Restaurant Review: Lazlo’s Brewery & Grill

When Lazlo’s Brewery and Grill first opened in 1991, its owners never could have predicted the unprecedented success that followed. The brewpub has become a staple in Lincoln and is arguably the Haymarket area’s most iconic restaurant. It became so popular that two more locations popped up in South Lincoln and Omaha, and it spawned a sister restaurant, Fireworks, in 2002. The Empyrean Brewing Company, Lazlo’s in-house brewery, is one of Nebraska’s most well-known local breweries.

It all started at the corner of 7th and N St. in the Haymarket, and the original has been nothing short of excellent in my several visits there. The interior is friendly and cozy and, when the weather allows, the outdoor patio is a great spot to enjoy an afternoon/evening.

The menu is an eclectic gathering of creative comfort food with a modern flair. Diners can choose from steaks, seafood, burgers, sandwiches, ribs, chicken and more. Each item is marked on the menu with one of the eight core Empyrean beers (the brewery has several seasonal and small batch recipes as well). As a big fan of IPAs, I find the Watch Man IPA to be a bit underwhelming, but most of the brews are quite good. The most popular are the Burning Skye Scottish Ale and the Long Route Peanut Butter Porter, a malty concoction that somehow infuses the flavor of a chocolate peanut butter cup into a beer.

LazlosBBQ

BBQ Chicken Lavosh

Everything I’ve tried on the menu is great, but the lavosh dishes in particular stand out. The thin unleavened crust produces a cracker-like consistency after being baked. Lazlo’s serves up lavoshes the size of manhole covers. The dish is perfect for sharing on a date or as an appetizer between a group of friends–or if you’re particularly hungry or in love with food like myself, you can take one down all by yourself. The cracker crust is to light and airy that it doesn’t weigh down the dish. It provides a hint of floury flavor and a touch of sweetness but lets the toppings stand out.

LazlosVoodoo

Voodoo Chicken Lavosh

And stand out they do. The real winner is the BBQ Chicken version, which combines a sweet, tangy sauce with healthy chunks of savory chicken, bright red onions, fresh jalapeños and cheddar cheese. The Voodoo Chicken is good as well, though I would have preferred the “Voodoo sauce”, which is intended to be spicy, to have a bit more kick. But when topped with some Cholula hot sauce, this makes for an excellent meal.

LazlosBurger

Bacon Guacamole Burger

The burgers, which are ground in-house daily from USDA Choice beef, are all delicious. The patties, which are around eight ounces, pack a punch of salty, fatty flavor that make all great burgers sing. The meat itself is so good, it can overwhelm the toppings at times. The fries, however, are a major bummer. They’re overly starchy and salty and honestly don’t have much flavor.

The steaks and seafood are both excellent, as are the kabobs, which combine either chicken or steak with a skewer of fresh vegetables over a hearty bed of mixed rice. Don’t sleep on the prime rib enchiladas. The meat is incredibly flavorful and tender, and it pairs well with the cheddar and monterey jack cheeses. A pork green chili sauce provides just the right amount of spice to tie the dish together.

There’s a reason Lazlo’s has become synonymous with Lincoln dining. It’s not perfect, as some of the dishes are rather expensive and the service can be a bit hit or miss. But I have yet to have a bad visit, and most have been standout. Whether you’re looking for a nice date night, a sit-down restaurant for a group of friends or just a happy hour spot for a few cold ones, Lazlo’s has you covered.

Hoppen Heirarchy: 9.2 out of 10

Pros: Excellent lavosh dishes; lots of menu options; delicious burgers; strong steaks; good local beer selection; killer prime rib enchiladas

Cons: Doesn’t take reservations (though diners can call ahead to get on a wait list); a tad pricey; service can be a bit spacey and/or inattentive

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Restaurant Review: Banh Mi Shop

For all the great dining options the Omaha metro area, it’s long been wanting for a legit stop for banh mi sandwiches. This is one of the few areas that Lincoln has the upper hand on Nebraska’s flag city, as the capital hosts the delicious Banhwich Cafe, one of my go-to restaurants.

So when the Banh Mi Shop opened its doors in Bellevue on Nov. 18, I knew it was only a matter of time until I visited.

Banh mi sandwiches are a Vietnamese speciality that are growing in popularity in the U.S. The term “banh mi” actually refers to the baguette the sandwich is served in. The bread, which tends to be more airy on the inside and has a crispy exterior, is stuffed with cucumbers, cilantro, pickled carrots and daikon and a variety of meats. It’s a delicious combination that America is still fairly rare in our great country, but that’s rapidly changing.

The Banh Mi Shop is a small restaurant with little seating on the backside of a small strip mall in Bellevue, and it’s not easy to find. Even my GPS struggled to locate it, dropping me off in the middle of a street and making me hunt a bit to find my destination. The extra effort ended up being worth it.

BanhMiInside

There are only a few tables and bar stools inside the restaurant and one gets the impression that most of its orders are of the takeout variety. Diners have their choice of nine sandwiches: cold cuts (the most authentic option), grilled pork, shredded chicken, meatballs, BBQ Chinese pork, eggs, grilled beef, grilled pork patties or tofu. A wide variety of teas, coffees, bubble milk teas and smoothies are also available. Orders are ready within minutes of payment, and the restaurant accepts to-go calls ahead of time.

BanhMiPork

Chinese BBQ pork banh mi

Each sandwich is about eight inches long and is packed with ingredients. The bread is firm and a bit crispy in places, definitely more so than one typically finds at the local sub shop. But that integrity allows for maximum fillings, which are delicious. The baguette itself doesn’t have much flavor, as it’s merely a vessel to deliver the tremendous innards.

The Chinese BBQ is a real treat. The long, thin strips of pork is sweet with a hint of spice. It’s fall-apart tender and the honey from the sauce pairs perfectly with the sweetness of the pickled vegetables. A few fresh-cut jalapeños bring some heat to the party, making this a delicious sandwich.

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Meatball banh mi

The pork meatballs, which are cooked in a light tomato glaze, are good as well. The portion sizes are large, and each bite pops with a slight sweetness and the acidity of the tomato sauce. The cold cuts banh mi, which features pork ham and BBQ pork with a butter mayo, is a bit salty. It’s still good, but it doesn’t stand out.

While the sandwiches come packed with meat and toppings, they’re likely not enough to comprise a meal of their own. I put down two and still had room for dessert. While they’re not the biggest sandwiches around, the price is hard to beat. Most range between $4 and $4.50–our order of three sandwiches and an iced caramel coffee came out to around $14.

Outside of its odd location, there’s not much to complain about with the Banh Mi Shop. The meats are flavor, the vegetables fresh and the prices low. The sandwiches could be bigger and the baguettes are rather bland, but they still make for an excellent meal.

While I thoroughly enjoyed my first experience at the Banh Mi Shop, it was missing that pop I remember experiencing during my first visit to Banhwich Cafe. Those sandwiches have a burst of flavor that Banh Mi Shop doesn’t quite match.

That’s not to knock Bellevue’s new addition. The Banh Mi Shop is serving some fine Vietnamese sandwiches, and I will gladly make the drive out of Bellevue to return in the future. But Banhwich set my bar quite high for this type of cuisine and, try as it might, the Banh Mi Shop comes up just short of that high marker.

Hoppen Heirarchy: 8.2 out of 10

Pros: Delicious meats; great prices; varied menu; fast service

Cons: Sandwiches could be bigger; bread is bland and a bit inconsistent from sandwich to sandwich; not much seating; location is hard to find

Twitter Speaks: The Most Overrated and Underrated Restaurants in Nebraska

Anyone who frequents this blog knows I have my fair share of restaurant opinions. There are certain spots I’ll beat the drum for all day long (such as Lippy’s BBQ, Feta’s and Block 16), but there are others that receive, in my opinion, an inordinate amount of praise.

I’m always interested in what other people have to say as well. I’m just one man–my opinion isn’t gospel. The masses deserve their say as well. And honestly, I don’t get outside of Omaha and Lincoln enough to sample the great food in Nebraska’s other cities. So I ran a few Twitter polls to gauge what places my followers thought deserved more love and which get far too much attention.

Keep in mind that these results don’t speak for the entire state. I have around 9,000 followers and these polls aren’t the end-all be-all. But I feel they provide a pretty accurate representation of what Nebraskans feel.

To the results!

Most Overrated (148 replies)

Misty’s Steakhouse – 16

  • Long viewed as a Nebraska staple, I think Misty’s suffers from its reputation more than anything. It’s billed as one of the state’s top spots, but if you go in with that mindset, you might leave a bit disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, Misty’s serves up some very fine steaks, and having the Nebraska band roll through on a Friday night before a home football game is a real treat. But people hold it to such a high standard, and at times the restaurant struggles to match that.

Valentino’s – 16

  • I could not agree more with this ranking. As a kid, I loved Val’s. The sprawling buffet offers a bevy of options, and I looked forward to snagging copious slices of that pizza. But as I’ve grown and experienced better Italian, I’m done with Val’s. Nothing on the buffet stands out, and the pizza is overly greasy, sweet and quite honestly, kind of gross.

Raising Cane’s –10

  • I will never understand the love for this restaurant. The chicken is forgettable and falls far short of what Chick-fil-A or Popeye’s serves, and the sauce is basically Cajun mayo (it’s fine, but nothing special). The Texas toast is good, but you can get the same thing from the frozen aisle of the grocery store. Basically everything at Cane’s is either fried, doused with butter or filled with mayo, so it’s terrible for you and doesn’t taste all that great. That’s not a combo I care for.

Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen – 5

Stella’s – 4

  • I don’t want to hate on Stella’s. They serve some good burgers. But somehow the restaurant has built up this sterling reputation as the best burger in Nebraska, and it doesn’t even come close to the top of my list. On my visits, the patties have been dry and crumbly. Maybe I’ve just had bad experiences.

La Casa Pizzeria – 4

LCHamburger

Hamburger pizza

Runza – 4

The Drover Restaurant and Lounge – 4

Honest Abe’s – 4

Abe's 2

Bounty Hunter (BBQ sauce, pineapple, seared salami)

  • To the four people who voted Abe’s–go home. You’re drunk.

Big Fred’s – 3

Zio’s Pizzeria – 3

Lazlo’s – 3

Yia Yia’s Pizzeria – 3

  • I assume these voters prefer Lazarri’s, as that O St. rivalry is quite fierce. I side with Yia Yia’s, but I respect both joints.

Pitch Pizzeria – 3

La Mesa – 3

Anthony’s Steakhouse – 3

Chance’s R Restaurant and Lounge (York) – 3

Phat Jack’s BBQ – 2

pjmeal

Clockwise–brisket, pulled pork and ribs

  • How anyone voted for this blows my mind and makes me sad.

Watering Hole – 2

Oscar’s Pizza and Sports Grill – 2

Spaghetti Works – 2

El Bee’s – 2

Five Guy’s Burgers and Fries – 2

Fireworks – 2

Texas Roadhouse – 2

Lee’s Chicken – 2

*15 others received one vote

Most Underrated (105 replies)

Omaha/Lincoln

Mangia Italiana – 4

MangiaPizza

Buffalo chicken (bottom) and Vincent Special (beef, pepperoni,  bacon, meatballs, onions and fresh garlic) pizza

  • I want to personally thank everyone who voted for Mangia. This poll caused me to visit recently, and the pizza was excellent. I will absolutely be back in the near future. It’s not a perfect restaurant and it needs a bigger space, but the things it does well, it does REALLY well.

Rivera’s Mexican Restaurant – 4

Barrett’s Barleycorn Pub & Grill – 2

Mother India – 2

Mula – 2

Piezon’s Pizzeria – 2

Schillingbridge Cork & Tap House – 2

SBurger2

Western Burger (brisket, bacon, caramelized onions, cheese sauce)

  • Schillingbridge is one of the hidden gems of Lincoln. I feel the Fallbrook area often gets overlooked because it’s a bit out of the way, but this restaurant alone is worth the trip. Everything I’ve tried on the menu is excellent, and the brisket on the Western Burger makes it one of the finest burgers I’ve had in the state.

Sinful Burger –2

Twisted Cork – 2

9 South Chargrill

11 Worth Cafe

11DadsMeal

  • Everything about 11 Worth is awesome. Just go there and be amazed.

Addy’s

Banh Mi Shop (Bellevue)

Bison Witches

Danny’s Bar and Grill

Davlo’s Pizzeria

Enzo’s Italian

Hacienda Real 

Johnny Sortino’s Pizza

La Choza

Lot 2

Malara’s Italian Restaurant

Mamas Pizza

Merle’s Food and Drink 

Burger

Burger and fries

MoMo Pizzeria

Night Owl

Pho Factory

Railcar Modern American Kitchen

Swine Dining

Tanner’s Bar and Grill

Timber Wood Fire Bistro

Toast

Vincenzo’s Italian Ristorante

Vung Tau

Other Cities

  • I’m often chastised on social media for not featuring more spots outside of Lincoln and Omaha in this space. In all honesty, I don’t get outside of Nebraska’s biggest cities that often, and since I’m not paid to do reviews, I can’t really justify driving several hours out of my way for a meal. But as a hat tip to my wonderful followers, here are some voted joints from other cities.

The Windy Gap Saloon and Grill (Paxton) – 3

Sandstone Grill (Burwell) – 2

Sit N Bull Saloon (Giltner) – 2

Bailey’s Local (Eagle)

Butch’s Steakhouse and Lounge (Hershey)

Charlie’s Pub (Milligan)

Clanceyz Bar and Grill (Pierce)

El Charrito (Scottsbluff)

Iron Skillet (Stuart)

Lou & Mary Anne’s Bar (Bee)

Kolac Korner (Prague)

The Office (Hooper)

Opera House Brewery and Grill (Fairfield)

Ponderosa Bar and Grill (Elk City)

The Rocket Inn (Indianola)

Texas T-Bone Steakhouse (Grand Island)

Thunderhead Brewing Company (Kearney)

Restaurant Review: Mangia Italiana

Nothing about the ambience of Mangia Italiana screams upscale Italian. It’s located on a backroad off of Irvington Street near 680 in Omaha, the kind of place you’d likely never stumble into unless you were specifically looking for it. The exterior is humble and looks more like a home than a restaurant. The inside consists of a small waiting area and a tiny dining room with eight tables, capable of seating maybe 25-30 people if everyone packed in. Most fast food restaurants are roomier.

But Mangia is yet another example of why you it’s never wise to judge a book by its cover. It may not look like much, but anyone passing up on the joint because of that is missing out on some solid Italian eats.

Time of arrival is key at Mangia, because it doesn’t take reservations and the dining room fills up quickly. We were seated immediately when we arrived around 5:30 on a Friday night, but the waiting area was packed when we left about 45 minutes later. Mangia does offer take out orders, and during the summer there is outdoor seating available on the patio.

The menu is sprawling with Italian favorites and some interesting spins you’re not likely to find at your typical spot. It features 23 specialty pizza offerings, ranging from the mundane, such as supreme, carne and Hawaiian, to some pretty creative offerings. Among those choices: two versions of buffalo chicken, the Shrimp Special, Ranch BLT and Italian Beef. Diners can also create their own pie with whatever toppings they choose. Mangia tops the pizza menu off with four breakfast options.

There are also a number of classic noodle dishes, baked pastas, chicken, seafood and sandwiches available.

MangiaMeats

Vincent Special

The pizza is the star. The Vincent Special, which is topped with beef, pepperoni,  bacon, meatballs, onions and fresh garlic, is absolutely delicious. Eat meat manages to stand out in its own way. The fattiness of the beef and pepperoni marries nicely with the saltiness of all the meats, while the garlic and onions add some freshness to cut through the sodium. The sauce didn’t add much, but that’s understandable considering all the meat it would have had to fight through.

MangiaBuffalo

Buffalo Chicken

The Buffalo Chicken is unlike any slice I’ve had previously. The sauce is a combination of Alfredo and buffalo sauce, which makes for a creamy, slightly spicy mixture. There was so much cheese perched atop the pizza that it gave me the vibe of a bowl of mac & cheese with some Tobasco hot sauce poured in. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a delicious combo, and this was a solid pizza. But it surprised me, and the chicken unfortunately was mostly lost amongst the dairy and cream.

The crust doesn’t add much. It was a bit soggy and though it held up well enough amongst all the sauce and toppings, it added little flavor or texture to the experience. That being said, both pizzas were straight up awesome and rank among some of the better options in Omaha.

MangiaPasta

Cheese Tortellini Alfredo with Chicken

The cheese tortellini Alfredo with chicken was less successful. It’s drowning in cheese and cream sauce, making for a very heavy meal that sticks to one’s ribs the moment it touches his or her lips. Bites of chicken or pasta on their own were actually quite flavorful, but most bites are drowned in dairy. If this dish had 30 percent less sauce and cheese and allowed the other ingredients to sing, it would be much better.

MangiaRolls

Parmesan rolls

The parmesan rolls, which come with each meal or can be purchased for 65 cents apiece, were a step above the typical bread option that accompanies most Italian meals. The interior is soft and pillowy, and the exterior isn’t too thick or crusty. They reach another level when dipped into the broccoli cheddar soup, which is tremendous but just about thick enough to be considered a dip.

The prices are most fair. Most entrees range from $11-$16 dollars, while pizzas cost around $15 for a small (10 in.), $18 for a medium (13 in.) and $21 for a large (16 in.). Personal pizzas (7 in.) are about $8.

The service is friendly and attentive, and the wait time on meals is pretty quick. The kitchen is just as large if not bigger than the dining area, allowing the Mangia staff to craft its meals fairly quickly.

The restaurant has two main drawbacks, starting with the limited seating. A better location with more room would make Mangia a much more attractive location. It also relies a bit too much on cheese and sauce, as some of the dishes are straight up doused in it, hiding the excellent flavors of the meat and pasta.

But the pizzas are very good, the meats are excellent and the portion sizes are more than large enough to tackle the typical appetite. Mangia has a lot going for it. I just wish it had a better location, more room and less dairy. Those fixes would really send it over the top.

Hoppen Heirarchy: 8.6 out of 10

Pros: Tremendous pizza; excellent meat toppings; vast menu; quick service; solid parmesan rolls

Cons: Limited seating, which can lead to longer wait times; dishes tend to have too much sauce/cheese

Restaurant Review: Super Taco

It’s amazing how one standout dish can save an otherwise forgettable meal. The entire experience can be average or even bad, but a few fantastic bites can overcome that mediocrity and have a diner leaving with a smile.

That was my experience with Super Taco, a hole-in-the-wall outfit off of 56th and Holdredge in Lincoln. It’s not much to look at from the outside and it’s cheesy, cartoon logo doesn’t exactly suggest gourmet dining.

Despite its humble ambience, Super Taco has an authentic Mexican menu, more true to traditional cuisine than the Tex-Mex most places serve. The menu features the traditional staples like burritos, enchiladas and quesadillas, but it also has gorditas (unlike Taco Bell’s version, it’s a pastry made with masa and stuffed with meat and cheese), alambres (grilled beef topped with chopped bacon, veggies, cheese, salsa and avocado and served with tortillas), chile rellenos and flautas. There’s a lot to like on the menu. Nearly all dishes can be ordered with 14 different meat options, ranging from standard (steak, ground beef, chicken) to out of out the box (beef tongue, pork skin, flank steak).

Super Taco serves street tacos, which are much smaller than the American version and are generally just three or four bites. I ordered two, going with asada (grilled steak) and adobada (pork steak). I also ordered an al pastor torta, a Mexican sandwich served on crusty bread. My girlfriend opted for the chicken enchiladas plate.

We dined at 6 o’clock on a Friday night and the place was packed, so maybe that played into the weirdness that followed. But the service was kind of bizarre. Our servers were incredibly attentive within our first few minutes of arrival, as we had either our waitress or the man behind the ordering counter visit three times in five minutes. But after ordering, it was crickets for nearly 20 minutes, when my two tacos arrived. To be clear, these were not appetizers. Everything was ordered together, so it figures that it should all arrive around the same time.

Being a gentleman (or at least trying most of the time), I declined to eat the tacos until my girlfriend’s meal arrived too (to her credit, she encouraged me to eat immediately). We waited another few minutes, and then my torta was served. After several more minutes, her enchiladas finally hit the table. The restaurant has a tiny kitchen and it was clearly rush hour, but having a meal arrive in three waves was very odd, and it left my tacos cold.

STTacos

Steak (left) and pork tacos

The tacos were served upon firm corn tortillas, which I found quite pleasurable, and topped with a heaping of green onions and cilantro. The meats were finely shredded. The adobada had good flavor, with a slightly spicy red chile pop taking center stage. The steak was pretty bland and forgettable, but the tortillas held up well and saved the dish.

STEnchiladas

Chicken enchilada platter

The chicken enchiladas were pretty forgettable. Packed with cheese and topped with a mound of sour cream, the flavor of the meat kind of got lost in all the processed ingredients. And that’s a shame, because I thought the chicken was better than both the steak and adobada. it was tender and flavorful, but this dish just needed more of it. The rice was completely ordinary, and the beans were kind of a soupy mess. The dish was topped off with some run-of-the-mill shredded lettuce and the saddest tomato slice I’ve seen at a restaurant.

STTorta

Al pastor torta

To this point, the meal was pretty disappointing, especially considering all the love my Twitter followers had given Super Taco. But then I bit into the game-changer–the al pastor torta. The sandwich was massive, and the bread was perfectly crispy and held up to the heaping of ingredients inside. The tomatoes and onions didn’t add much, but the avocado slices were brilliant and the jalapeños added a nice bite.

The real MVP was the al pastor pork. Thinly sliced, succulent and bursting with flavor, the pork made this one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had. It was very flavorful, and the accompanied pineapple added just the right hit of sweet that this sandwich needed.

If the torta had one drawback, it was the cheese. Served in long thick slices, I thought the cheese overwhelmed parts of the sandwich and didn’t provide much flavor. I removed most of it after a few bites and instead doused my sandwich in Super Taco’s table-side red sauce, which is a real treat.

The prices were very fair. While I don’t think the enchilada platter was worth $10, the tacos were just $1.60 apiece and the torta was around $5.50. Most individual items are about five or six bucks while the platters and seafood go $10+.

Ultimately the torta saved the meal. We waited a long time for our food, which was oddly served in tiers. The enchiladas were OK, the tacos fine and the sides flat out disappointing. But the torta was so good, I’m willing to forgive the other faux pas. Super Taco deserves another visit, and whatever I order will feature the delicious al pastor.

Hoppen Heirarchy: 7.8 out of 10

Pros: Incredible torta; al pastor is incredible; authentic menu; prices are mostly reasonable

Cons: Odd service; sides are average to bad; steak is forgettable; long wait times

Taking Stock of Twitter’s Nebraska Restaurant Opinions

As 2018 begins, I thought it might be useful to do something different in this space. Those who read this blog are pretty familiar with my food opinions, but I wanted to open things up and hear what the public had to say. I respect all opinions, and I’m always curious as to what others are thinking.

So over the past few weeks I’ve run a number of Twitter polls to gauge the temperature on where Nebraskans stand on their restaurant takes. I wanted to hear from you, and you came through. To those that answered, thanks for sharing.

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I don’t necessarily agree with this answer, but the response didn’t really surprise me. Nebraska is known as a beef state, and it boasts several steakhouses with sterling reputations. Misty’s has long been regarded as one of Lincoln’s best restaurants, and The Drover is such a popular Omaha spot that visiting media members constantly rave about it when visiting during the College World Series. Throw in other strong entries such as Sullivan’s, Round the Bend, Merle’s, Mahogany Prime and others, and I get where these votes are coming from.

RTBSteak

Prime rib from Round the Bend Steakhouse

All those places are very solid, and I take nothing away from them. But I think our fine state is underrated in several of the other categories. Omaha is a sneaky fantastic city for pizza, with Pitch, La Casa, Brick Oven, Dante, Virtuoso and Noli’s all registering high in my ranks, and Lincoln adds MoMo to the ledger.

Nebraska also has strong barbecue submissions with Lippy’s, Phat Jack’s, Tired Texan, Swine Dining and a few others. The burger options are also fantastic (we’ll get to them in detail in a minute). I respect Nebraska’s steak game, but I think it’s stronger in some other areas that might not get as much recognition.

 

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Ah, burgers, which are potentially Nebraska’s most divisive food topic. Those who favor the classics will point to legends Dinker’s and Stella’s, while relative newbies Honest Abe’s and Block 16 have certainly made a splash in recent years.

block16egg

Croque Garcon burger from Block 16

My personal favorite burger in Nebraska comes from Block 16–the Croque Garcon is a magnificently-cooked patty topped with ham, truffle mayo and an over easy egg. It’s wonderful in every sense of the word. But I also appreciate the creativity and delicious nature of Honest Abe’s, which checks in second in my book. No Nebraska restaurant pushes the boundaries like Abe’s, which offers a rotating menu that puts queso, chips, chili, peanut butter and so much more on their signature burgers.

ToastBurgerCut

Carolina Burger from Toast (pulled pork, fresno chilis, coleslaw, pepperjack cheese)

In all honesty, I find Stella’s incredibly overrated. I don’t want to hate on a local staple, but on each of my three visits the patties have been dry and crumbly, falling apart after a few bites. I appreciate Dinker’s much more, but there are other burger joints that earn higher marks for me. LeadBelly is tremendous and has a vast menu, Schillingbridge serves up an incredible brisket burger, and Toast, Smitty’s Garage, Sinful Burger and Local are all excellent as well. I pay homage to the OGs of Nebraska burgers, but I feel our state has developed finer options in recent years.

Other suggestions: Lot 2, LeadBelly, Twisted Fork, Omaha Tap House, Parkway Pub, Louie M’s Burger Lust, Benson Brewery

Screen Shot 2018-01-02 at 8.35.35 PM

Now that Nebraska has Chick-fil-A (in my opinion, the GOAT fast food joint) in tow, I wanted to know which fast food joint Nebraskans hankered for the most. I settled on four iconic burger chains and let the masses fight it out.

In-N-Out has the best reputation nationally, so I’m not surprised to see the West Coast staple run away with this poll. Make no mistake, it’s absolutely delicious, and ordering either burgers or fries “animal style” just bumps it up a few notches.

My vote, however, would go to Shake Shack. It’s not quite as well known, but their burgers are absolutely terrific and the crinkle cut fries are a real treat. What pushes Shake Shack to the top of my list is its extensive offering of shakes and custards, which provide the perfect cap to any meal.

Whataburger would be a fantastic addition as well, as I’ve always appreciated how the restaurant uses Texas Toast instead of traditional buns. Steak n’ Shake is fine, but in retrospect, I would have included Jack in the Box or Zaxby’s instead in this poll. However, I don’t think it would’ve altered the results much. In-N-Out won going away–now make it happen Nebraska. Get one here!

Other suggestions: Jack in the Box, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Wahlburgers, Del Taco, Waffle House, Zaxby’s, White Castle, Portillo’s

Screen Shot 2018-01-02 at 8.56.22 PM

These results say two things to me–more of my followers reside in Lincoln than Omaha, and Nebraskans need to expand their pizza opinions and get to some legit spots. No offense to my wonderful followers, but these results are whack. Lazarri’s is my least favorite spot on this list. It’s not bad by any means, but I’ve eaten there several times and have been a bit underwhelmed on each visit. It’s good pizza, but nothing special.

NoliPepperoni

Pepperoni slice from Noli’s Pizzeria

Yia Yia’s is the better Lincoln choice, but both Omaha spots blow these two out of the water. Noli’s Pizzeria is my personal favorite. The thin crust has the perfect amount of char, the toppings are generous and flavorful, and the sauce and cheese complement the other elements perfectly to create a beautiful symphony. Virtuoso Pizzeria is darn close, and you could easily talk me into ranking it No. 1.

VirtuosoPepperoni

Pepperoni slice from Virtuoso Pizzeria

Honestly, I’d put Lighthouse Pizza and it’s gigantic slices over both of the Lincoln spots too, and an argument can be made for Brick Oven Pizzeria as well. I also have to get to Piezon’s (that’s coming soon), but the overarching lesson here is that Lincoln needs to step its pizza game up… and Omaha is spoiled with amazing by-the-slice joints.

Other suggestions: Piezon’s Pizzeria, Brick Oven Pizzeria, Lighthouse Pizza, Zio’s Pizzeria

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I had to pour one out for Dugger’s Cafe as I posted this poll as the restaurant closed its doors for the final time on New Year’s Eve. There were some complicating factors that led to its closing, but it was one of the best breakfast I’ve had in Omaha. RIP.

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Pancake, omelet and hashbrowns at 11 Worth Cafe

Even if Dugger’s had been a part of the conversation I don’t think the top choice would’ve been affected. 11 Worth Cafe is widely acknowledged as the Omaha breakfast king, and I can’t argue with that. Everything is excellent. The eggs are delicious and perfectly cooked, the pancakes are sweet enough to be eaten without syrup and the portions are large enough to alter even the heartiest of appetites. But the real kicker is the hashbrowns, which are the best I’ve ever had. They’re perfectly crispy throughout and have a tremendous yet not overwhelming salty flavor.

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Elevated Egg sandwich (over-easy egg, bacon, avocado, arugula, gruyere cheese and a dash of mayo on a fresh Brioche bun) at First Watch Cafe

First Watch Cafe, Over Easy and Lisa’s Radial Cafe all have their positive notes too. The first two are a bit more modern with more open menus, and the egg and avocado sandwich I got at First Watch is among the better breakfast sandwiches I’ve eaten. Both are a bit more expensive, while Lisa’s is more of a classic diner serving up traditional dishes at lower prices.

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The Porkasaurus breakfast at Bailey’s

I regret not putting Bailey’s on my list. Everything there is excellent, but the restaurant offers something no other Omaha joint can boast–the Porkasaurus, two plates full of  bacon, sausage patties and links, Canadian bacon, ham steak and Andouille sausage, all atop a bed of red potatoes with jack and cheddar cheese and served with three eggs, buttered biscuit and toast. The meal is for only the heartiest of diners, but every bite is glorious. And victors get a free T-shirt to celebrate their gluttony.

There are quite a few breakfast places I still need to hit, and the Twitter suggestions have given me plenty of new joints for my ever-growing list.

Other suggestions: Bailey’s, Amato’s, Leo’s Diner, Early Bird, Vidlak’s Brookside Cafe, Wheatfields, Saddle Creek Breakfast Club, Shirley’s, AJ’s Cafe

Restaurant Review: Herbe Saint

For all the great cuisine Omaha has to offer, you’re not going to find a lot of standout Cajun/creole spots. This style of food hasn’t made much of a footprint in the city, but a man and his two nephews are looking to change that.

Ron Samuelson and Justin and Aaron Halbert opened Herbe Saint in the Aksarban Villaga (Omaha) in the fall of 2016 after falling in love with New Orleans cuisine following several visits to the Big Easy. The result is a dining marvel unlike anything else you’ll find in the city.

What started as mainly a cocktail bar has morphed into a full-scale restaurant featuring a menu overflowing with tempting delicacies. Among the bountiful options are shrimp, oysters, muffuletta, a crawfish cheesecake (not actual cheesecake, but more of a seafood quiche), po’ boys, bacon-wrapped gator (!), étouffée and more.

The atmosphere is perfect. Diners have the option of sitting at traditional tables, saddling up to the bar or parking themselves on one of several couches for a more casual group meal. The low lighting sets the mood for a fine-dining experience, but the vibe is laid back and relaxed. This is the kind of restaurant that could be used for a fancy date night or a casual outing with friends.

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Old Fashioned

Stocked with a full bar, Herbe Saint offers 14 signature cocktails and several local beers on tap. As a sucker for a good Old Fashioned, I couldn’t help but order one, and I was not disappointed. This was one of the better cocktails I’ve had in Omaha. The rye whiskey was refreshing, and the demarara syrup helped to balance out the bitterness of the alcohol. The fresh orange peel added a nice touch.

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Jambalaya

The drinks proved to be just a perfect warmup for the main course. I ordered the jambalaya, a classic New Orleans rice dish peppered with crawfish, andouille sausage, bell peppers and onions. Everything about it was on point. The sausage provided a nice fatty, spicy bite, while the crawfish brought the seafood element any jambalaya needs to be successful. The rice was cooked and the peppers and onions added freshness. Despite the large portion, I quickly devoured the dish.

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Shrimp and grits

My girlfriend opted for the shrimp and grits, which were excellent as well. I was excited to finally try grits, which had escaped my palate to this point. They were creamy, reminiscent of a a slightly more gritty mashed potatoes. Topped with a slightly spicy sauce and paired with enormous shrimp, this dish was a winner.

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Cornbread

The same can be said for the side of cornbread. These muffins were hearty and had hints of jalapeno inside. The combination of spicy and sweet was just perfect, and this cornbread more than stood up for itself without adding butter.

The service was very friendly and helpful, as our waiter regularly visited our table and walked us through the varying menu options. If I have one regret from my experience, it’s that I didn’t get to try more dishes. I’ve been told the crawfish cheesecake is incredible, and it’s definitely on my list for my next visit. I was also very intrigued by the shrimp roll, muffuletta and cajun mac and cheese.

If I have a complaint, it’s the price. Our meal, including two drinks, cost more than $60, a hefty price to pay for dinner. The food and drinks were excellent and the portion sizes were plenty filling, but that’s a large bill to pay.

Overall, however, I was very pleased with my first experience at Herbe Saint, and I’ll definitely be back. Omaha has been wanting for a legit Cajun restaurant, and it now has one.

Hoppen Heirarchy: 8.7 out of 10

Pros: Delicious, sizable entrees; expansive menu; different options than any other restaurant in Omaha; great cocktails; cool vibe and varied seating options

Cons: A tad expensive; smaller restaurant size can cause wait times

Restaurant Review: First Watch Cafe

You won’t find many chain restaurants on this blog. I strive to highlight the local spots, the joints that have honed their craft over the years and emphasize quality over quantity. It’s certainly possible for chains to do so, but most local places put more time and care into each meal.

I’m breaking that rule with First Watch Cafe. Omaha has so many great breakfast spots–led by the impeccable 11 Worth Cafe–that I didn’t think a chain would manage to crack the upper tier. First Watch may not quite by on the level of 11 Worth, Duggers Cafe (sadly closing), Over Easy or Lisa’s Radial Cafe, but it’s certainly in the neighborhood.

With three Omaha locations, First Watch is clearly making its footprint in the city, and for good reason. The menu is sprawling with tempting options, from omelets, frittatas, hashes, pancakes, french toast and several iterations of eggs Benedict. Nearly everything on the menu is tempting, and the options include a healthy menu option for those looking to watch their calorie intake.

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Elevated Egg Sandwich with Potatoes

While I’m all for health, that wasn’t a concern for me on this visit. I opted for the Elevated Egg Sandwich, comprised of an over-easy egg, bacon, avocado, arugula, gruyere cheese and a dash of mayo on a fresh Brioche bun. The meal is served with seasoned potatoes.

This was honestly one of the best breakfast sandwiches I’ve ever had. The avocado was incredibly fresh, smooth and creamy, and the taste infused every bite. The egg was excellent, and the runny yolk permeated throughout the entire sandwich. The bacon provided a perfect salty contrast, and the Brioche bun held everything together well. I could have done with less lettuce, but that’s splitting hairs. I had no complaints with the sandwich.

The potatoes were perfectly seasoned and cooked very well. They managed to be crispy on the outside while maintaining a pillowy interior. Topping them with a dash of Cholula hot sauce took them to another level.

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Millionaire’s bacon

Our table also enjoyed a side of Millionaire’s bacon–four strips baked with brown sugar, black pepper, cayenne and a maple syrup drizzle. The bacon perfectly combined fatty, salty and sweet flavors to result in a very pleasurable experience.

My girlfriend opted for the Chile Chorizo Omelet, which came with chorizo, avocado, green chilies, roasted onions and cheddar and monterey jack cheese. The first taste is the spicy bite of the chorizo, but the other elements arrive afterward to create an amazing omelet.

We dined with another couple, and they both raved about their meals as well. Don’t sleep on the Farmhouse Hash–two cage-free eggs any style atop seasoned potatoes, bacon, avocado, house-roasted onions and tomatoes and cheddar and monterey jack cheeses.

The portion sizes are nothing to complain about, as each meal filled an entire plate. The service was quick (we were seated within minutes of arriving) and attentive. If I have a complaint, it’s that things were a bit disjointed. One of our meals arrived without toast, which the menu promised, and our server didn’t offer us the option to substitute salads (which were just OK) for the seasoned potatoes, which one of our diners eventually requested.

The price was a bit hefty for breakfast as well. Most breakfast joints are a bit on the cheaper side, offering massive meals for less coin. Most of First Watch’s dishes range from the $8-12 range–it’s fair for the amount and quality of food, but more expensive than the traditional breakfast spot.

That being said, First Watch is a legit breakfast option in Omaha. The menu is varied, the portions are hefty and the food is delicious. There are dozens of meals I was tempted to order and I’ll definitely be back soon. Lesson learned–while I still favor local spots over chain restaurants, the chains can sometimes bring the goods.

Hoppen Hierarchy: 8.5 out of 10

Pros: Vast menu options; big portions; homey atmosphere; crazy good egg sandwich; hearty, delicious omelets

Cons: Questionable service; a bit pricey for breakfast

2017 Nebraska Restaurant Superlatives

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

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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

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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)

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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

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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.

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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!

Restaurant Review: The Oven

Maybe I’m wrong in thinking this, but it’s always struck me that Indian food gets kind of a bad rap. It generally conjures up thoughts of butter chicken and loads of curry. It’s unfamiliar, and many are afraid to step outside their comfort zone.

Although I consider myself an adventurous eater who’s down to try just about anything, I must admit I had no idea when I first walked into The Oven a few years ago. Though this style of food was completely foreign to me, I kept an open mind, and I’m very glad I did. It proved to be my introduction to one of my favorite restaurants in the state.

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Sitting on the corner of 8th and P in the Haymarket (Lincoln), The Oven delivers delicious Indian cuisine you won’t find anywhere else in the state. The atmosphere is terrific. The lighting is kept low, giving it an upscale feel, but the walls are peppered with playful animal heads, masks and paintings that keep the restaurant from feeling stuffy.

The menu is littered with items that you won’t find at most Lincoln restaurants, but it does a great job explaining each one, giving the diner a good sense of what he or she is ordering. There is an extensive offering of lamb, chicken, seafood and vegetarian dishes, all offering varying levels of spice, vegetables and curry.

Before digging into the entrees, however, one must simply start with some of The Oven’s fantastic naan bread. A leavened, oven-baked flatbread that slightly resembles a softer pita bread, naan is a staple of Central Asian/Indian food, and for good reason. It’s doughy texture is tremendous, providing that bread flavor with a bit more chewiness.

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Naan bread stuffed with chicken and cheese

The Oven’s traditional naan is fantastic, but the restaurant doesn’t stop there. It offers the traditional dish with a number of different toppings, including chicken, cheese and veggies. My girlfriend and I ordered one stuffed with cheese and chicken, and the result is basically the best cheesy bread you’ve ever tasted. It arrives looking like a pizza, but the dough is so soft and there’s no sauce. Cooking it tandoor provides nice crispy bubbles of bitterness, which are accented perfectly by the cheese. It’s brilliant on its own, but accompanying it with the provided mint chutney elevates it even higher.

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Kadai Gosht

Because of my love of spicy food, I ordered the Lamb Vindaloo on nearly every previous visit to The Oven, and the dish is fantastic. But I switched it up on this visit and opted for the Kadai Gosht, which cooks tender chunks of lamb with sautéed onions, tomatoes, garlic, jalapeños, ginger and spices. The dish didn’t look all that pleasing upon arrival, but this is a classic case of not judging a book by its cover. The lamb is succulent and perfectly tender, easily pulled apart with a fork. The tomato sauce is slightly sweet and, while I didn’t catch much heat from the jalapeños, the dish was a true pleasure when served on a bed of rice.

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Shrimp Jalfrazie

As much as I enjoyed the lamb, the Shrimp Jalfrazie was even better. This dish combines jumbo shrimp with mild spices and is sautéed with fresh tomatoes. The shrimp are downright brilliant. They’re enormous and delicate and bring just the right combo of sweet and savory. The onions, peppers and tomatoes that accompany soak up the broth, which is buttery and delicious.

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Mulligatawny soup

Each dish comes with an option of salad or Mulligatawny soup, pureed lentils that are flavored with spices and garnished with rice and fresh cilantro. It has a peppery, slightly spicy flavor that is enhanced by adding the acidity of lemon juice. It’s not a knockout starter, but it’s certainly not a bad way to begin the meal.

All in all, The Oven is excellent, and Lincolnites are taking notice. The place is typically packed around dinner time, especially on weekends, and for good reason. While Indian food may be foreign to most Nebraskans, it’s fantastic when done right, and The Oven is certainly doing that.

Those who fear the unknown are missing out on one of the best restaurants in Lincoln.

Hoppen Hierarchy: 9.4 out of 10

Pros: Extensive menu; incredible naan, offered in many varieties; neat atmosphere; delicious, tender lamb and shrimp; menu explains foreign dishes very well

Cons: A tad on the expensive side (most entrees run from $14-$18)