Archive for February 10, 2012

A South Omaha best-kept secret: American GI Forum Mexican Restaurant

February 10, 2012 2 comments

I don’t write much about food or restaurants, though I very much enjoy going out to eat, but when I do get the rare assignment to profile an eatery I like to focus on worthy places that most readers probably don’t know about, and that’s the case with this piece for The Reader (  The Omaha Chapter of the American GI Forum operates a full-service Mexican restaurant at its South Omaha clubhouse that cooks up some pretty righteous Tex Mex favorites.  But unless you live or work in that part of town it’s likely off your radar.  As my piece makes clear, it’s not exactly hurting for business, yet it deserves to be better known.  Consider it a must-get-to on your inner city urban adventure checklist.

A South Omaha best-kept secretAmerican GI Forum Mexican Restaurant

©by Leo Adam Biga

The unpretentious, homey American GI Forum restaurant at 2002 N Street is a Tex-Mex bargain whose popular specials make this a busy joint.

But unless you’re a South Omahan or get tipped off to the place by someone, this best-kept-secret is likely to remain unknown outside its loyal following. After all, it has no website or Facebook page. You won’t find ads for it anywhere. It’s low profile is a shame, not because it starves for business – quite the opposite is true. But proceeds from this non-profit help support the activities of the veterans club under whose auspices and roof it operates.

The Omaha chapter of the American GI Forum, a national Hispanic veterans organization founded in 1948, provides scholarships to area students and assists down-on-their-luck folks who need help paying utility bills.

The veterans clubhouse is located upstairs in the sprawling, two-story building and the restaurant is downstairs. Reminders of the military connection are visible on the eatery’s walls, where plaques, photographs and photocopied stories extoll the exploits of area Hispanic veterans. The financial sacrifices and sweat equity that went into obtaining the facility are also detailed.

You’ll also find living history among the patrons, including charter member and Korean War vet Ricardo “Rick” Arellano, 85, who’s justifiably proud of the Forum.

This GI Forum chapter formed in 1957 and the membership acquired the then-condemned building in 1962, doing most of the extensive repairs and renovations themselves. One couple even mortgaged their home to help finance the project. Members also funded the work through, what else?, tamale sales. The structure underwent a major renovation and expansion in 2006.

The restaurant’s always been part of the set-up. It’s not unusual for a service club to have a commercial kitchen that puts out occasional meals for public consumption. Think VFWs or Sons of Italy. What distinguishes the Forum is that it operates a full-service restaurant and bar open to the public six days a week. The mostly Spanish-speaking cook staff churns out breakfast, lunch and dinner. The sizable menu is comparable to that of a traditional Mexican dining spot. So is the quality of food.

Manager Luis Valencia, whose father Leandro, is a club charter members, says many of the recipes used today were created by the late Nettie Escamilla Vela, the namesake of Bellevu’se beloved hole-in-the-wall, Nettie’s Fine Mexican Food.

If you’re not hung up on gourmet preparations or a stickler for strictly authentic dishes, and if you can do without fancy schmancy digs, then this is a must get-to. The space has a church basement social hall look with its tile floor, but the memorabilia, dartboard alley and flat screen TVs lend some warmth and charm .

The tacos, enchiladas, tamales, tortas and red chili stand up to some of the best around these parts. There are several chili dinners to choose from. The menudo has its fans. Hot wings are a concession to this ubiquitous finger food staple. Breakfast specials, including chorizo and eggs, and combo platters with eggs, potatoes, bacon, beans and rice, are legendary.

Lines form Thursdays for the dollar taco and buck seventy-five margarita specials. Similar specials pack ’em in on Fridays. Between its big lot and the surrounding streets, there’s ample parking to handle the crowds.

The regular prices are easy on the wallet, too, with most dinners priced $6 to $8 and ala carte items from $1.75 to $3.

This laid-back neighborhood landmark is a casual, family-friendly place where the grub and spirits and ready smiles make you feel at home.

George Selders has been a regular for a decade and says he keeps coming back for “the good food and the friendly atmosphere,” adding, “I’ve met a lot of friends here. It’s very pleasant.”

Linda and Bob Adkins often bring their grandkids or meet other couples there. “I’ve never had bad food here, ever,” Linda says. “I like it all. The people are nice. A lot of people don’t know about it. They don’t advertise and they don’t need to.”

Valencia confirms that almost all of the restaurant’s new business is by word of mouth. The fixtures and newbies account for a diverse clientele.

“What I like about coming over here is that it is really a very mixed group of people,” says Bob Adkins. “Every size, shape and color imaginable comes in here and it’s just fun watching people and to be a part of it.”

A recent visit found a cross-section of patrons variously chowing down or throwing back a few at tables or at the curved bar. A dart game was in progress in a corner. Music spilled out over speakers. The wait staff was attentive. The barkeep, pretty.

Regulars include a heavy dose of South O denizens and natives.

“If you’re originally from South Omaha you’ll run into somebody you know,” vows Valencia.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday; 10:30-9 Thursday; Saturday 10-9; Sunday 8:30-7:30. Closed Mondays. For more info, call 402-733-9740.

Two-time Oscar-winner Alexander Payne delivers another screen gem with “The Descendants” and further enhances his cinema standing

February 10, 2012 12 comments

UPDATE: Alexander Payne has added to his growing legendaric status by picking up his second Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.  He, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash shared the Academy Award for their work on The Descendants.  Payne shared the same award with Jim Taylor for their Sideways script.  It seems only a matter of time before Payne is recognized with a Best Director Oscar.

Here’s a capsule take on Alexander Payne and The Descendants, the latest in the filmmaker’s seriocomic forays into the existential angst, folly, fragility, and yearning of the human condition.  If you’re a fan of Payne, the film, or of cinema in general, then check out the batch of stories on this blog about about him, this picture, his other movies, and a slew of other films and filmmakers from cinema’s past and present.

Alexander Payne In this handout photo provided by NBC, (L-R) producers Jim Taylor, Jim Burke and writer/director Alexander Payne, accept the award for Best Motion Picture - Drama 'The Descendants' onstage during the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton International Ballroom on January 15, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California.
Jim Taylor, Jim Burks and Alexander Payne accepting Best Picture Golden Globe



Two-yime Oscar-winner Alexander Payne delivers another screen gem with “The Descendants” and further enhances his cinema standing

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in Omaha Magazine


Until The Descendants opened to golden reviews last fall, seven years elapsed between feature films for its celebrated writer-director Alexander Payne.

The Omaha native and Creighton Prep grad came of age as a film buff here. He made his first three features (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt) in his hometown, each moving him up the ranks of elite moviemakers. His surprise 2004 hit, Sideways, took him to Southern California’s wine country. The combination road-buddy picture and unconventional love story confirmed Payne as a film industry leading light, earning him a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

He then busied himself writing-producing films for other directors. When he couldn’t find financing for his own pet project, Downsizing, he made The Descendants. Before shooting it in late 2010 the only directing he did in this period was a segment of Paris, I Love You and the pilot for HBO’s Hung.

The Golden Globes won by Descendants star George Clooney for best dramatic actor and by Payne and producing partners Jim Burke and Jim Taylor for best drama harbors well heading into the Oscars, where the film will be well-represented with five nominations (for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Actor). The three friends share their own production company, Ad Hominem Enterprises, which produced the picture for Fox Searchlight, with whom Ad Hominem has a first-look deal. The pic’s strong showing with critics and award shows is reminiscent of Sideways. Like that film, this one took Payne far from the Midwest – to Hawaii. A decade after working with iconic Jack Nicholson on About Schmidt, Payne teamed with another icon, Clooney.

As land baron attorney Matt King, Clooney is a man in crisis. His wife Liz lies in a coma after a boating accident. After years of indifferent parenting he’s suddenly in charge of his two girls. He’s burdened, too, by the valuable land entrusted to his care by ancestors. When his older daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) reveals her mother’s infidelity, Matt sets off on a journey that begins in retribution but ends in forgiveness. Payne says “two acts of love” are what drew him to adapt the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel.

The story shares in common with Schmidt and Sideways and Payne’s forthcoming Nebraska a beleaguered protagonist trying to mend an unraveling life.

“It’s just the comic archetype Jim Taylor (his producing partner and former co-writer) and I came up with and I’m continuing of the middle-aged guy who’s really unconscious and has a bunch of anguish and frustration in life,” says Payne. “It’s a guy with good intentions but who’s bought the wrong package. I think it’s funny.”

Extracting equal amounts pathos and humor from human folly is what Payne does.

“I’m just always drawn to material that remains human. You don’t need guns and spaceships and great contrivance to have a movie and a meaningful one. I don’t think those elements are necessarily bad – I like movies of every genre, but what I’m drawn to is trying to somehow explore and express and mock the human heart.”

Descendants is being called Payne’s most fully realized work. “I hope so,” he says, adding that any new maturity reflects his more accrued life experience at age 50 and his evolving film craft. Some observers note he seems more comfortable letting tender emotions play out on screen.”Well, that’s what this story called for,” he says. “I mean, it could be a new vein of filmmaking in me or could just be I was serving this particular story as a professional, workman-like director. I have no idea.”

Staying true to his Omaha roots, he attended the movie’s local premiere at Film Streams, where Descendants smashed box office records. Payne enjoys sharing his work at the art cinema whose board he serves on. Before an appreciative crowd of friends and supporters he announced the film was among the highest grossers nationally its first week. By early February its domestic take stands at $66 million-plus, makeing it the top indie flick released in 2011.

Exuding grace and humility, Payne personally greeted audience members before and after the opening night screenings here. In accepting his Golden Globe, Payne deflected praise to cast and crew, to the people of Hawaii and to Hemmings, whose “beautiful gift” of a novel he made his own.

“He made this movie that’s hugely successful and he made sure that success was also Film Streams’ success, and hopefully Omaha’s success,” says Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson. “We had so much fun at the premiere. It was just a blast. I wondered if we should do it at a bigger venue, and he said, ‘We’ve got to do it at our home.’ Getting the exclusive from Fox Searchlight was all him. That was huge for us.”

He’s conquered Cannes, Toronto, New York, Hollywood, but he proves he can come home again. Payne, who keeps a condo here, plans shooting the father-son road pic Nebraska in various Panhandle locales come spring. Home is where the heart is and he’s always happy to return where his cinema dreams were first fired.

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