Restaurant Review: Yogurtini

In honor of National Ice Cream Day, which occurred Monday and is one of the greatest days on the calendar, I bring you a review on… well, almost ice cream.

No, frozen yogurt isn’t ice cream. It lacks the cream and fattiness of the original, so obviously it’s going to lack in flavor to some extent. Many yogurt shops have tried and failed to create a product that remotely matches ice cream.

Yogurtini is one of the few that I’ve found has succeeded.

Located near 48th and O St. in Lincoln, Yogurtini is yet another self-serve yogurt bar that has proven quite popular in the last five years or so. The restaurant allows you to fill your bowl, then charges you based on the weight of the yogurt and the toppings. I’ve been to several of these places and Yogurtini is the best I’ve found.

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There’s a good amount of seating, but on a hot, humid day where ice cream/frozen yogurt is the ultimate cooling element, it can get crowded. This was the case during my most recent visit, where every table was filled around 5 p.m. But the line generally moves very quickly and waiting times are held to a minimum.

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Yogurtini rotates its menu often but typically offers about 15 or 16 flavors of yogurt. These range greatly in flavor, from fruity options to more traditional choices to some outside-the-box flavors. Unsure of what to get? No worries – Yogurtini offers unlimited sample cups, so you can try several flavors before making your decision.

But selecting your yogurt(s) is only half the battle. Next comes the toppings, and no yogurt/custard/ice cream shop that I’ve seen offers as much as Yogurtini.

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(Mostly) fruit portion of the toppings bar

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Candy portion of the toppings bar

You can select from 15-20 fruits, nuts, berries and tapioca balls if you want to stay healthy, but there are more than enough options if you want to indulge. You can add just about any candy imaginable, along with Teddy Grahams, cookie dough and brownie bites, waffle cone pieces, crushed-up Oreos, caramel, hot fudge, marshmallow topping, and so much more. This is the Holy Grail of topping bars.

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Watermelon sorbet with blueberries (left) and cable car chocolate with crushed graham cracker and chocolate-covered marshmallows

Every flavor I’ve had at Yogurtini has been delicious, and normally I’d select one and build a giant sundae with it. But my goal as a reviewer is to taste several options, providing options for different taste buds. So I went with one healthier fruity option and one more slightly indulgent, though by comparison, both are very calorie-friendly in comparison to normal ice cream. Half of my cup was devoted to the watermelon sorbet, topped with blueberries, while the other featured Cable Car Chocolate with crushed graham cracker and chocolate-covered marshmallows (I’m a sucker for s’mores).

The chocolate portion was fantastic. While the yogurt isn’t as thick or creamy as normal ice cream, the flavor is basically the same. When combined with the graham cracker and marshmallows, it legitimately tastes like eating a s’more.

The watermelon sorbet was also delicious. The yogurt has a genuine watermelon taste, and the fresh blueberries provided a perfect touch, punching the flavor up with boosts of juice. Both halves of this yogurt dish were awesome.

My dish weighed about 8.5 ounces and cost $4.32, a very fair price in my opinion. For those watching their figure, this delicious dish clocked in at around 250 calories (give or take a few), an incredibly low total for something that tastes this good. And for those that don’t care about calorie counts… OK, it’s not Dairy Queen or Dairy Chef.  But it’s still pretty darn tasty, and at least worth a try.

Look, I’m a huge ice cream fan, and I readily acknowledge that frozen yogurt will never match the original. I’ll take a scoop of ice cream over frozen yogurt eight days a week without hesitation. But if you’re looking for a healthier option, you can’t beat Yogurtini. Between its bountiful, rotating yogurt options, fair prices and overloaded toppings bar, this is the best yogurt option I’ve found. And in a market oversaturated with average yogurt joints, that’s saying something.

Overall score: 8.7 out of 10

Pros: “Healthy” dessert option; fair prices; solid menu; overloaded toppings bar; fast service; ability to test any flavor before purchasing

Cons: Frozen yogurt is great, but it isn’t ice cream

Lincoln’s “Plant My Flag” Restaurants

It’s very important in life to have convictions on certain topics. Whether it’s religion, politics, ethics, sports teams, one should do their research, develop a strong opinion and stick to it. That doesn’t mean everyone should be completely rigid and unwilling to adapt if the situation changes or new information is presented – to be completely bull-headed and stubborn is no way to go through life. But standing behind what you believe in is a basis of our society.

I believe this extends to dining as well. Most people have a so-called short list in their head, the top spots that they find themselves visiting most often and the ones they rave the most about. When a friend asks for a recommendation, it’s these joints that jump to the top of their mind.

These are the “plant my flag” restaurants, the places you believe in so firmly that you’ll always stand with them. They’re the restaurants that have never let you down, the ones that get you excited to visit.

Here are my top five.

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Lippy’s ribs and cornbread

Lippy’s

Technically it’s not in Lincoln, but considering Malcolm is just about 10 minutes outside city limits, we’re counting it. The battle between Phat Jack’s and Lippy’s rages in my mind – the two are pretty comparable for brisket and pulled pork, though Phat Jack’s has a decided edge in burnt ends.

But Lippy’s takes the title for best in the region for me because its ribs and cornbread are easily the best in the state. Lippy’s uses meaty spare ribs, and a half rack order comes with seven Brontosauras-sized bones. The smoke flavor is kept inside by a brilliant glaze that Lippy’s creates with a sweet, brown sugar-based rub. The meat is perfectly tender but doesn’t fall of the bone. Instead, it requires a light tug. There is nothing I don’t love about these ribs.

And here’s all you need to know about the cornbread – several customers have requested to have birthday or wedding cakes made out of it. It’s moist and perfectly sweet, resulting in a brilliant cake-like texture. It’s the best cornbread I’ve ever had.

While the ribs are the clear top option, Lippy’s chicken, pork and brisket are all delicious as well. Owners Kelly and Sandy Streeter are among the nicest people I’ve ever met, and they offer fair prices and lightning service. I’ve probably taken 20-25 friends and family members to Lippy’s over the years, and every single one has come away impressed. This is my ultimate “plant my flag” restaurant.

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The Parthenon

I write this with the full understanding that not everyone loves Greek food the way I do. But if you’re a gyro fan, stop messing around with Ali Baba’s and Gourmet Grill. The Parthenon is your place.

The restaurant offers a full menu of Greek classic, including dolmathes, spanakopita, seafood and lamb shanks. It’s all delicious and authentic, and the staff is patient and willing to explain the dishes to those new to the style of food.

The gyro is the star of the restaurant. It’s sheer size is impressive, as the pita is served drowning beneath a pile of delicious roasted lamb. But the pita is strong enough to hold together and doesn’t crumble under the massive load. The lamb is tremendous, and the Greek spices are readily present. A brilliant tzatziki sauce is present to cool the dish down, and tomatoes and onions help bring it all together.

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Tough as it may be, try to save room for dessert. Not only does the Parthenon offer tremendous baklava, but it also crumbles up Greece’s signature dessert into ice cream for a fantastic end to any meal. If baklava isn’t your thing, the restaurant has two glass cases devoted to desserts, which include various cakes and pastries.

The Oven

Another nontraditional addition to the list, the Oven was my first experience with Indian food. It immediately made me a fan for life.

The Oven offers a variety of lamb, chicken and seafood options served in a great number of varieties. The dishes are amped up with chiles, curry sauces, Indian spices and garlic and are usually served over a bed of rice and alongside a salad or bowl or soup. My personal favorite is the lamb vindaloo, which coats large, luscious chunks of tender lamb in a spicy sauce that wakes up the tastebuds.

Don’t sleep on the appetizers, either, and I particularly recommend the stuffed naan. Traditional naan bread (oven-baked flatbread) is great on its own, but the Oven serves up versions of this Asain classic stuffed with various meats and cheeses. When paired with their mint chutney, it’s a delicious success.

It’s kind of hard to describe what makes the Oven so great because it’s different than most restaurant experiences, but that’s not a problem. It’s absolutely worth a try.

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Korean BBQ banh mi with kim chee

Banhwich Cafe

It’s quite possible that I’ve visited Banhwich Cafe more than any other restaurant in Lincoln (not counting Lippy’s) due to its fast service, tremendous prices (each sandwich is around $5) and delicious flavors. The restaurant supplies a bevy of options on this Vietnamese staple, and I have yet to find a sandwich I didn’t like.

Banhwich has a variety of meats, ranging from Korean barbecue (bulgogi) to pork to chicken to sausage to meatballs… name a protein, and Banhwich is likely stuffing it into a sandwich. Throw in some delicious pickled vegetables, jalapeños and some kimchi and you’ve got a delicious sandwich, which can be served in a baguette,  croissant or lettuce wraps. And these sandwiches are massive. Getting one for five bucks feels like robbery.

The restaurant also offers a variety of boba teas, which are basically fruit smoothies with tiny balls of tapioca. The texture of the tapioca takes some getting used to, but the flavor of the smoothie is tremendous. Banhwich offers great bang for the buck and delivers every time.

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Crack fries

HopCat

For the final spot I debated long and hard between HopCat and Honest Abe’s. I love Abe’s and their creative take on burgers, but there are burger traditionalists who might not appreciate the fact that Abe’s buries each burger in a pile of outlandish toppings. For that reason, I’m recommending HopCat (but seriously, go to Abe’s too. It’s amazing).

The first great thing about HopCat is its beer selection. The restaurant has over 100 taps which are constantly rotating. You can visit twice in one week and see completely different beer menus, which offers variety and a different experience each time.

Next come the crack fries, which are appropriately named. These beer-battered beauties are finished with cracked black pepper seasoning and are easily the best fries in Lincoln. Combine them with the complimentary beer cheese sauce and you’re in Heaven.

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But the rest of the menu is great too. The burgers are the main attraction, but the pulled pork sandwich and the fish tacos are excellent as well. HopCat also supplies some killer mac and cheese, which can be combined with just about any topping you can imagine, from bacon to pulled pork to chili to jalapeños, etc. The food, beer and relaxed atmosphere make this a must-attend restaurant.

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Bonus: Momo

I’m cheating and adding a sixth here because I fear being a prisoner of the moment. I just visited Momo Pizzeria & Ristorante, so the memory is quite fresh in my mind. I don’t want that to color my opinion, but this was the finest Italian I’ve had in Lincoln.

The pizza is just off the charts good. It’s wood-fired, which gives it that perfect char and tremendous texture. The crust is thin, which allows the wonderful ingredients to stand out. I highly recommend the Carne pizza, which is basically a meat lover’s pizza on steroids, but any of Momo’s options look delicious.

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While the pizza is king, Momo also has some awesome pasta, seafood and appetizers. While I was a bit disappointed with my drink upon my visit, Momo has an expansive drink menu and is known for its cocktails. Maybe I just had a bad experience. It happens at every restaurant.

There you have it – these are my five (OK, six) restaurants that I’ll plant my flag for in Lincoln. There are a number of other great offerings in the city, so don’t get mad if your local favorite isn’t on this list. I could have easily expanded this to 10 or 15 restaurants, as Lincoln is kind of spoiled with great options.

But these are the six places that I’ll recommend to anyone and feel confident that a good experience is in the works. If they fall short of expectations, I apologize in advance. But that won’t change my opinion – my flags are planted, and they’re there to stay.

Restaurant Review: MoMo Pizzeria & Ristorante

Everyone has a restaurant bucket list, a compilation of places they want to visit, have received rave professional reviews or come highly-regarded from friends and family. There are some eats that you want to get to, but for whatever reason just haven’t made it there.

Near the top of my list for local food was Momo Pizzeria and Ristorante in Lincoln. Sean Callahan, my old boss at HuskerOnline (and a terrific one at that), sang Momo’s praises for years, and several of my coworkers at Hudl gave it high grades. But it’s a ways away from my house and… well, I don’t really have any good excuses for not visiting Momo. I just didn’t prioritize it, and that’s on me.

Tuesday night I learned how great of a mistake that was.

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Located on the Eastern side of Lincoln, Momo is the definition of a modern restaurant. It’s absolutely beautiful on the inside and while everything feels upscale, it’s not a stuffy place. There were people of all walks of life there during my friend and I’s visit, from kids wearing basketball shorts to businessmen in suits. All are welcome.

We were seated immediately and greeted by our friendly waiter, who calmly and succinctly answered all our questions about the menu. Momo is best-known for their wood-fired pizzas, but they also serve pasta dishes, duck and a host of amazing-sounding appetizers. The pizzas come with either rosso (traditional red) or bianco (a white cream sauce). The toppings range from normal (pepperoni, beef, mushrooms) to a bit more on the wild side (over-easy eggs, blue crab and hollandaise sauce).

All Momo’s items are served a la carte, encouraging diners to share dishes. My friend and I were tempted to order two pizzas, but we wanted to get some variety. Our eyes both popped at the Carne pizza, loaded with bacon, chicken, fennel sausage, steak and mozzarella and provolone cheese. That was a no-brainer. We also ordered the spaghetti bolognese and an appetizer of white bean dip and toast points.

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First came the drinks. I order the Momo take on the Old Fashioned, the Elderfashioned, constructed with Bulleit bourbon, soda and bitters. I had high expectations but came away disappointed. While this was an acceptable drink and was very refreshing on a scorching day, it was not one of the better Old Fashinoneds I’ve had. It was really pretty mediocre, and for a drink that costs $10, that’s not going to cut it.

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Things improved a bit in the appetizer round. Neither my friend or I knew what to expect from the white bean dip, made up of smashed beans, peppadew peppers and olive oil. The flavor didn’t exactly jump of the plate, but this was a solid entree. The warm pieces of crostini, brushed with butter, were wonderful on their own. But an application of the cool dip provided and interesting temperature distinction. The saltiness and fat from the butter played nicely with the creamy dip.

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Carne pizza (bacon, steak, fennel sausage, garlic chicken)

Make no mistake, however – the entrees are where Momo shines, especially the pizza. The Carne was arguably the best slice I’ve had in Lincoln. The crust was thin and slightly crispy, and the wood-fired experience gave it a nice char.

The toppings were plentiful and delicious, and they paired well with a slightly sweet red sauce. I’d order another one of these pizzas in a heartbeat, and my friend and I immediately regretted not ordering two pizzas. Trying one with the white sauce would have been interesting.

The pizzas were about 10-12 inches in diameter, and a larger appetite could easily take one down alone – mostly because once you start eating it, you don’t want to stop. I polished off my half of the pizza in quick succession and immediately wanted more.

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Spaghetti bolognese

That’s not to say that the pasta was bad by any means. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit and would order it again. The noodles were cooked a perfect al dente, and the meat sauce was a combination of pork, veal and beef. The parsley and asiago cheese helped tie the whole dish together.

Momo is a bit on the expensive side. The pizza prices range from $10-17, the pastas $14-17 and the more expensive entrees all glide north of the $20 border. The appetizers are all at least $7, and the drinks are expensive.

But the product is tremendous. Momo delivers some top-of-the-line pizza, tasty pasta and inventive appetizers. With 11 pizzas on the menu, not to mention a pie of the week option, one could visit often and order something new each time.

Which is exactly what I plan on doing. I just wish it hadn’t taken me so long.

Overall score: 9.0 out of 10

Pros: Amazing pizza with plentiful and creative toppings; friendly and helpful service; really cool atmosphere; nice line of pasta dishes

Cons: Definitely not cheap; my drink was disappointing

Let’s Make a Deal: The Great Restaurant Trade-off

Nebraska has it pretty good when it comes to food. We’ve got a few stellar steakhouses, some great barbecue joints, some solid Italian spots and a number of great sandwich and breakfast restaurants. We Nebraskans eat pretty well.

But one should always be striving to improve, and the NBA offseason has transactions on my mind. A crazy idea popped into my head – what if, theoretically, states could trade restaurants? Could Nebraska vault from a good eating state to a great one?

The following is an exercise to try and get Nebraska to jump a level in the restaurant scene. I’m trying to propose trades with other states that would be fair and appealing for both sides. Be prepared – there are going to be some local treasures bandied about in deals. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy these restaurants. But as in any trade, if you want to get something of value, you have to give up something of value. That’s just how it works.

Here are six “trades” I think Nebraska could make to take its restaurant game to the next level.

Nebraska sends: Runza and eCreamery

California sends: Steak n’ Shake

I warned you about the local legends being moved. Nebraskans would initially have a fit over sending out Runza, a beloved state staple. The fact that Nebraska has to throw in local startup eCreamery would only add to the angst.

No offense to Runza, which I adore, but anyone who’s had Steak n’ Shake knows it’s a clear upgrade. Its burgers are arguably the best among the fast food options, as the pressed beef results in spectacularly grilled pucks of deliciousness. The buns are beautiful pillows caressing a combo of beef, tomatoes, lettuce and special sauce. When you account for their creative menu of shakes and custards, this is one of the more under-valued restaurants around.

With Five Guys, Shake Shack and In-N-Out already in tow, California is OK with sending out another burger joint. In return, they get something new and creative in the Runza, as well as a successful ice cream business.

Nebraska loses Runza, and that hurts. But Steak n’ Shake is a clear upgrade, and eCreamery pints are available online.

Nebraska sends: The Drover

Kansas sends: Joe’s Kansas City

Kansas has a bevy of great barbecue, ranging from Q39 to Gates to Arthur Bryant’s to LC’s to Char Bar… I think I’ve made my point. The state could sacrifice a barbecue offering, and while Joe’s Kansas City is a local institution, it might be worth the trade-off for a legit steakhouse.

And that’s exactly what the Drover is. I’ve been beyond thrilled on my two visits there, and national writers who converge on Omaha for the College World Series rave about the wonderful steaks the Drover provides. Nebraska has some strong barbecue offerings already, namely Lippy’s and Phat Jack’s, but nothing on the level of Joe’s KC, which is the greatest barbecue I’ve ever eaten.

Losing the Drover isn’t ideal, but Nebraska would still have an iconic steakhouse in Misty’s. Adding one of the best barbecue joints is worth the sacrifice.

Nebraska sends: Stella’s

Minnesota sends: Matt’s Bar

I’ve never understood the statewide obsession with Stella’s – it’s a very good burger, but our great state boasts several better burger joints in my opinion. Stella’s comes with a stellar reputation, which represents a sell-high opportunity in my eyes.

Enter Matt’s Bar, possibly (?) the home of the Jucy Lucy. If you’ve never had a Jucy Lucy, change that. It’s two thin burger patties smashed together with the cheese in the middle. The first bite of this burger causes an explosion of cheese oozing from the inside. It’s absolutely fantastic, and Matt’s is the perfecter of this sandwich. It’s a total dive bar with a low-key atmosphere that serves up an unreal burger.

But Minnesota has several restaurants that serve Jucy Lucy’s, so they might be willing to deal one for something a bit different. If they take the bait on Stella’s, Nebraska has to pounce. Matt’s provides a different burger experience you’ll find anywhere in the Cornhusker state and is far superior to Stella’s. Nebraska gets a steal in this deal.

Nebraska sends Blue Sushi, Bison Witches and the Greek Islands

Pennsylvania sends Geno’s Steaks

Getting Pennsylvania to send out a Philly legend is going to require a ransom, and there’s a good call they simply hang up the phone upon hearing Nebraska’s proposal. But Philadelphia has a number of iconic and historic places to nab a cheesesteak, so if we throw the house at them, we can at least start working out a deal.

And Nebraska is giving up a lot in this deal. Bison Witches is a staple in Lincoln, Blue Sushi is a perfect happy-hour spot and the Greek Islands serves up some tremendous mediterranean dishes.

But downtown Lincoln is oversaturated with sandwich joints. While Bison Witches is among the best of those options, but the city would survive without it. Same goes for the other two restaurants – there are plenty of other places to get Sushi in Nebraska (Hiro 88 and Tokyo Sushi comes to mind), and Greek Islands is at best the third-best Greek restaurant in Nebraska behind Feta’s and the Parthenon.

The price is steep, but the payoff is worth it. As much as I enjoy Pepperjax and their Philly cheesesteaks, I know they’re nowhere close to the real, authentic thing. So let’s throw the moon at Pennsylvania and try to convince them to share the love. This would be a tough deal to swing, but it’s not impossible.

Nebraska sends Duggers Cafe

Hawaii sends Coconut’s Fish Cafe

This is purely a hypothetical situation, so we’re going to overlook the fact that the fresh seafood Coconut’s dishes out simply isn’t available in Nebraska. This is totally a fantasy scenario, so for the purposes of this blog we’re assuming we get the same product as is currently served in Maui.

And that product is phenomenal. Not only does Coconut’s serve some of the finest fish tacos I’ve ever devoured, it serves up a mean poke dish. Coconut’s was my first exposure to poke, and it was if the clouds opened up and God placed the dish in front of me. It’s one of my hottest food obsessions and it greatly saddens me that Nebraska doesn’t have anywhere that offers it.

Giving up Duggers is rough, as it serves one of the better breakfasts I’ve ever had. But between 11-Worth Cafe, Lisa’s Radial Cafe, Over Easy, Engine House, the Green Gateau and many more, Nebraska is overloaded with great breakfast spots. Sending one out, even one as awesome as Duggers, isn’t going to be crushing.

Nebraska sends C. Berry’s

Wisconsin sends Kopp’s Frozen Custard

C. Berry’s is a pretty run-of-the-mill barbecue restaurant, and Nebraska has plenty of superior options. But Wisconsin is very light on reliable ‘que, so C. Berry’s could fit well into that ecosystem.

In exchange the Cornhusker state gets some of the best ice cream/custard I’ve had. The Wisconsin legend serves up creative, delicious, creamy creations that keep fans coming in flocks. And yes, Nebraska already has Zesto as an ice cream institution, but Kopp’s would bring Custard to the culinary landscape, something Nebraska could definitely use.

Unfortunately, restaurants aren’t like athletes. They cannot be traded for one another, and though franchises can choose to expand, Nebraska isn’t getting a Joe’s Kansas City, Geno’s or Coconut’s Fish Cafe anytime soon. But we’ve still got some fine dining options here already, and we should appreciate what we have. Even the restaurants I proposed trading in this blog are, for the most part, excellent. We’re spoiled, fellow Nebraskans. While trading might allow for some minor dining improvements, we’ve got it pretty darn good as is.

Restaurant Review: Lan House

Let’s start with a disclaimer – there is nothing inherently “wrong” with Americanized Chinese food. Deep frying a protein, slathering it in a sugary sauce and plopping it on a bad of rice might not be good for the beach body, but it tastes delicious. But after years of munching down on General Tso’s, broccoli beef and crab rangoon, I couldn’t help but wonder what the real stuff tastes like. If I sat down in a Shanghai household and was served dinner, what would that look like? And more importantly, how great would it taste?

I’ll never get that answer without crossing the Pacific Ocean, but I feel like I got closer during my visit to Lan House, the new restaurant downtown that promises authentic Asian. Some of the menu reads like the options at your typical Panda Express: chow mein, kung pao chicken and hot and sour soup are all offered. But these items look far different than you’ll find at an American spot, and the rest of the menu is a far cry from Great Wall (that being said, God bless Great Wall).

Among the items available: steamed pork buns, pork and lamb ribs, shredded pork, rabbit (?!?), squid, beef tendon, bacon fried rice… the list goes on and on. There are a lot of options here for both the exotic and more cautious diner.

But what Lan House has quickly become known for is its series of Lanzhou noodle dishes, which featured hand-pulled noodles created in-house. I wanted to order about half of the things on the menu, but I couldn’t pass up on the house specialty. I love some heat, so I ordered the spicy beef noodle. My friend opted for kung pao chicken and we also requested an order of beef pot stickers.

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Spicy beef noodle

The menu said the pot stickers, listed as an appetizer, would arrive in 10 minutes. This was not the case. They actually arrived last. My meal came after about a 20-minute wait, and my friend’s was delivered a few minutes after that. The timing of the meal was odd, but the flavors quickly made up for it.

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I’ll admit, I was a bit disappointed in the heat of this dish. For a meal that is self-proclaimed spicy, I didn’t think it had all that much heat, though I readily admit years of applying hot sauce to just about anything may have singed off most of my taste buds.

The beef chunks were hearty and flavorful. I did find myself wanting for more protein in this dish, but there were plenty of fresh vegetables to help the dish, and the broth had a nice salty flavor with a touch of spice. The noodles were quite good. It was readily apparent that these were made by hand, not taken out of a box and boiled. They were soft and had good flavor.

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Kung pao chicken

I was pleasantly surprised with the kung pao chicken, which my friend was gracious enough to share with me for the purposes of this blog. Instead of just tossing chicken into the fryer, Lan House cooks their chicken before dicing it into small cubes. This helps to clear the conscience a bit without losing the flavor. The plentiful veggies were a nice touch, as were the chili peppers. But the star was the sauce, which artfully toed the line between spicy and sweet. When paired with some rice, this was a great dish.

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Beef pot stickers

But the star of the meal was the appetizer, even if it came last. The beef pot stickers were simply brilliant. The outer shell was soft and easy to bite through, yet firm enough to contain the combination of beef, cabbage and green onion inside. Its subtle flavor perfectly complements the entombed link of beef, which adds a delicious, salty element. And these things are massive – for a smaller appetite, an order of four could likely serve as a meal.

The service was hit and miss. I’ve already mentioned the fact that our appetizer came out last, and our waiter rarely visited our table to replenish our water. And though we got a half order of pot stickers, we were charged for a full order, nearly doubling the price (though part of the blame falls on me for just trusting everything was listed correctly and handing over my card).

That being said, the prices were fair – most entrees range between $10-14 dollars. The portions aren’t exactly massive, but they’re big enough to sustain a normal appetite.

Lan House is still in its infancy and is clearly still working out some of the kinks. But it’s the most authentic Chinese food I’ve had and it proved to be delicious. As tasty as American Chinese food is, it doesn’t hurt to step outside that box and try something closer to the original. After this visit, there’s no doubt I’ll be doing so again.

Overall score: 8.3 out of 10

Pros: Awesome hand-pulled noodles; bountiful menu; delicious kung pao chicken (and not fried); awesome pot stickers

Cons: Service could use some work; I was overcharged for my meal; a bit loose with the “spicy” designation

Taking Down Some of KC’s Finest Barbecue

As blessed as Nebraska is to have some great barbecue (shoutout to Lippy’s and Phat Jack’s, in particular), the state is not known for its excellence in ‘que. There are certain pockets of the country that are celebrated for dishing out great smoked meat. Texas, Tennessee, Alabama and the Carolinas are all known for their brilliance in barbecue, but it’s a major financial and time commitment for a Nebraskan to get out to those regions.

Thank God for Kansas City.

Just about three hours southeast of Lincoln/Omaha, Kansas City has no shortage of great barbecue joints. Arthur Bryant’s, Gates, Char Bar, Jack Stack, LC’s… I could go on and on. But in my semi-frequent travels to the region, I’ve found one that stands tall about the rest – Joe’s Kansas City Barbecue, an institution that started in a gas station in 1996 and has developed a sterling reputation. I’d visited twice previously, trips that briefly transported me to Heaven and back.

But it had been a couple of years, and since I’d heard from several well-respected friends that a new contender for KC’s crown had emerged. Opening in 2014, Q39 may be the new kid on the block, but pass it by at your own peril. This place comes with some serious reviews. I had planned to visit my cousin and good friend who recently moved to Kansas City, so I decided it was time to pit the apprentice against the master.

The Contender: Q39

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Q39 is a modern take on barbecue, the opposite of the hole in the wall so many great joints reside in. It boasts a decent amount of indoor seating, several bars and a beautiful outdoor patio.

Upon entering the restaurant, your nose is immediately assaulted with beautiful aromas once you walk in the door, which is no small feat. My cousin and I thought we’d beat the dinner rush by arriving at 4 p.m. on a Sunday, but the interior was already packed to the gills. Luckily there were a few outdoor tables available. Now we faced an impossible choice – deciding what to order.

Literally everything on the menu looked good, from the appetizer of grilled pork belly to the brisket burgers to the beef short rib. I wanted to try everything, so I went with the Judge’s Plate, which came with spare ribs, pulled pork and brisket, along with sides of baked beans and white bean cassoulet.

QPlate

(Clockwise, starting bottom left) white bean cassoulet, baked beans, brisket, pulled pork, spare ribs

My biggest regret was passing on the burnt end burger, and that leads me to my only complaint with Q39. As we perused the menu, our waiter informed us that burnt ends were one of Q39’s specialties. My cousin and I made the telepathic connection that said, “Of course!” and requested an order to share along with our meals. The waiter then awkwardly informed us they were only served on sandwiches. I mean, the restaurant is free to operate as it pleases, and if it wants to keep its burnt ends between buns, that’s its right. But to not serve your speciality on its own… I don’t know. That’s just kind weird.

QRibs

Spare ribs

Fortunately that was the only disappointment of the meal. The ribs were the highlight. They were meaty and tender and just pulled away from the bone, the perfect way a rib should. They were lightly brushed with a sweet sauce, true to the Kansas City style.

QPulledPork

Pulled pork

The pork was a bit on the saucy side, and I’ll admit that picture doesn’t really do it justice. The pork wasn’t as wet as it appears, and it had both great texture and flavor. The pockets of smoke were absolutely delicious, and it paired very well with the sauce.

QBristket

Brisket

The brisket had a brilliant smoke ring and was presented beautifully, but of all the meats, it came up short. It was a bit dry and while the flavor was there, I’ve had better brisket here in Lincoln. This isn’t to say it was bad by any means, but compared to the other meats, it didn’t stand out.

QSides

White bean cassoulet (left) and baked beans

The sides were hit and miss. The white bean cassoulet is basically a soup with white beans, tomatoes, onions and sausage. It’s rather bland overall, but the sausage saves it, offering a hint of spice to liven up the dish. The beans, which included chunks of burnt ends, were delicious. I highly recommend those.

My meal ran about $25, which is a bit pricey for the amount of food I received, but the quality, atmosphere and quick service were so strong that I can’t dock Q39 much for that. I’m more disappointed in the burnt end situation – if the restaurant could rectify that easily-fixable situation, its scored would go even higher.

Overall score: 9.5 out of 10

Pros: Amazing ribs; delicious pulled pork and baked beans; cool, modern atmosphere; attentive service; tasty sauce

Cons: No burnt end meal; a tad pricey; brisket was just OK

The Defending Champ: Joe’s Kansas City Barbecue

KCJoe's

This pretty much tells you all you need to know about Joe’s – in an attempt to beat the lunch rush the following day (a Monday), I showed up at 10:25 at a restaurant that opens at 11. There were already six people in line. By the time I left at 11:20, there was a line of at least 60 extended out the door.

Joe’s has become so beloved that it has several locations, but I had to go to the original in the gas station. It’s the opposite of Q39’s upscale, modern feel. It appears as if a barbecue joint melded with a 7-Eleven, which obviously limits the seating. But it works.

Joe’s only serves burnt ends on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, but I was in luck. I ordered a half rack of spare ribs, a side of baked beans and a half pound of burnt ends for my meal.

KCMeal

Like at Q39, I had some serious FOMO here. One of Joe’s most famous offerings is the Z-Man, a brisket sandwich with provolone cheese and a pair of onion rings. I’ve had it before and it is life-changing. But I couldn’t pass up the burnt ends, and ribs are kind of my thing, so…

KCBurntEnd

Burnt ends

As soon as my meal arrived (which was in less than five minutes), all regrets disappeared. The burnt ends were the best I’ve ever had. They may be a bit smaller and less fatty than those at Phat Jack’s, but they also have a better crust and smoky flavor. I quickly dusted off a quarter pound of these beauties because I wanted to save some for my dad (what a son, right?) and I didn’t want to have a heart attack on my drive home.

KCRib

Spare ribs

As good as the burnt ends were, the ribs were arguably better. They were perfectly tender, had a nice smoke ring and the brilliant, salty rub was just fine on its own. Normally I prefer ribs naked, but Joe’s sauces are so good, I couldn’t help but add it to a few. This is just a brilliant rib that stands up to any I’ve had.

The beans weren’t as good as Q39’s, but they were still pretty darn good. It’s become popular to add chunks of meat to baked beans, but I didn’t get that from these. There were several kinds of beans, however, and the combination proved quite tasty.

The service was quick and friendly, the gas station ambience was cool, but at the end of the day, it comes down to this: Joe’s KC is the best barbecue I’ve ever had. I’ll readily admit that I have quite a few more spots to try, and I hope to get to those. But to this point, Joe’s takes the cake. I’ve never had a bad experience and everything I’ve eaten is delicious.

Overall score: 10 out of 10

Pros: Amazing, tender ribs; perfectly charred burnt ends; blazing service; cool atmosphere; fair prices

Cons: Where’s the cornbread?!? (this applies to Q39 as well. Maybe cornbread just isn’t a KC thing… which is a shame)

Q39 puts up a heck of a fight, but Joe’s Kansas City keeps the championship belt in my estimation. Both restaurants are absolutely tremendous and I would eat at either one any day of the week. I’m not sure if you can go wrong eating barbecue in Kansas City… but if you choose either one of these restaurants, you’re definitely going right.

Recipe Review: Healthy (!) Deep Dish Pizza and Molten Cake

I promise, we’ll get to cake and pizza, and it’s worth your time. But first, a quick word on why I’m even writing this post.

Between Twitter, this blog and just random conversations with people, I talk about food a lot. Some people respect my opinions (and thanks to those who do) and some do not. And that’s OK. People won’t agree on everything. I’m certainly no expert on food. I just enjoy eating and talking about it.

But upon tweeting my review for Tokyo Sushi, someone responded saying he could never trust my reviews because I’m too skinny. This is, in my opinion, a very bad take. Yeah, at 6-foot-6 and 175 pounds (though I would like to add some weight), I’m pretty thin, and I’ve been blessed with great metabolism. But I also exercise a lot and, outside of my food reviews, generally eat very healthy, clean meals. I’m not sure why my workout routine would affect my ability to taste food, but if those two things are correlated, I guess you can’t trust me.

(Gets off soap box. Thanks for humoring me.)

Anyway, when I’m not trying out awesome restaurants, I try to find healthy foods to cook. That search led me to the YouTube page of a fitness vlogger named Remington James, who had a number of tasty-looking recipe videos on his page. The macros on these meals were great, so I figured I’d give a few of them a shot. They both turned out great, and I decided I’d share them to try and help people find healthy alternatives that actually taste good.

Before I get started, I want to be clear that these are Remington’s recipes and not my own. I’m not smart enough to make my own concoctions. He is the creator and has full intellectual property of them. I’m not looking for any lawyers on my doorstep because of a blog post.

Let’s dig in.

High Protein Bodybuilding Deep Dish Pizza

I’m obviously no bodybuilder, but the idea of a healthy pizza certainly intrigued me. I was also quite skeptical – deep dish is arguably one of the least healthy foods out there, though it’s so delicious it’s worth a cheat meal or two. I had to try this one.

PizzaIngredients2

The ingredients:

3 eggs

5 ounces of fat free cream cheese

Two bags of fat free shredded cheese

Pepperoni

Pizza or pasta sauce

Spices to taste (I used onion powder and Italian seasoning)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Mix the eggs, cream cheese, spices and about 3/4 of the shredded cheese in a bowl. This is going to be our “crust.” This part of the recipe is what had me most dubious. Sure, a crust made out of cheese sounds great! But without flour, how could it reach that crust consistency and provide a stable base for the toppings.

PizzaOven

Spray down three mini disposable tins with cooking spray, then divide the mixture evenly between them. Warning: this stuff looks pretty gross. It’s not winning any beauty contests. But it smells phenomenal, just pure cheese and spices. Pop those bad boys in the oven for 20 minutes and you’ll get this result:

PizzaCrust

It doesn’t look like crust, but stay with me here. It feels a bit squishy to the touch, but that’s because it needs more time to cook. Layer on your sauce, pepperoni and the remainder of the cheese, then throw it back in the oven for 20 more minutes.

PizzaFinished

These actually look legit when you pull them out. My doubts were quickly dissipating, and I couldn’t wait to dig in.

I don’t know how this works but… it just works. The bottom layer of cheese solidifies enough to form a decent crust, and pairing it with that sauce, pepperoni and extra cheese gives it a real pizza feel. I mean, it’s not like you’re getting a legit Chicago slice, but this is really, really good. I quickly scarfed down two of the trays, and it took all my willpower to save the third for a later date.

Now the real question – how healthy is it really? According to Remington, here are the macros per pizza: 457 calories, 10 grams of fat (most of which is good fat from the eggs), 64 grams of protein, 26 grams of carbs

That’s really good for pizza, and there’s a ton of volume here. And, as is the case with any recipe, you can alter it. You could go with chicken over pepperoni, choose a lighter pizza sauce, whatever. Something this delicious shouldn’t be this good for you.

But what’s dinner without dessert?

Protein Cake

This has legitimately become one of my favorite things to cook. It’s simple, isn’t bad for you and is an absolutely fantastic dessert. It’s the ultimate molten lava cake.

CakeIngredients

The ingredients:

1 scoop of protein powder (I highly recommend anything from PEScience. I used the Chocolate Cupcake flavor for this recipe, but they all work)

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

2 tablespoons flour

1 tablespoon cocoa powder

1 tablespoon calorie free sweetener

1 egg

Mix all the ingredients together in a microwave-safe dish, then add a bit of water to achieve the traditional cake batter texture. It should look something like this:

CakeMix

Throw it in the microwave for one minute. Depending on the consistency of your mixture, you may need a little additional time. Check it after a minute, then play it by ear. Here’s what you’re looking for:

Cake

Again, how this works just boggles my mind. It 100 percent tastes like cake! And it has that great, fluffy consistency you’ll find in any traditional mix. And the center of the cake is always more underdone than the outsides, leaving you with that delicious, molten, gooey core that makes any lava cake a hit.

CakeMelty

Don’t mind the leftovers of the ice cream I topped the cake with. Just focus on that gooey center.

This recipe is out and out delicious and it’s working to a T every time I’ve tried it. The macros per Remington: 260 calories, 7 games of fat, 14 grams of carbs and 33 grams of protein. That’s insane. And if you’re worried about the fat, use an egg white instead of the whole egg. It still works.

Look, I totally get it. It’s not easy to eat healthy and enjoy foods that taste good. But you don’t need to eat a salad every time or skip meals. There are healthy alternatives out there, and they can be really good. Remington certainly deserves major credit for unearthing a few gems.

Just be careful – eat too many meals like this, and random Twitter people start questioning your credentials. You’ve been warned.

 

Restaurant Review: Tokyo Sushi

The concept of all-you-can-eat restaurants sounds great. You pay one flat rate, then get to eat until your stomach can take no more or the sheer guilt of your gluttony overwhelms you. The idea is great in theory, but there are widely-varying levels of execution.

Las Vegas is famous for its delicious endless buffets, and my experiences at the Rodizio Brazilian grill have been quite positive. But for every worthy all-you-can-eat joint, it seems there are five Cici’s Pizzas or Golden Corrals – places crafting average food, then throwing it under a heat lamp for hours. No thanks.

So I was very intrigued when my dad brought up a restaurant in downtown Omaha called Tokyo Sushi. Instead of getting him another Husker shirt or random trinket for Father’s Day, I offered to take him out to lunch at some point. He selected Tokyo Sushi, and while the idea of the restaurant sounded great on the surface, I wondered if it was possible to offer endless sushi of decent quality.

TokyoInterior

I was immediately encouraged by the fact that it wasn’t a buffet. There were three chefs behind a counter (on the right in the picture above) hand-making each roll to order. And the menu is expansive. The all-you-can-eat special (which runs only at lunch every day but Tuesday, when it’s also available for dinner) includes everything on the menu – not only their 36 sushi rolls, but also six soups/salads and 16 appetizers. And it’s just $13.25 per person! If you bring a giant appetite, this is some serious bang for your buck.

My dad and I did just that. I’m not exactly proud of the numbers I’m about to present, but here goes anyway. In addition to our two appetizers, we downed a combined 59 rolls of sushi.

And I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

TokyoDumplings

Shumai (steamed Japanese dumpling)

TokyoSpringRolls

Spring rolls

Let’s start with the appetizers, which were both on the small side. The dumplings were tender and had great texture. I don’t even know what was inside, but it was delicious. And the sauce covering the top of these brought it all together.

The spring rolls weren’t as successful. I could be off base here, but I’ve always been under the assumption that spring rolls weren’t fried and were just vegetables encased in rice wrappers. These were fried, and let’s be honest, all fried foods taste good. But it was unnecessary, and there was no real spring roll taste. It just tasted like deep-fried whatever. I’d pass on these.

TokyoFirstPlate

Plate 1 (starting left and circling around) – salmon nigiri, California roll, salmon hand roll, rainbow roll, Hawaii roll, Mexican roll

For lack of a better format, we’re going to do rankings by plate. Without further ado, here’s the first order, which came out in about five minutes.

  1. Salmon nigiri: No. 1 tip for future visits – the nigiri rolls are the way to go. Instead of adding other toppings, it’s just fish and rice, and the three we ordered were among the best of the meal. The salmon takes the top spot, as it’s flavor is just perfect.
TokyoSalmon

Salmon nigiri

2. Mexican roll: a combination of spicy crab, avocado, crunch (?) and jalapeños with a dab of Sriracha on top, this was the best pure sushi roll we ordered. It delivered just the right amount of heat, and while I’m not sure what was fried inside it, that crunch added a nice texture to the experience.

TokyoMexicanRoll

Mexican rolls

3. Rainbow roll: seven rolls filled with crab, avocado and cucumber. Three are topped with tuna, two with salmon and two with white fish. The salmon were best, followed by the tuna and white fish, respectively. But all were quite good.

4. Hawaii roll: combination of pineapple, avocado and salmon. It sounds great on the surface, but this one feel a bit short. While pineapple is a tremendous fruit and sounds great in this combo, it’s kind of a disconcerting texture in sushi. The large chunk kind of disrupted the roll. It was still good, but not our favorite by any means.

5. Salmon hand roll: just rice and salmon encased by a roll of seaweed. The flavor is fine, but the seaweed was tough to bite through without making a mess. Skip this one and just order a normal salmon roll.

6. California roll: crab, avocado and cucumber. Don’t get me wrong, this roll was still great. But compared to the others, it just lacked that extra oomph of flavor.

TokyoSecondPlate

Plate 2 (left to right) – Philadelphia roll, Golden Drgaon roll, tuna nigiri 

  1. Tuna nigiri: don’t judge a book by its cover. The tuna roll looked totally gross, but the flavor was phenomenal. Probably our third-best thing we tried.
  2. Golden Dragon roll: Salmon on top of shrimp tempura roll. This one was also among our favorites. The salmon at Tokyo is just great, and the crunch of the fried shrimp with the softness of the fish worked really well.
  3. Philadelphia roll: A combo of smoked salmon, cream cheese and cucumber, this one was pretty meh in terms of flavor. It was fine, but save your stomach space for better options.
TokyoMasago

Masago nigiri

Our final order was totally out of left field. I’d never even heard of masago, so why not end the meal with something new? It turned out being hundreds of tiny fish eggs atop rice and wrapped in seaweed. While this was the least favorite of our nigiri options, it was still quite good.

TokyoIceCream

Vanilla ice cream

An unexpected bonus – when the bill came, our waitress asked if we wanted some ice cream, which was included in the price. And I’ll never turn down ice cream. The vanilla was thick, sweet and the perfect size to top off a gut-busting meal.

I was skeptical of Tokyo Sushi originally, but it was a home run on all accounts. The price is simply unbeatable – I’d estimate our $30 meal would have cost $60-$70 dollars at a normal sushi restaurant. Most of the rolls were absolutely delicious, and even the disappointments only fell short because the elite rolls were so good.

I still don’t trust every all-you-can-eat experience, but this is one you can believe in. If you enjoy sushi and have a giant appetite, I fully endorse a visit to this gem.

Overall score: 9.1 out of 10

Pros: Price is insanely good; all food is made fresh and to order; the nigiri is amazing; Mexican and Golden Dragon rolls were also excellent; fast service; dumplings; free ice cream!

Cons: Some of the more traditional rolls (California, Philadelphia) rolls were underwhelming, but that was more due to the fact that the other rolls were so good; hard pass on the spring rolls

Restaurant Review: Pitch

This blog owes quite a bit to Pitch. In fact, were it not for this pizza restaurant, a few adult beverages and a casual suggestion, this space would not even exist.

It was at Pitch’s west Omaha location (the other location is in Dundee) a few years back that I enjoyed dinner with my coworkers at HuskerOnline. At one point, as it often did with that crew, the conversation turned to food. I was singing the praises of some restaurant I’d been to when John Talman, one of the big wigs at Rivals, suggested I live tweet food reviews or start a blog. I loved the idea immediately.

But not as much as I loved the food. Details are sketchy on what pizzas and appetizers we ordered, but I remember this much – it was incredible.

I’m not sure why I never made it back. Living in Lincoln, I don’t get to Omaha all that often, but this place left a great impression on me. It’s my fault that I didn’t return. But when a recent first date turned into a second and she spoke of her love for Pitch, fate intervened.

Pitch has a very modern feel to it. The restaurant has an outdoor patio and roof seating to go along with its interior, where diners can watch the chefs create their meals. There is a lot of seating, and the restaurant needs every spot. It’s common to arrive and see a line outside the door. Word has gotten out, and patrons flock there nightly. It was a beautiful night, so we sat outdoors, and the ambience was perfect.

PitchDrink

In Pitch Fashion cocktail

Pitch offers an extensive menu of wines, beer, cocktails and Moscow mules. My drink of choice is an Old Fashioned, so I had to try the restaurant’s spin on the drink. A blend of  rye whisky, bitters and orange and brandy cherries, this was a fine take on the classic drink. It had just the right amount of sweet and served as a fine starter for the meal.

PitchFries

Truffle fries

Next came a heaping order of truffle fries. I tend to prefer a thicker, more potato-y fry, and these were very thin. But their slenderness didn’t hold them back. The deep fry gives a nice, thick crunch on the outside, but the fry’s innards are actually pillowy soft. They’re delicious on their own, but when combined with some cheese and parsley flakes, they go to another level.

PitchPizza

Peppadew pizza

The pizzas on the menu all sounded great, and picking just one figured to be a chore. From the Basil Pesto Chicken to the Meatball Pie to the Dos or Tres Peps (pepperoni, peperoncini and jalapeños), they all sounded great. But Pitch also offers a pizza of the week, and this week’s offering was a Peppadew pizza, topped with peppadew peppers, jalapeños, blue cheese, ham and prosciutto. Our waiter described it as a combination of sweet and heat. Sold.

The pizza was absolutely amazing, better than I remembered from my first visit. The crust was thin but held up well underneath the toppings. The peppers brought just the right amount of heat, while the ham and prosciutto arrived with a salty hint. The sweet tomato sauce was the rug that tied the room together, helping to blend the flavors together. I seriously couldn’t stop eating it.

And the service was incredibly fast. Our drinks arrived almost immediately after ordering, and the fries just a few minutes later. We waited less than 10 minutes for the pizza, and our waiter was attentive and friendly.

If I have one small complaint about Pitch, it is a bit pricey. The pizzas are slightly larger than personal size and all cost around $20. Our drinks were also around $10 apiece.

But that’s nitpicking. Pitch has an awesome, creative menu (which also includes pastas, salads, burgers, steak and breakfast items), a cool atmosphere and some rocking food. I’d go back in a heartbeat.

I promise, Pitch. I won’t wait so long for my next visit.

Overall rating: 9.3 out of 10

Pros: Killer pizza; delicious appetizers; expansive food and drink menus; great atmosphere; speedy service

Cons: a tad expensive (though you get good bang for your buck)

Taking on the Hot Ones wing challenge

Have you ever done something crazy that you were really excited about right up until the moment you were about to do it? At the last second the absurdity of your forthcoming action hits you and you realize, “This might be really stupid. Why the heck am I doing this?!?”

That was me Saturday night as I stared down 10 bottles of hot sauce ranging from mild to hot enough to singe one’s skin.

The idea was inspired by the popular YouTube show Hot Ones. The premise: the interviewer, Sean Evans, brings in a celebrity (ranging from athletes to rappers to actors to TV stars, etc.) and asks him or her 10 questions. Before each question, both he and the guest eat a wing covered in a hot sauce. Each sauce gets progressively hotter, and by the last few the guest is typically sweating, crying and/or cursing. The interviews are captivating, but it’s the reaction to the sauces that makes the show such a hit.

A few weeks ago, it became a goal of mine to take on the challenge myself. I wanted to experience what those brave guests did. And I love spicy food. It couldn’t be that bad, right?

The problem was acquiring the sauces. Ordering all 10 off Amazon would be expensive. A few, like Sriracha and Tabasco, are readily available at local grocery stores, but finding the hotter sauces could be problematic.

But fate finds a way. To celebrate the channel reaching 1,000,000 subscribers, Hot Ones flew out super fan and Lincoln native Brett Baker to turn the tables on Sean and interview him. The episode was fantastic, and I tweeted to Brett that he did a great job. That sparked a conversation that led to Brett telling me he had all the sauces and would be happy to lend them to me.

The dream was really going to happen.

I grabbed a dozen naked wings from N Zone (and kudos to them for some massive, tasty wings), borrowed the sauces from Brett (who couldn’t be a nicer guy) and tried to mentally prepare myself for the fiery assault that would soon raging through my insides. This was either going to be a great experience or a night of painful regret.

Wings

Naked N Zone Wings

There were warning signs. The reactions of the celebrities on YouTube showed me what was coming. I texted a few friends about joining me and got some, “Are you insane? NOPE” replies. But I wouldn’t be deterred. This was happening.

Wing1

Sriracha

Taste: 10

Heat: 3.5

Pain level: 0

Things started off quite peacefully. I love Sriracha and already put it on a lot of stuff I eat already. In fact, I’ve been playfully ribbed at the office about the gigantic bottle I keep on my desk for lunch. I might have a problem. Regardless, this was an easy introduction and made for a great wing.

Wing2

Tabasco

Taste: 7

Heat: 3

Pain level: 0

Like Sriracha, there’s nothing new here. I’ve had Tabasco plenty of times and find it to be a great pizza topping. I was always confused why the show went with Sriracha first because I think it’s hotter than Tabasco, but that’s beside the point. No issues so far.

Wing3

El Yucateco

Taste: 5

Heat: 5

Pain level: 2

This was one of my least favorite sauces. It actually surprised me with the amount of heat it brought, but it still wasn’t too bad. The flavor is basically your run-of-the-mill green salsa served at any Mexican restaurant.

This is where the effects start to take hold. The heat is lingering in my mouth, although it’s just a pleasant burn at this point. My nose is starting to run pretty good. Still in good shape, though.

Wings4

Queen Majesty Red Habanero & Black Coffee Sauce

Taste: 10

Heat: 5.5

Pain level: 3

I think this was my favorite of all the sauces. There’s definitely heat present, but it’s not overpowering. And the flavor is fantastic – the coffee notes are immediately pleasant, and it pairs nicely with the vinegar. There are ground-up onions, red peppers, ginger roots and habaneros in here. Reading the back label is like taking a trip through a garden.

At this point, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. This is fun.

Wings5

 

Hot Ones Spicy Chipotle

Taste: 9.5

Heat: 5.5

Pain level: 3

Another great sauce. The heat doesn’t overwhelm the Chipotle flavor. I had to order 12 wings from N Zone and used only 10 for this exercise. Once the challenge was complete, I covered the final two with this sauce and the Queen Majesty because they were the most enjoyable.

I’m at that point now that so many guests reach on the show. I’m getting cocky. I’m halfway through and I feel great. I’m gonna rock this challenge, no problem.

This overconfidence isn’t going to serve me well.

Wings6

Bravado Spice Co. Ghost Pepper and Blueberry

Taste: 7

Heat: 5

Pain level: 2

This seems like a really odd flavor combination, but somehow it works. Blueberries are delicious, and that flavor is really strong here. There’s some ghost pepper heat present, but it takes a back seat to the blueberries, making for a tasty sauce.

Now I’m really getting arrogant. I’m 60 percent of the way through and by the time I apply the sauce to the next wing and take the photo, my mouth is actually cooling down. I’ve got this in the bag.

Wings7

Zombie Apocalypse

Taste: 7

Heat: 7

Pain level: 3

I’m wary because this is the point in the show where most of the guests start to lose it. This sauce definitely has some bite, but it’s not too bad. I actually like the tomatoe-y flavor a bit.

But this sauce is a significant step up in heat. My nose is fully engaged now, and I’m running through Kleenexes like Skip Bayless dispenses terrible sports opinions. Game on.

Wings8

Da Bomb Beyond Insanity

Taste: 1

Heat: 10

Pain level: 10

NOPE NOPE NOPE. This is one of the worst things my taste buds have come in contact with. There is virtually no flavor. The heat just takes over everything, immediately tossing a spice grenade into the esophagus. Do not for any reason ever ingest this poison. This is your warning.

This challenge is officially not fun anymore. My tongue feels like its swollen and I’m literally panting just to try and cool down. This is the one moment where I actually start sweating, and my mouth is producing saliva at an unnatural level. I take my first swigs of water, which provides a momentary release before the fire returns with a vengeance. I hate this sauce so much.

Wings9

Mad Dog 357

Taste: 9

Heat: 8

Pain level: 8.5

I take a good five minutes to recover from Da Bomb, and though my body is in pure agony, I know I must press on. There are two sauces hotter than that? This is troubling.

Luckily, Mad Dog 357 is not only in my opinion a slight step down in heat, but it’s delicious. The first flavor that hits your mouth is vinegar, and it works. I feel borderline crazy saying this, but I actually like this sauce. I’ll likely purchase some just to put on normal foods.

The trick with Mad Dog 357 is it’s a late-arriving burn. For the first 15 seconds, there’s not much heat. You’re lured into a fall sense of security, and then the sauce attacks, assaulting your tongue and the tip of your throat with a burning sensation. My lips have taken on a weird feeling – they oddly feel cold, and while they’re not fully numb, I don’t have full ability to use them. This needs to end soon.

Wings10

Blair’s Mega Death With Liquid Rage

Taste: 8

Heat: 9

Pain level: 8

The final test has the most intimidating name on the roster. There’s a warning on the bottle to use sparingly and not without dilution. Three of the first four ingredients on the label are habanero peppers, cayenne peppers and pepper extract. Great.

To my pleasant surprise, the flavor is awesome. I actually think it tastes great. Then the heat assault arrives. I’ve become a full-on mouth breather at this point, as each inhale brings a momentary relief. I’m involuntary clearing my voice every 10 seconds or so, and it feels like the back of my throat has been seized by a fiery paw.

WingsAftermath

Proof that the bones were cleaned – no wasting delicious wings here.

But the challenge is complete! And I managed to do it without milk, the ultimate cooling liquid. The aftermath isn’t nearly as bad as I expected. After about five minutes, a quiet burn still exists in my mouth, but my saliva production is back to normal levels and I’m able to simply breathe through my nose again. After a final few Kleenexes meet their end, I return to equilibrium. About two hours later, my stomach experiences some intermittent pangs of pain, and I can only imagine what the battery acid I just ingested is doing to my stomach lining. But that subsides after about an hour, and then I’m (seemingly) in the clear.

For the most part, this challenge was really fun and I enjoyed it. I was exposed to some new hot sauces that I’ll probably purchase in the near future. I never contemplated quitting, though I did question my sanity after the Da Bomb wing. That sauce is seriously the devil.

Though I liked this experience and would totally do it again, I do not recommend it for the average human. I don’t mean to come across as a braggart, but my ability to handle spicy food is pretty strong. I heap hot sauce on just about anything I can find, and the end of this was a struggle for me. If you dig the heat, sure, give this a go. But if you have any trepidation about hot food, skip this. It’s not for you. Instead, just watch the show and gloat over other people’s suffering. It’s far more enjoyable than getting within 10 feet of Da Bomb sauce.