. The dim lighting and overall decor bring to mind an upscale Italian steakhouse, but it’s not stuffy or pretentious. The servers are down to earth and extremely knowledgable about the menu. As our waitress explained the daily specials and our options, she highlighted several menu items and went into detail about their composition and why they’re well-liked. She is very, very good at her job – the way she described each dish made it seem like a must-order item.

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Capellini di mare

The capellini di mare is an absolute home run. The thin pasta is cooked to a perfect al dente. It’s a bit thicker than angel hair, which gives it a little more bite and allows it to better hold the herb-tomato sauce. The menu described the sauce as spicy, but I didn’t get any heat from it. It still worked, however, due to the acidity and slight sweetness of the tomato.

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Scallop

The dish comes with six different seafood toppings: shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, calamari, and some tiny-tentacled thing (it’s not listed on the menu, but there was some baby octopus or something similar in the dish).

The scallops are far from the best I’ve had, but they’re serviceable. They’re tender and juicy, but the lack the brilliant bursts of flavor you get from scallops that reach their full potential. The giant shrimp are excellent, and the clams and mussels are solid. The calamari are a bit rubbery and chewy.

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Roasted vegetable risotto with shrimp

The shrimp make another appearance in the roasted vegetable risotto, which is brilliantly decadent. The risotto is creamy but not overly heavy, and the roasted vegetables add a nice sweetness. It’s a bit heavy on carrots, but that’s nitpicking. The dish comes with five plump shrimp, all of which are tender and wonderful.

If I have a complaint with the menu, it’s that there aren’t a lot of health-conscious options. Most pasta options feature cream-based sauces, which load on the calories and fat. There is a lighter side portion of the menu with dishes under 600 calories, but it’s fairly limited compared to the rest of the expansive menu. Dieting patrons don’t have a ton of choices here.

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I have to give credit to Biaggi’s for starting each meal with free bread and olive oil. It’s such a simple gesture, but it goes a long way in my book. Biaggi’s supplies each table with two types of bread: a mashed-potato based focaccia and an herby sourdough. Both are excellent, especially when dipped in some parmesan-enhanced olive oil. It’s one of those situations where you know you have a big meal coming and shouldn’t pig out on the appetizer, but it’s so tasty you find yourself going back for more and more.

I struggled with how to grade Biaggi’s. It has a lot of positives, but I can’t rank it among local treasures like Lo Sole Mio and Mangia Italiana, and I don’t think it’s on the level of fellow chain Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse.

But I came away impressed. This isn’t a cookie-cutter chain restaurant. It’s a huge step up from the Olive Gardens of the world, and both my fiance and I were very impressed with our meals. We weren’t blown away, however, and that keeps me from inflating Biaggi’s rating. But it’s an easy-going atmosphere with a fun vibe and tasty food, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Hoppen Hierarchy: 8.2 out of 10

Pros: Inviting atmosphere; huge menu; creative, tasty dishes; provided bread and olive oil is excellent

Cons: Nothing truly stands out; menu is a calorie bomb

Restaurant Review: Jams

I tend to consider myself a positive guy, so let’s start with the good stuff – the food at Jams is excellent. Every appetizer and entree my party and I tried on our recent visit was delicious, and I could write songs about the scrumptious meatballs.

The rest of the experience took things down a few notches.

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Jams has locations in the Old Market and just off 80th and Dodge. It’s known for it’s eclectic, unique menu and upscale vibe. Its atmosphere reminds me of Block 16 in a way – it’s clearly not an upscale restaurant, and it’s not trying to be. But its cuisine definitely wants to be seen as elevated from the traditional casual joint.

We visited the Dodge location, and the first thing that stood out was the noise. Jams is a long, skinny restaurant, providing a funnel that turns up the volume. It wasn’t helped by the fact that there was live music on this night. The performer himself was actually quite talented, but his speakers were so loud that they threatened to drown out all conversation. We requested a table in the back room but were told it was reserved (during our hour-plus stay, no diners entered the space).

The restaurant was crowded, and we ended up being seated very close to the musician. I can’t really blame our waiter for the situation, but he was very rude when we asked if there were any other tables or if the music could be turned down a touch. In fact, he didn’t even answer. He just walked away from the table… leaving the four of us with one menu and three glasses of water. It was honestly kind of bizarre.

Jams Omaha Bucatini and meatballs

Bucatini and meatballs

While atmosphere and service matter, a restaurant should be just first and foremost by its food, and this is where Jams shines. The menu features a number of salads (which are monstrous), Mexican dishes (including tacos with fried lobster and short rib), burgers, sandwiches, fish and chips, and elevated mac & cheese. It has a menu that creates FOMO –  Fear of Missing Out – the second you place your order. As excited as you are for the coming meal, you can’t help but wonder if one of the dishes you passed on is even better.

I had no such issues after just a few bits of my bucatini and meatballs. The thick-cut bucatini was wonderfully tender, and the hollowed-out center allowed the sauce to permeate it. And that sauce is awesome – it’s slightly sweet, but the vinegar of the tomato base balances it out perfectly, and the basil adds a nice freshness. The meal comes with two slices of garlic bread, which I happily used to soak up every last ounce of sauce I could after finishing the entree.

Good as the pasta and sauce were, the meatballs truly stood out. The dish comes with three enormous, fist-sized portions. The meat itself is delicious and seasoned perfectly. Bread crumbs provide a perfect binder that holds these monsters together. The sneaky element were the strings of parsley in the meatballs, rounding out the whole experience with just the right hint of fresh flavor to balance the salt of the meat. These are some of the better meatballs I’ve had.

Jam's turkey sandwich

Turkey sandwich

Even as I write this, I can’t believe the amount of praise I’m about to heap on a turkey sandwich. I still am not sure what exactly possessed me to order this humble sandwich on a menu that features things like short rib grilled cheese sandwiches and lobster tacos. But something about the description of this sandwich, complete with avocado, tarragon mustard mayo, balsamic onion marmalade, and bacon (!), caught my eye.

And I’m very glad it did.

This is one of the best sandwiches I’ve had at a restaurant. The turkey is tender and slightly salty, but it’s the other elements that pull everything together. The creaminess of the avocado, the sweetness of the marmalade, the tang and fat from the mayo, and the crisp bacon come together to form a wonderful symphony. The director is the slightly crunchy sourdough bread, which oozes a bit of butter when you bite into it. This sandwich is a mess, but it’s worth sacrificing a few napkins for.

Jams fish tacos

Fish tacos

The blackened mahi mahi (it can also be ordered fried) is perfectly flaky and provides just the right amount of spice to the fish tacos. They’re a bit heavy on the red cabbage, but the avocado salsa adds a cooling element and the crema on top is what every sour cream aspires to be. Don’t sleep on the tasty red chili rice, either.

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Jams burger with grilled onions and swiss cheese

The burger was a hit as well. Again, the patty, a combination of chuck and beef brisket, was well-cooked and hit with just the right amount of seasoning. The caramelized onions added just enough sweetness, and the cheese was melty and permeated every bite. The soft, buttery bun was the perfect delivery device, and the crispy, salty fries were the perfect complement.

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Bruschetta

I won’t lie and call myself a bruschetta connoisseur, but Jams’ attempt was a real hit. The toast point are crispy on the edges, giving an almost cracker-like bite, while remaining somewhat soft in the middle. The sweet balsamic reduction is awesome, providing a tangy element to balance the acidity of the tomatoes and the sharp, parmesan cheese. Bringing everything together is the basil pesto, a creamy flavor punch that adds an herby taste to every bite.

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Crispy ravioli

There’s nothing wrong with the crispy ravioli appetizer, but unlike the other options, it didn’t do much to stand out. The “crispy” description isn’t quite accurate, as the skin is a bit loose. The filling of mozzarella and ricotta cheese is solid, but there’s not much of it, and it’s dying for a meat companion. Simply adding some Italian sausage or even ground beef would’ve helped this dish quite a bit. Overall, it was still a solid appetizer.

The menu is fun, creative, and delicious, but it’s also very expensive. Most of the entrees are between $15-30. I was happy shelling out $17 for my large bowl of pasta and meatballs, and the delicious burger was $14 (though that’s just a patty and bun. Any add-ons, including the onions and cheese, are $1 extra apiece).

But the appetizers were outrageously overpriced. While we really enjoyed the bruschetta, it was $9 for four pieces of bread. Solid as these were, they weren’t worth $2.25 apiece. But they’re a bargain compared to the ravioli, which run you $12 for three pieces. The ravioli were OK, but paying $4 for just a few bites is robbery.

All these factors make me very torn on Jams. It’s loud, expensive, and the service can be rude and inattentive. But the food, for the most part, is really awesome, and to me that’s what matters most. I’ll dock Jams some points for the other parts of the meal, but the cuisine is on point.

Hoppen Hierarchy: 8.6 out of 10

Pros: Incredible meatballs; fun, creative, diverse menu; tasty burger

Cons: Too expensive; subpar service; loud atmosphere

Restaurant Review: 402 BBQ Food Truck

When done right, burnt ends are barbecue nirvana. I have much love for ribs, a well-done brisket is divine, and pulled pork is the classic, friendly staple. All are truly wonderful and well deserve their places on the barbecue pantheon.

But burnt ends can reach an even higher plane. The pitmaster removes the point (the fattiest portion) of the brisket and returns it to the smoker for some extra love. That bonus finish produces a beautiful crust to contain the fatty deliciousness harbored in these flavor cubes. Burnt ends have the power to turn a lifelong vegan into a raging carnivore.

The thing is, they’re not easy to perfect. Brisket itself is an incredibly tough meat to conquer, and any missteps in time or temperature generally result in a leathery, chewy mess. I’d argue that the worst meat at your average barbecue joint (at least those not in the top tier) is the brisket because the pitmaster doesn’t understand how to treat it. Turning the brisket into burnt ends just adds another step to the process and allows for more mistakes.

Considering the difficult challenges that brisket, and in turn, burnt ends, present, I was more than skeptical when I was told a food truck served some of the best in the city. The food truck element adds yet another difficult step – not only do the burnt ends have to be cooked perfectly, but they must be transported and somehow kept fresh all day in a truck.

Fat chance, right?

But I stand corrected. The 402 BBQ Food Truck has made me a believer.

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Burnt ends

I’ve had some incredible burnt ends in my life, especially those from Joe’s Kansas City, an institution that’s secured its place on the barbecue Mount Rushmore. I can’t quite put these burnt ends on that level, but man… they’re within spitting distance. 402 cuts the brisket into large cubes, and they are beyond tender. Saying a food item cuts “like butter” is one of those annoying, overused cliches, but it actually applies here. These burnt ends threaten to fall apart as you pick them up, and they’re bursting with smoky, fatty flavor. The bark creates an inviting texture contrast from the succulent innards. The burnt ends are, in my opinion, a must try for any barbecue lover in the Omaha area.


Get the complete breakdown on the Lincoln food truck scene, including BBQ/Mexican fusion, Banh Mi sandwiches, and a pulled pork, mac & cheese grilled cheese sandwich(!).


In my excitement to get to the burnt ends, I completely forgot to introduce 402. So let’s back up and meet the creators of this divine entree.

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402 BBQ Food Truck claims to specialize in Omaha-style barbecue. There’s not really anything distinct about the style, such as the vinegar-based sauce of North Carolina ‘que or the moist Texas brisket. But the truck gets all its ingredients from local purveyors and uses Rotella’s bread, a Nebraska classic, for its sandwiches.

The menu is pretty straightforward. Most items are sandwiches with brisket, pulled pork and turkey. There’s also an Italian sausage smothered in mac & cheese, a few sides, and, if you’re lucky, some burnt ends left (it’s the most popular item, so they do sell out sometimes). The lack of ribs is disappointing, though they are sometimes offered as a daily special (stay tuned to the truck’s Facebook and Twitter accounts if you want to catch the delicacy of the day).

Service moves very quickly, and meals are generally received within about a minute of ordering. Everything is prepared ahead of time, which would suggest the food loses that fresh flavor. That’s not the case with 402, though. The meats may not taste like they just came off the smoker, but they give no impression that they’ve been sitting under a heat lamp, either.

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B-Rad sandwich (brisket, turkey, pulled pork)

Individually, I didn’t love any of the meats on the B-Rad sandwich. The brisket, served in large, thick slices is really tender and has an aesthetically pleasing smoke ring, but the flavor is pretty quiet. Same goes for the pork and the turkey, which was a bit dry.

While the meats didn’t wow on their own, they come together to make a fantastic sandwich. The smokiness and fattiness of the brisket works well with the salty turkey, and the pork plays its role as well. The Rotella’s hoagie roll is perfectly soft and adds just a hint of sweetness. It threatened to fall apart under this mountain of meat, but managed to hold its integrity until my final bites. The sandwich was dry overall and was helped a great deal with an application of sauce, of which 402 has six.

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BBQ pit beans

The BBQ pit beans were pretty run of the mill. They were a bit soupy, though they combined a nice sweetness with just a hint of spice. What they really missed was some meat. If 402 tossed some brisket or, God willing, burnt ends in the beans, they could really sing.

The prices and portion sizes are fantastic. The sandwiches are massive, loaded with easily over half a pound of meat. And I was honestly shocked at how large the order of burnt ends was. I didn’t have a scale with me, but I’d guess it’s pushing a pound of wonderful barbecue goodness.

Pretty much everything falls within $7 or $8, more than reasonable for both the quantity and quality of the food. Most restaurants charge double for burnt ends, and they don’t touch the taste of 402.

I’m a huge lover of food trucks, and 402 BBQ is among the best I’ve had. Given the limitations imposed by the lack of a brick-and-mortar set-up, I can’t recommend most of the meats over what you’ll find at Tired Texan, Fat Shack, or Swine Dining.

But I could write songs about the burnt ends, which are the best I’ve had in Omaha. They alone are worth seeking this truck out.

Hoppen Hierarchy: 8.8 out of 10

Pros: Incredible burnt ends; fantastic prices and portion sizes; delicious sandwiches; friendly and fast service

Cons: Not in the same place consistently; other meats are just OK on their own