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Tacos and tequila take center stage at Hook & Lime


Tacos and tequila take center stage at Hook & Lime
by Leo Adam Biga

The high concept behind Hook & Lime Tacos + Tequila is a small plate nirvana paired with crafted margaritas for a fine dining-meets-street food experience.

The changing menu is anchored by tacos and tortas, family-style meals and appetizers. Seafood, pork, beef and chicken proteins predominate but some veggie dishes are available, too. The tortillas are made fresh on the premises every day. The extensive bar program is highlighted by homemade syrups and infusions and fresh-squeezed juices to complement the many varieties of tequila (140) and mescals (25).

Owner-manager Robbie Malm is vying for a North Downtown niche after making a success of Dudley’s Pizza in Ak-Sar-Ben Village. He’s confident Hook & Lime is reeling in the discerning diners it needs.

“I think we are starting to find our audience,” he said.
“When I drop food off at the table, people are just wowed by the presentation. They’re eating with their eyes first. They’re pleasantly surprised. It’s a lot tastier and more beautiful than they thought it would be. It’s fun to see because it feels like we’re over-delivering.”

He looked at other locations before fixing on NoDo,where a development boom is underway.

“I am very glad we ended up settling here. I like the idea of being part of an emerging neighborhood. I like being one of the anchors as the place builds up around us. It’s really exciting seeing everything going up. Right across the street we’ve got people that will be working here, staying here, living here.

“And obviously I’ve got a giant baseball stadium (TD Ameritrade Park) right behind me, which doesn’t hurt.”

Not to mention the CenturyLink arena-convention center. Then there are Slowdown and Film Streams on the same block and the Omaha Design Center and Hot Shops Art Center within easy walking distance.

“We get a lot of traffic from the Slowdown and Film Streams events and we’re starting to get a lot of neighborhood regulars,” Malm said.

Whoever ventures there is sure to note Hook & Lime is not your mainstream Mexican restaurant.

“We try to stay as far away from Tex Mex as possible and that is something we still have to explain to people,” said head chef Brandon Kalfut, He was chef de cuisine under Alex Sorens at the start-up before Sorens left. Kalfut previously worked in Denver and with Dario Schicke at Avoli Osteria and Clayton Chapman at The Grey Plume.

“If diners order a dish and they seem a little hesitant on it,” Kalfut said, “our servers are very well-trained on what goes into it and getting people set into a comfort zone on the menu. There are familiar things and adventurous things on the menu, and that’s kind of what we try to strike a balance between.”

Familiar include’s a battered cod fried fish taco. On the more adventurous side is the Yellow Tail Escabeche.

“But you don’t have to dive all into something that’s totally unfamiliar,” Malm said. “You can get one of each. That’s kind of what we want to promote. For people who are just dipping their toes in the water, that’s fine – start here, and then come back next week.”

With some authentic offerings, such as the Salsa Flight, certain notes have been toned down while remaining true to the original.

“Some of these traditional sauces tend to be bitter and very layered in flavor and sometimes that’s a hard sell because people aren’t expecting that,” Kalfut said.

Two signature dishes – the Chorizo Torta and the Bone-in Barbacora – represent the pains taken to do things right. The house-made sausage is made with select cuts from the whole hog used head-to-tail in the kitchen and the shank is prepared over several days.

“A lot of technique and time is dedicated into making our chorizo,” Kalfut said. “It’s a double grind. For every one pound of meat, it takes about 17 ingredients. We grind anywhere from 80 to a hundred pounds, so multiply those 17 ingredients by 80 or a hundred. It’s one day literally just creating all the seasoning for it. A thousand peppers go into a hundred-pound batch. We soak and char off the peppers. Somebody physically stands in front of the grill to lightly char each pepper individually.

“The second day you grind the meat and marinate it. On the third day you do a secondary grind. We do all this before it’s even capable of going on the menu.”

The dish then is ready to be composed.

“Our Chorizo Torta is a classic,” Kalfut said. “We complement the chorizo with a local wild arugula, marinated white onions, house-made creme and a fried egg. A lot goes into something that eats really well, yet it’s simple and a hundred percent approachable.”

So is the Bone-in Barbacoa.

“It’s a five-pound bone-in beef shank. We actually have people call-up to make reservations just to reserve one because we can only do so many per week. It’s a cut of the cattle (femur) rarely used whole. We do a 24-hour salt cure and a three-day sous-vide (precision cook in a water bath). Then it rests one day before we even let it go on the menu.

“We do table-side service where I hand-shred the shank, tilt the bone up and pour all the bone marrow juices on it. We finish it with Kampala sea salt.”

“It’s an experience,” Malm said.

“It comes with our rice and Anasazi beans and we send out a bunch of accouterments,” Kalfut said. “Part of the bone-in presentation is an explanation of all these specialty components that don’t exist anywhere else on our menu because it’s all just infused into this one dish.”

For Malm, the care that goes into this single menu item is “a good example of our approach to everything, where we like to say nothing is an after-thought here. Rice and beans is the easiest thing to make an after-thought, but we have that same level of attention to detail for it.”

It all matters.

“And that extends to the bar program,” he said. “We make our own syrups. With our margaritas, instead of using Grand Marnier, we make our own orange brandy. That’s a collaboration between the chef and the bar manager. It’s always fresh-squeezed juice. We’re not using any kind of corn syrup, sour mix garbage. I would say these are the best margaritas in town.”

Bar manager Brian van Egmond, who learned his trade working at various Omaha spots and in Monterrey, Calif., said, “This is my first full cocktail menu and I am very excited being able to take our margaritas and give people a craft experience. Everything here is handmade in-house. We’re not carrying any liqueurs, we’re actually building them in-house. It’s something to really round the experience and we’re doing it at a great price point.”

Using his alchemy with flavors and Kalfut’s food science savvy, he said, “we’re able to take a 30-day infusion and crash it down into a five-hour process, which is hugely significant in keeping costs down.”

Details make magic of what could be mundane.

“The house margarita is a lot of times the after-thought
cocktail on the bar menu at Mexican restaurants,” Malm said. “We start with Exotico Blanco – a citrus zest infused tequila. We use the orange brandy – pulling that citrus essence into the mix, and our in-house made Turbinado syrup. All those things combined make a damn tasty margarita – and that’s the house margarita.

“That’s what sets us apart.”

Kalfut and van Egmond work closely on food-drink pairings.

“Finding the nice subtle differences between two or three Blancos to complement two or three fish dishes,” van Egmond said, “means one is going to have a grassier note and another one’s going to be a little sweeter and pull through to complement a more savory dish. You’re trying to get two completely different items to work together in a sort of harmony.”

Having someone with Kalfut’s experience, van Egan said, is an advantage.

“Brandon’s been a great source to learn from during this whole process.”

Collaboration “makes the pairings a lot more fun,” Kalfut said. “From the chef’s side of it, I’m like, ‘These are tasting notes for the dish,’ and then Brian reads them, spends time thinking about it and starts pulling stuff off the shelf and matching key points from the food’s flavor profile with key points from tequila or mescal profiles.

“Brian’s very open to us saying, ‘No, that won’t work with that dish.’ Then he grabs another bottle down. With his knowledge and palette, he has the ability to find what will complement the dish.”

It helps, Kalfut said, that “we take the criticisms of the food and the tastings very well from each other” and from customers, too. “We do take guest feedback very strongly, so if there’s something that needs to be tweaked, we evolve to what diners are looking for.
Getting it out of our heads and onto a plate is the first step and then after that it’s just feedback, feedback, feedback, until you get it to that perfect little bite.”

Hook & Lime is also a reflection of its chef’s and owner’s
personal cuisine adventures. A trip to Mexico made Malm a tequila convert and fired his passion for tortillas.

“One of my favorite dining experiences there was this giant market with food vendors making the tortillas right in front of you. An old Mexican woman would roll up a ball of masa in her hand and put it right on the grill. Seeing and smelling that fresh cooked tortilla was one of the main inspirations.”

As for Kalfut, “I go down to Austin, Texas a lot and try to hit up as many of the authentic restaurants as I can. My (culinary) background is very much French-Asian, so I would say a lot of the stuff I do is influenced by the places I’ve eaten, the places I’ve gone to.

“Ten years ago I didn’t think this (Mexican cuisine) was something I’d be doing. But I am very strongly influenced by outside sources and putting my own little love on it. I mean, I put own love on every dish, but you’ve got to start from somewhere.”

He and Malm, who both advocate sustainable practices.

“We’re as close to zero waste as we can be on all of our proteins,” Kalfut said, “Everything we bring in is head-to- tail and we find a way to use every component. Same with our produce. Every single day we only have about one Slim Jim trash can worth of food waste.”

The team takes it one step farther by recycling its oil, cardboard and glass.

Local sourcing is also important to Hook & Lime. Its local purveyors are listed right on the menu.

When the restaurant first opened Malm was strictly focused on the business side but he’s gotten more involved on the food side.

“To the point that he expos now,” said Kalfut. “He does all the final touches on a lot of the plates that go out. The first two months he was like, ‘Nope, don’t bother me with it,’ and now he’s the final touch on a lot of plates and he does it just as fast and as god as I can do it.”

“”Maybe not just as good, but I’m coming close,” Malm said.

Those last-minute touches complete the dish and plate.

“Like our Caesar salad needs to get some olive oil as well as fresh black pepper,” Kalfut said. “Our chicken taco gets Espelette french pepper as well as micro cilantro, olive oil and finishing salt.

“Sometimes it’s tweezer work where we literally use micro tweezers to place these things directly on each individual taco, for example.”

Malm enjoys it all, but “what really jazzes me,” he said,
is “the creation part” of turning concept into reality.

“Figuring out how it’s going to look, getting samples of plates and figuring out how they’re going to go together, piecing the menu together little by little – I really like that part of it. At Dudley’s, once that was done, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for reinvention and that was one of the main reasons I wanted to do something smaller. I wanted to find a little more of a niche where the menu could be reinvented on a regular basis.

“The idea was always an elevated tacos and small plates concept restaurant. It’s a little more elevated than I originally had in mind. It’s evolved a lot, like every idea does. You tweak some things and little by little you find out what it wants to be.”

“We’re on our 12th menu adaptation,” Kalfut said. “I think we’re finding our stride. We’re continuously pushing.”

He’s happy to have an owner equally motivated by quality.

“Robbie’s never once said, ‘No, don’t buy that, it’s too expensive, no don’t bring that in, it’s too foreign.’ It’s always, ‘Yeah, bring it in, we’ll try it, we’ll see if it makes sense, we’ll see if it works, and if it doesn’t, we’ll try something else.’ That, from a chef’s perspective, is a dream come true.”

A by-request-only tasting menu is available on a select basis.

Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and 5 p.m. to close for dinner, Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday.

Visit http://www.hookandlime.com.

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