I have always been partial to the fish and chips served up at the Dundee Dell. The old line Omaha pub has a loyal following for its grub and spirits and for its ultra casual vibe. There’s something traditional and classic about the way it looks and feels and does things. So when I got the assignment from Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/) to do this piece on the recent ownership change at the Dell I was more than happy to accept because I was curious to meet the man who’s headed the place for the last three decades, Pat Goebel, as well as the man he’s passed the torch to, Greg Lindberg. Both gentlemen have years of experience in the food business. Goebel inherited a legacy in the Dell. Lindberg made his name and success as the entrepeneur who brought fresh seafood to Omaha to a whole new level through his Absolutely Fresh Seafood markest and Bailey’s and Shucks restaurants. Selling the Dell to someone as experienced as Lindberg eases Goebel’s mind that he’s leaving it in good hands and Lindberg is respectful enough of what Goebel created there that he’s asked Goebel to help smooth the transition. Goebel’s pleased to do just that. It’s been a spell since I’ve dined and hung out at the Dell and after meeting the men and learning how passionate they are about the place what it means to them I’m eager to renew my own relationship with it. You can bet I’ll order the fish and chips and even though I really don’t imbibe I may break down just to sample one of those aged Scotches the joint takes pride in. Oh, and on some other visit I have to try the hot pastrami sandwich that both Goebel and Lindberg recommended.
Passing the torch at the Dundee Dell
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the August 2016 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/)
In the wake of Piccolo’s closing, leaving Omaha one less signature Italian steakhouse, the Bohemian Cafe announced it would serve its last Czech specialties in September. So when rumors surfaced Pat Goebel was selling the city’s oldest pub, the Dundee Dell, local diners and imbibers alike quaked at the thought of some dillitante swooping in and ruining a good thing.
Fears were allayed when news got out the Dell was purchased by veteran Omaha restauranteur and wholesale food maven Greg Lindberg. The midtown landmark has joined his Absolutely Fresh Seafood, Shucks Fish House and Oyster Bar and Baileys family of businesses.
Since taking over last spring, with Goebel staying on to ease the transition at Lindberg’s request, the new owner’s made it known to devotees the magic that makes the Dell won’t change.
Lindberg, who often bent an elbow at its old 50th and Dodge location and followed it to its current 50th and Underwood site, appreciates what he’s inherited when he calls the homey establishment an “icon and institution.”
“The pressure I feel is to not screw it up, because it is the Dundee Dell,” Lindberg said. “My witnesses or judges are the loyal customers and employees.”
He said being the steward of a legacy that goes back to 1934, when it started as a Jewish delicatessen, then went through a steakhouse phase, before tuning pub, is a “labor of love.” He’s also quick to add, “I believe I can make money with this. I think I can make it a good business and a fun place for me to be. I’m doing this because I want to do this.” There’s also a deeper reason that motivated him to buy the Dell – he didn’t want to see it shuttered the way so many historic restaurants have and chance a franchise opening in its place.
“I believe in small business,” he said. That belief goes back to his father who championed buying on main street as publisher of newspapers in Sergeant and West Point, Nebraska.
By the time Lindberg operated his own ventures, he saw too many mom-and-pops go under.
“I was selling fish to all these restaurants owned by hard working people trying to feed their families. The chains kept moving in and kicking these people out. That sucked, that is not the way I want my town to be, so I fight back.”
Lindberg admires that Goebel enjoyed a long run (he bought it in 1989) and “kept the vibe, the spirit” while giving it “a breath of fresh air” upon moving to its new digs in 2000. Lindberg’s added new systems, fresh carpeting and other overdue updates to provide “new energy” and “get it shiny,” but he’s kept most everything else the same. That includes the famous fish and chips and the hot pastrami sandwich. Holdover executive chef Mary Tomes is introducing new seafood and traditional English pub items. The Dell’s epic collection of Scotch varietals is being curated to further brand the Dell as a niche neighborhood joint where you can get certain scotches you can’t anywhere else.
Lindberg said his familiarity with Scotch was limited to drinking it, but he’s learning from Goebel, a bonafide connoisseur. Goebel’s vast store of spirits knowledge is not the only reason Lindberg asked he remain in-house awhile.
“A lot of the Dell is between his ears, quite frankly. Plus, he’s the face of the Dell.”
Lindberg’s getting ample face time with Dundee regulars. “Whatever the politically correct term is for people with money and education, well, they’re here,” he said, “and that’s cool, I like it.” The Dell can appeal to an upscale clientele looking for a relaxed setting, but looking at Dundee’s mostly gourmet eateries, it fills the inexpensive pub niche otherwise missing.
He’s learned things since starting his first business in 1979.
“A lot of times in my life it’s been knowing what not to do. I have ideas from here to the Interstate. single-spaced. I’m a list guy.
I’ve kept my last two phones and computers because they have so many lists and they don’t talk to each other. There’s some good ideas in there, but you can’t do everything.”
Many eateries go awry, he said, by “trying to be all things to all people – too many things on the menu.” “Ideally,” he said, “I’d shave off a third of any menu.”
He believes the front and back of the house are only as good as the people working them. He was impressed enough by Goebel’s tight-knit corps that he’s kept the entire staff intact.
“We haven’t gotten rid of anybody.”
“I could not be more pleased,” Goebel said. “It really is family.
So many of our staff have been here 10 years-plus. We take care of our people, we support each other. If somebody’s having a rough spot, we gather around and help them through it. If there’s a wedding or a new baby’s born, we all celebrate.”
Lindberg isn’t messing with a good thing. “Everybody talks about their place is family,” he said. “This is the real deal. There’s a lot of amazing stories about what Pat’s done for these people. If you’ve got good people, you can do anything, – I believe that in my soul. I’ve done my best to surround myself with talented, hard working people. I actually like ’em and they tend to like me.” Yes, running a business comes with hassles, but “good people take most of those away from you,” he said.
Goebel feels he’s leaving his people and place in good hands.
“Greg and I really see eye-to-eye on things. I wanted to find somebody who’s vested in the legacy, in the tradition, in the Dundee Dell, and wanted to maintain that going forward, and I found that in Greg. I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I’m very invested emotionally here. I will always be. But it’s time for me to pass the torch.
“This thing needs to be respected and honored and cherished. It’s not just another part of a large operation. I mean, do we really need another Applebees? Does it make Omaha better? The Dundee Dell does make Omaha better.”
Lindberg said the timing was right. The Dell took a hit from extended street construction a few years ago that made accessing it a pain. Business further lagged this last year. When he heard Goebel was seeking a buyer, he contacted him to discuss terms and discovered the depths of the struggles.
“It got rough. It was spiraling down. Staff were a little beat down over lack of money to fix things. The way I saw it,” Lindberg said, “if I didn’t do it, this thing was going to fall. It was close.”
Besides not wanting the Dell be another Omaha eatery casualty, taking on a new challenge is just what he needed.
“I’ve just been having a good time with Shucks and Bailey’s and Absolutely Fresh for decades. It wasn’t always fun, but it has been for quite some time. This has reenergized me. I don’t have to work, but I like it. I’m 61-years old, I’ve been doing this for 37 years. I’ve been saving money – not for the first 12 or so – but I’ve been saving money ever since. I’d be fine. I could retire.
“But then what?”
Ever the entrepreneur, Lindberg needs the rush that comes with business risk and reward. Then there’s the symmetry of it.
“I bought it from Pat, who had it for 27 years. He bought it from Neil Everett, who had it for 27 years. That’s Haley’s comet weird.”
Lindberg’s not sure he’ll make it 27 years himself, which would be 2043, but he’s happy to settle for another milestone.
“It will be a hundred years old in 2034. I can make it that long.”
Soon, there will be no more “dumplings and kraut today at Bohemian Cafe” as the venerable Omaha eatery’s familiar jingle went. As you probably know by now, this throwback ethnic restaurant that’s served up authentic Czech, German and Polish cuisine for most of its nine decades is closing September 24. It truly has been a landmark and anchor on South 13th Street for its immersive ethnic experience – from the exterior’s decorative tile and signage’s Old World style lettering to the folk attire of the wait staff to the specialty meat dishes with their rich, sopping-good gravies and sauces. It truly has been a destination place for residents and visitors alike who want something distinctly different.
It may not serve the most refined fare, but the Bohemian Cafe made its reputation specializing in some of the most delicious, satisfying, stick-to-the-ribs meals found in the metro. After 92 years the family-owned restaurant is bowing out of the hyper competitive dining scene knowing its departure is making lots of loyal customers sad. During its long goodbye, lines have been out the door as proof it’s made a lot of folks happy.
The Long Goodbye for Bohemian Cafe: Iconic Omaha Eatery Closing After 92 Years
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the September 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When family owners of the Bohemian Cafe announced in May the restaurant was for sale and would close September 24, it marked another casualty among classic eateries calling it quits. An eventual surge in customers wanting to indulge Czech-German-Polish specialties was expected, but sibling co-owners Terry Kapoun and Marsha Bogatz never expected the deluge would start almost immediately. And not let up.
“We made the announcement on a Tuesday (one of two days during the week the cafe’s closed), and that Wednesday we served 500 dinners, where we normally served maybe 225 on a weekday,” said Kapoun. The numbers kept growing. “Thursday we served 600, Friday we served 700, Saturday 800 and then Sunday it dropped back to 650-675. We expected this maybe the end of August, the beginning of September, not the next day,” And certainly not every day since.
“It’s just overwhelming,” he said.
The droves coming for roasted meat in rich gravy, hearty bread dumplings, sweet-sour cabbage, kolaches, strudel and a Pilsner pint, combined with reduced hours, means long lines at the 1406 S. 13th Street eatery. The wait allows time to admire the facade’s decorative tiling whose folk art displays continue inside.
Queues of hungry diners have meant doubling the batches of dumplings and kolaches normally made. The same for the roasted beef, chicken, pork loin and duck. For the first time in anyone’s memory, the Cafe ran out of duck one evening.
Head chef Ron Kapoun, another sibling, learned the unwritten recipes from Laddie Svoboda. The slow-cooked meats with special seasonings and pan drippings, cream-laced gravies infuse dishes with deep flavors arrived at by practice and instinct.
Families used to commemorating special occasions and holidays there are returning to relive powerful sense memories. Sentiments get shared with Bogatz and Terry Kapoun’s wife, Steph, who split greeter duties. The Bohemian’s Facebook page is filled with reminiscences and farewells.
Terry Kapoun said several ex-pat Nebraskans have returned just for another meal.
Bogatz said the family’s “seeing customers we haven’t seen for quite a few years.” First-timers are also among the throng and they’re getting turned onto unfamiliar items like svickova, jaeger schnitzel, Czech goulash and liver dumpling soup.
“We’ve had a lot of new people in. They heard about us and they wanted to at least experience it once, and they’ve just loved it. They wish they would have been here before.”
After 92 years in business, 69 in the same family, the Bohemian will be no more unless a new owner steps forward and the younger set of the four-generation clan that’s run it since 1947 decides to continue the tradition. Terry Kapoun’s parents purchased the cafe from his grandparents in 1966 and he and his siblings later took it over. It’s the only job Kapoun and Bogatz have ever had. Their children and grandchildren have all worked there, The full-time wait staff, some on the job 30, 40 years, are regarded as family.
Its end follows other beloved stand-alone dining spots now gone: Mr. C’s, French Cafe, Vivace’s, Venice Inn, Piccolo’s, M’s Pub. Only a few remain with such pedigree: Cascio’s, Johnny’s Cafe, Gorat’s, Joe Tess Place. Petrow’s, Dundee Dell, Howard’s Charro Cafe.
Terry Kapoun laments independents fading amidst chains.
“There were so many great restaurants just in this little area (Little Italy-Little Bohemia), and they were all family-owned.” With each loss, he said, Omaha “loses a little bit of its personality and character.”
Each had its own niche. The Bohemian stood out with Czech folk figures flanking the huge neon sign over the entrance, a wait staff attired in traditional garb and that Old World menu.
“To so many people, this is Czechoslovakia in Omaha,” Kapoun said.. “Customers who’ve gone to the Czech Republic tell us when they eat at cafes in Prague it’s just like eating at the Bohemian Cafe. We take pride in giving Czechs and non-Czechs an authentic cuisine experience.”
The owners say that where today’s entrepreneurial indies are apt to move on when the going gets tough, family-owned spots persevere. Kapoun said, “I don’t think there’s been a family restaurant where at times they didn’t pay salaries or had to hold them awhile when things were sluggish. Only in a family restaurant would things carry on this long or the same head chef still be there since 1979.” Ron Kapoun’s been rising at 2:30 a.m. to start cooking at 4 nearly every day for 37 years.
As Marsha Bogatz said, “You sacrifice for the restaurant.”
Even with advancing age and decades of long hours taking their toll, the 64-year-old Kapoun said, “I really thought I’d be working until I was 80 with the kids. It just didn’t work out that way.”
The Cafe’s evocation of homey nostalgia makes folks feel a part of it, which is why Kapoun regards himself the steward of a communal treasure.
“It was always that type of a feel. I’ve never felt like an owner.”
Open Wednesday through Sunday from 3 to 9 p.m. Visit http://www.bohemiancafe.net.
Pot Liquor Love
Not long after Pam and I began getting to know each other, we discovered several things in common, and some of what we found we both have a real passion for has to do with food. Having been in a previous long-standing relationship with an African-American woman, I already knew that the food I grew up eating and the food that many African-Americans grow up eating share many similarities. This, despite the fact that I am of Polish and Italian ancestry, two cuisines you wouldn’t ordinarily or immediately associate with soul food. But much of the food my late parents grew up eating and that they then weaned my two older brothers and I on is what could be called peasant cooking, which is essentially what soul food entails. The peasant connotation simply refers to the fact that people of little means, whether Polish or Italian or Black, historically make do with whatever is at hand. including what they eat. The humble rooted people on both my dad’s Polish side and on my mother’s Italian side certainly made do with what they raised and tended on the land and with what scraps of meat they could afford to purchase. The same with Blacks, whose soul food tradition derives from what was available from the sweat of their own brow working the land and what they could scratch together to buy.
Thus, the Polish and Italian cuisine I grew up eating, just like the Black soul food cuisine I was introduced to years later, features lots of greens, beans, potatoes, pastas (think spaghetti and macaroni and cheese), grains (barley, rice, grits) and lower end cut, slow cooked meats, including pig’s feet, cheek, hocks, butt, ribs, oxtails, smoked turkey wings and legs and beef liver, although some of those formerly low cut low priced meats have since become pricey gourmet items. There are pan-fried and deep-fried connections, too, between my roots and Pam’s, such as chicken livers and gizzards. and, of course, chicken.
My mom and dad split the cooking. Their go-to dishes included: smothered pork chops (his), bean soup with hocks (his and hers), oxtail soup (his), braised oxtails (hers), oven-baked chicken (his), beef stew (his), Italian stew (hers), pig’s feet (his), greens (hers),
Pam has expressed surprise over and over again when, upon talking fondly about various dishes her family enjoyed eating, I come right back with, “Yeah, we ate that, too.” She is fairly amazed even now that I have consumed more than my share of ham hocks, for example, and that I still cook with them today. We didn’t have collards, but we did have mustard and assorted other greens. My mom grew up eating dandelions and she’d once in a while incorporate them into our greens as well.
The whole idea behind this mode of cooking and eating is to stretch things in order to feed several hungry mouths without straining the budget. That means lots of soups, stews, casseroles, bakes and concoctions where you throw in everything on hand to make what Pam’s family used to call “stuff.” Every ethnic group has it own variation of this everything but the kitchen sink dish that is more about expediency than it is culinary style. But Pam and I both agree that there’s never a good enough excuse for making something that lacks flavor. We are both big on bold, robust flavors achieved through liberal seasoning and cooking methodology. When it comes to meat, and she and I are both classic carnivores, we prefer slow baking, roasting methods that produce copious amounts of natural pan drippings that we spoon right over the serving portions or that can be the base for rich, delicious gravies and sauces. You might say we are connoisseurs of pan drippings because we appreciate the layered, complex, concentrated flavors they contain.
The resulting “pot liquor” is produced whether cooking beef, pork or poultry, but you have to have cuts that are bone-in and contain some fat, too. Fat and bone, that’s where the real flavor resides, and all the seasoning and veggies you add only help enhance the flavor. Yes, pot liquor is the really deep, fat and marrow released and rendered goodness that gets deposited in those puddles, streaks and bits. We never serve a meat dish without some of the pot liquor over it. I love that term because it’s so apt to what the essence of pan drippings are. Rendered fat and bone is where it’s at and when enough of it is released and it gets to coagulating and browning to where those alternately gooey and crusty bits collect at the bottom and edges of the roasting pan, it distills right there in the oven or even on top of the stove into a heady, briny brew that really is best described as pot liquor.
Pam knows by now that one of my favorite food things to do is to take a hunk of bread and sop up the smear of congealed pot liquor left on the pan. Oh, my, that is a burst of flavor that rivals the best bites I’ve ever eaten, Not even a 4 or 5 star restaurant can duplicate that taste.
There are other pot liquors not exclusive to meat dishes, such as the brew created by cooking collards with ham hocks. Pam makes some righteous greens with hocks or smoked turkey lumps whose pot liquor is enough to get intoxicated on when sopping it up with corn bread or pouring it over most anything.
With the holidays coming up I am already salivating at the thought of Pam’s roasted turkey – she makes the moistest turkey I’ve ever eaten – and its pot liquor bounty that pairs well with the greens, the stuffing, the candied yams and everything else for that matter.
Sure, there’s more to life than food, but at the moment I can’t think what that might be. Cooking a meal for someone is as true an expression of love as I can think of. It is the epitome of sharing something precious and of delighting in someone else’s pleasure or satisfaction. Pam and I regularly take turns cooking for each other. Her home cooked meals bring me right back to my childhood and early adult years eating at home with mom and dad. She likes my cooking, too. It also takes her back. By now we both know what we like and what we don’t. Our tastes, with a few notable exceptions, are remarkably alike.
On our recent trips down South we experienced a few dishes with good to the last drop pot liquor love. Read those at–
Not sure whose turn it is in our couple cooking rotation. It doesn’t much matter though you see because whoever has the duty will be putting out big flavors. That’s what you get when you cook with love – flavor. The one cardinal sin we can’t abide is bland food. That and skimping on the pot liquor. When we sit down to dinner, it’s not so much “pass the salt” as it is “give me some more of that pot liquor, honey.”
I don’t mean to imply the lip smacking magic of our Pot Liquor Love is what keeps us together, but it sure helps.
A Real Food Find: Finicky Frank’s
Upon discovering a great restaurant like Pam and I did last night at Finicky Frank’s, I am immediately thrown into conflict. Part of me wants to share the find with the world and part of me wants to keep it our little secret. Obviously, the former insitnct won out over the latter and with this post I am gladly spilling the beans and sharing the love about this charming place that serves up real food at the foot of Ponca Hills. I had heard some good things about Finicky Frank’s but being somewhat finicky myself, I wasn’t prepared to believe the hype, especially after being disappointed more times than not by supposedly good dining spots. This one though really does live up to the glowing reviews and recommendations. Mind you, I’ve only eaten there once, but the experience – from the food to the service to the decor to the vibe – was well above average and among the best I’ve had in Omaha. I rate the experience highly enough that it makes me confident and eager to go back and try more things on the menu. Before I get to what we ate there, I will tell you it features a small but well curated menu of burgers, sandwiches, pizzas, seafood dishes, pasta dishes and salads. This is New American Comfort Food. It’s not highly refined but it is prepared with love and passion. It is a made from scratch place that equally prides itself on fresh and whenever possible locally sourced ingredients. The proof is in the food and the flavor. For my dinner I actually ordered the lump meat crab cakes off the appetizer’s list and a house salad. The crab cakes were among the best I’ve ever had. Meaty, moist, luscious, flavorful. Quite good-sized too. More than filling enough for a dinner entree. One can also get a crab cake sandwich (served on a Broiche bun) with a choice of hand-cut fries or hand-battered onion rings on the side. But I wanted the crab to stand out, and it did. The salad I had was a nice mix of greens and veggies accented by a well balanced not too tart or sweet vinaigrette. Pam ordered the seafood enchilada. The idea was for us to sample each other’s dishes but we were so busy devouring our respective meals that neither of us got around to try the other’s. All I can say about hers is that it looked delicious and she raved about its generous filling of salmon, shrimp and crab and the homemade Alfredo sauce that topped the whole works, all of it baked to a yummy crusty gooey goodness. It’s a mid-ranged price restaurant where you can dine alone for $10 to $20 bucks and as a couple for $35 to $45. The couple that run the place – she’s the chef and he runs the bar and the front of the house – show a real commitment to excellence in every aspect of the operation. Real food, spot on service, a super clean evirronment, good art on the walls, a carefully considered design. All of it works well in concert together. There’s just a good flow and energy about it. But at the end of the day it’s all about the food, and this right here is the real thing. No pale, fake imitations or substitutions will do at Finicky Frank’s. If you’re looking for authentic, this is the place to go. It’s located at 9520 Calhoun Road just north of where McKinley Street intesects North 30th Street.
For years Omaha’s most famous purveyor of soul food was the Fair Deal Cafe. Its proprietor, the late Charles Hall, served up some righteous fare at his North 24th Street place that was also known as Omaha’s Black City Hall for being a popular spot where community leaders and concerned citizens gathered to discuss civil rights and politics. Mr. Hall and the Fair Deal are gone and sadly the building has been razed. But at least a new development on the site will be taking part of the name as a homage to the history made there and the good times had there. On my blog you can find another story I did that used the Fair Deal as the backdrop for an examination of what makes soul food, soul food. I gathered together some old school black folks to share their wisdom and passion about this cuisine. I called that piece, A Soul Food Summit.
Charles Hall’s Fair Deal Cafe
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons and The Reader
As landmarks go, the Fair Deal Cafe doesn’t look like much. The drab exterior is distressed by age and weather. Inside, it is a plain throwback to classic diners with its formica-topped tables, tile floor, glass-encased dessert counter and tin-stamped ceiling. Like the decor, the prices seem left over from another era, with most meals costing well under $6. What it lacks in ambience, it makes up for in the quality of its food, which has been praised in newspapers from Denver to Chicago.
Owner and chef Charles Hall has made The Fair Deal the main course in Omaha for authentic soul food since the early 1950s, dishing-up delicious down home fare with a liberal dose of Southern seasoning and Midwest hospitality. Known near and far, the Fair Deal has seen some high old times in its day.
Located at 2118 No. 24th Street, the cafe is where Hall met his second wife, Audentria (Dennie), his partner at home and in business for 40 years. She died in 1997. The couple shared kitchen duties (“She bringing up breakfast and me bringing up dinner,” is how Hall puts it.) until she fell ill in 1996. These days, without his beloved wife around “looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do,” the place seems awfully empty to Hall. “It’s nothing like it used to be,” he said. In its prime, it was open dawn to midnight six days a week, and celebrities (from Bill Cosby to Ella Fitzgerald to Jesse Jackson) often passed through. When still open Sundays, it was THE meeting place for the after-church crowd. Today, it is only open for lunch and breakfast.
The place, virtually unchanged since it opened sometime in the 1940s (nobody is exactly sure when), is one of those hole-in-the-wall joints steeped in history and character. During the Civil Rights struggle it was commonly referred to as “the black city hall” for the melting pot of activists, politicos and dignitaries gathered there to hash-out issues over steaming plates of food. While not quite the bustling crossroads or nerve center it once was, a faithful crowd of blue and white collar diners still enjoy good eats and robust conversation there.
Fair Deal Cafe
Running the place is more of “a chore” now for Hall, whose step-grandson Troy helps out. After years of talking about selling the place, Hall is finally preparing to turn it over to new blood, although he expects to stay on awhile to break-in the new, as of now unannounced, owners. “I’m so happy,” he said. “I’ve been trying so hard and so long to sell it. I’m going to help the new owners ease into it as much as I can and teach them what I have been doing, because I want them to make it.” What will Hall do with all his new spare time? “I don’t know, but I look forward to sitting on my butt for a few months.” After years of rising at 4:30 a.m. to get a head-start on preparing grits, rice and potatoes for the cafe’s popular breakfast offerings, he can finally sleep past dawn.
The 80-year-old Hall is justifiably proud of the legacy he will leave behind. The secret to his and the cafe’s success, he said, is really no secret at all — just “hard work.” No short-cuts are taken in preparing its genuine comfort food, whose made-from-scratch favorites include greens, beans, black-eyed peas, corn bread, chops, chitlins, sirloin tips, ham-hocks, pig’s feet, ox tails and candied sweet potatoes.
In the cafe’s halcyon days, Charles and Dennie did it all together, with nary a cross word uttered between them. What was their magic? “I can’t put my finger on it except to say it was very evident we were in love,” he said. “We worked together over 40 years and we never argued. We were partners and friends and mates and lovers.” There was a time when the cafe was one of countless black-owned businesses in the district. “North 24th Street had every type of business anybody would need. Every block was jammed,” Hall recalls. After the civil unrest of the late ‘60s, many entrepreneurs pulled up stakes. But the Halls remained. “I had a going business, and just to close the doors and watch it crumble to dust didn’t seem like a reasonable idea. My wife and I managed to eke out a living. We never did get rich, but we stayed and fought the battle.” They also gave back to the community, hiring many young people as wait staff and lending money for their college studies.
Besides his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, when he was an officer in the Medical Administrative Corps assigned to China, India, Burma, Japan and the Philippines, Hall has remained a home body. Born in Horatio, Arkansas in 1920, he moved with his family to Omaha at age 4 and grew up just blocks from the cafe. “Almost all my life I have lived within a four or mile radius of this area. I didn’t plan it that way. But, in retrospect, it just felt right. It’s home,” he said. After working as a butcher, he got a job at the cafe, little knowing the owners would move away six months later to leave him with the place to run. He fell in love with both Dennie and the joint, and the rest is history. “I guess it was meant to be.”
Dixie Quicks chef and co-owner Rene Orduna and partner Rob Gilmer deliver righteous Southern grub in eclectic space
A funny thing happened on the way to my profiling my favorite Omaha area restaurant, Dixie Quicks Public House, and its chef and co-owner Rene Orduna who is so expert at making food flavors and presentations pop. I was supposed to have done the story years ago but for reasons no longer relevant it never happened. Until now. I am happy to say my debut piece for Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/) is this long detoured and delayed profile about Dixie Quciks, Rene, his life-business partner Rob Gilmer, and the way they have made a success of doing things their way, as an expression of their well-yoked creative souls. I was first introduced to Dixie Quicks at its original location in downtown Omaha, and that very first visit vaulted the place and its food to the top of my favorite eateries list. Rene did then, and this is going back 20 some years, what has become all the rage today in terms of using locally sourced, fresh ingredients and classical techniques that elevate American comfort food to gourmet or fine dining fare. He’s still doing it today. I followed the restaurant to Leavenworth just south of downtown but I never made the crossing over to its new digs in Council Bluffs until I did this story. In addition to finally visiting this splendid destination attraction with the restaurant on one side and the RNG Gallery on the other, with a curio and gift shop in between, I got to meet Rob for the first time. Rene is charming and passionate as always. Rob, who is an artist and the curator for the gallery, is a delight, too. Together, they make a great team and a great couple. Just as Rob is a visual artist, Rene is an artist in the kitchen, and they’ve applied their imagination and whismy to creating a fun, eclectic place whose food and decor you won’t forget.
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Rene Orduna and Rob Gilmer
Dixie Quicks chef and co-owner Rene Orduna and partner Rob Gilmer deliver righteous Southern grub in eclectic space
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the Spring 2016 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/)
Dixie Quicks Public House features Southern-Tex-Mex infused dishes reflecting classically trained chef and co-owner Rene Orduna’s many influences. But make no mistake, his good eats are soul food by any other name. He says about any cuisine, “It’s all soul food if it’s good, if it’s got flavor.” His singular bold flavors come right from the soul.
Twenty years into a run that’s seen Dixie Quicks evolve across three metro locations, Orduna, together with life-business partner Rob Gilmer, has created an artful but unpretentious experience. Years before it got trendy, the two foodies emphasized farm-to-table fresh ingredients and made-from-scratch fine dining quality comfort food.
“From the day we opened we’ve had locally grown food,” Orduna says. “It just makes sense. Having relationships with farmers always made it easy for me to get stuff in I couldn’t find anywhere else.”
His grandfather grew chilies and tomatoes for the family’s iconic Howard’s Charro Cafe in South Omaha, where Orduna got his start in the industry. On family vacations to Mexico he was introduced to the vibrant, fresh flavors of his ancestral homeland.
Gilmer’s folks back East farmed acres of organic gardens. He says, “When Rene and I lived in New York City we’d go to their place and the food was amazing. Rene was like a kid in a candy chop.” “Oh, yeah,” Rene recalls. “Being able to go pick it and cook it right there was great. That taught me a valuable lesson – one I’d learned before.” Orduna finds it ironic farm-to-table is suddenly “all new and mainstream.”
Today, his picking is facilitated by six farmers who regularly produce for him. Several others supply specialty items. Beyond that, he uses Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and H. Olafsson International.
“Knowing those places and having a good salesman like I do, who’s been with me from the beginning, makes the difference. It’s all about the relationships. Usually I have the menu planned out at least a week ahead of time. I know what’s coming and since I already know my purveyors, I get what I want.”
His refined fare is served in a relaxed, whimsical setting where CEOS, bikers, creatives, families, gays and straights feel equally comfortable.
As Rene puts it, “We open up our doors to basically our home and wa want whoever walks in to feel comfortable.”
Gilmer never ceases to be wowed by the emotion and imagination Orduna pours into his culinary creations. If the Huevos Ranchero is especially hot, then Gilmer knows Orduna’s upset.
“It all comes out in the food,” Gilmer says. “It’s that love, that passion you cannot learn, you cannot be taught. It’s been instilled in him since birth. Basically, cooking is chemistry, but he adds that punch. When he makes Ramen Noodles from the package at home he throws away the seasoning packet and adds his own seasoning mix and it’s a banquet.”
For a Diners, Drive-ins and Dives segment host Guy Fieri raved about Orduna’s serious cooking chops and mentioned the Texas Chili Pepper Steak, the Blackened Salmon, the Chicken Tortilla Soup and other dishes. That exposure keeps bringing folks from all over the country and the world. “It’s amazing how word gets out,” Orduna says. He adds that the College World Series, U.S. Olympic Swim Trials and Berkshire Hathaway Convention draw people “who are serious about food – they loving coming here and they come back every year.”
It’s not just the food but the funky environs. In its latest iteration, glittering plastic globes and repurposed doors hang from the ceiling. Toy dinosaurs are arrayed on a front counter. Photographs and other works by Gilmer, a visual artist, adorn the dining room walls.
“It makes him part of the restaurant, too,” Orduna says of having Gilmer’s art displayed there
The art and ephemera continue in the couple’s adjoining RNG Gallery and cozy curio-thrift shop.
All of it has an urban chic yet homespun feel that gains further charm from the character of the 19th century digs whose ground floor the business occupies. In 2011 Dixie Quicks moved into the renovated Hughes-Irons Building at 157 West Broadway in Council Bluffs from its decade-long home at 1915 Leavenworth in Omaha. Dixie Quicks and RNG add a bohemian accent to this block of historic buildings with quaint brick facades and wrought iron-laced balconies.
Dixie Quicks began at 1516 Dodge Street in Omaha. At each spot it’s fused food and art. Rene works his magic in the kitchen but he also has a strong managerial and design sense.
“The restaurant business is a perfect place to learn where to put this and where to put that,” he says, “and it transfers everywhere in regular life. How I arrange my home and my kitchen – it’s all the same thing.”
In addition to Gilmer making art for the eatery’s walls, he curates the gallery and he adds playful flourishes here and there.
“I have as much fun with it as anyone,” he says of the toys and things.
He also does the books and runs the front of the house.
“We know our stations,” he says. “You don’t want me cooking in the kitchen. And you don’t want Rene with a checkbook. Every once in a while I’ll say, ‘Do you want me to go in the kitchen and start cooking?’ and he’s like, ‘No, no, no, I’ve got that.’ We know our strengths, we know our weaknesses, we know our gifts, we know our shortcomings, and it works out really well. Sometimes we do butt heads, and I just let Rene think he’s right,”
“That’s all that matters,” Orduna says, smiling. On a more serious note, he adds, “Knowing your abilities and your inabilities makes all the difference in the world and we’re able to accept that from each other.”
Gilmer says he’s reminded of how Jun and Ree Kaneko work together.
“Jun is such an incredible artist and Ree is such an incredible administrator. I mean, every Jun should have a Ree, and we sort of have that. If Rene did it all by himself here he’d have to worry about the kitchen and the front, so here we even it out. It’s all good.”
Making them a good match is their mutual appreciation for good food and their love for the restaurant business. Orduna grew up at Howard’s and broadened his knowledge at the French Cafe and M’s Pub. He then left for a whirlwind culinary life and career in New Orleans, Atlanta, Kansas City, San Francisco, Hawaii, New York City, Maryland. He learned new techniques and shortcuts, he opened and closed establishments, he worked with legends Julia Child and James Beard.
“I was lucky enough to work at the French Cafe when they had three chefs from Paris working there. I waited tables and they saw something in me. They would take me off the floor back to the kitchen between lunch and dinner and teach me how to do other stuff. Those were the three best mentors I’ve ever had in my life. It was totally eye-opening to see the great food they put out. Learning how to make it was the best thing of all. It helped me wherever I went.”
His famous Texas Chili Pepper Steak is his take on the classic Steak au Poivre he learned to make there.
“When I moved to the South I had a different view of it. Instead of using peppercorns I used chili peppers and peppercorns and brandy and bourbon instead of just brandy, which gave it its own little flair. I use poblanos, anaheims and jalapenos. One has a depth of flavor, one has the mildness of chili powder and one has the heat. It really brings out the flavor in all three. It’s like our coffee here – a cross blend of light roast, dark roast, regular roast. It covers all the bases.
“I just salt and pepper the steak and put the peppercorns on top. It gets sauteed in a pan (in soybean oil). The peppers are added to it with a few onions. The bourbon and brandy’s added to that. Then, I add a little beef stock, then cream and then that reduces in a pan.”
For his Blackened Salmon he dredges his fillets in a secret spice mix that creates a blend of flavors and a hint of heat.
“It gives a carnival in your mouth every time you take a bite and our signature tomato butter goes so well with it.”
He cooks the salmon atop a hot grill, sans oil or anything else. The oil from the salmon does the rest.
He’s considered coming out with a line of spice mixes and such but there’s been no time. “Maybe in the next five-year plan we’ll do that.”
There was no five-year plan when he left town, just a desire to travel.
“Once I left Omaha, I went to New Orleans. Working at Brennan’s restaurant I realized i could do my job anywhere I wanted. My other mentor was Ma Hall from Ma Hall’s Boardinghouse in Atlanta. She served brunch on Saturday and Sunday with tables on the front porch and in the gardens. People flocked to this restaurant. It was all self-served soul food sourced from local farmers. It was heaven.”
Dixie Quicks is famous for its brunch.
Gilmer never worked in the industry until he and Rene opened Dixie Quicks in 1995 but he always found it intriguing.
“I’ve always loved it. I’ve always been enamored by the restaurant process and by what restaurants can do.”
Growing up in suburbia New York state and vacationing summers in Maine, his family ate out a lot and he tried wide ranging fare in diverse settings. What most stood out were spectacle-style venues. There was the Polynesian-themed Bali Hai whose outside featured a faux volcano that lit up. Running through the inside was an enclosed mini-river filled with baby alligators. A waterfall, too. At Hamburger Choo-Choo a model railroad track ran through the kitchen into the dining room, with patrons placing their dirty dishes atop the flatbed train cars.
“That’s why we have dinosaurs everywhere. I look at the restaurant as almost a kid and what makes it fun.”
In addition to what Orduna’s taught him, Gilmer gleaned much from his partner’s late mother, Delores Wright, who made Howard’s a success.
“I learned from his mom talking with her, watching her. I picked up so many wonderful pointers – to the point where his brothers and sisters we’ll hear me say something and go, ‘God, Mom said that.’ I learned from the best. She was an amazing woman.”
The men are grateful the family has embraced them as a couple.
Howard’s is now on its fourth generation. Gilmer and Orduna settled here after they came back to help the family move that eatery from 24th and Q to 13th and J in the former Marchio’s.
“I thought we could either go back to New York or we could stay here and open up our own place,” Orduna recalls. “Living in the South I had a love for Southern food, Cajun, Southwestern. There was no restaurant like that in Omaha, so we opened our own. It was the time.”
Dixie Quicks earned loyal customers from the start. Most followed its two moves. Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne is a fan. He says, “I went to their first place, then followed them to Leavenworth and then followed them across the river. I just think they’re a tremendous asset. It’s a place I can take people visiting for the first time and they’re surprised by how hip it is.”
Relocating to the Bluffs was done for business and personal reasons.
“It was an opportunity for us to give Council Bluffs something it didn’t have,” Orduna says, “and another part of it was so we could get married. We figured it was a good fit.”
The new site has more space and better electrical-HVAC systems than the past spots. Much thought was given to every detail, even the acoustics. Big windows allow ample light and cool streetscape views.
“There is a commitment here that is from the soul and you have to be committed to all of it,” Orduna says. “I’ve been in the business long enough that I do understand the art of it.”
Gilmer says, “The art is making all this hard work look easy.”
Satisfaction comes from “knowing everybody had a meal worth twice the money they paid for it,” says Orduna, adding, “That’s what I wanted people to feel. That’s what makes me happy.”
Sustaining that is an art, too.
“A restaurant is only as good as the last food they put out,” he says. “That’s as good as a restaurant gets,”
He welcomes “the camaraderie” with customers that extends over years. A generation later he says patrons who came as kids are now parents bringing their own kids. “We get a lot of the same people we’ve had from the beginning.” Count Mary Thompson among them. “I used to bring Rene fresh veggies from my garden,” she says. “He once did a fabulous dessert presentation – Bananas Foster to be exact – for an event I did. He is a true master.”
Orduna enjoys sharing tricks of the trade to young people who work for him. “Many are still in the restaurant business and they still look back on their time at Dixie Quicks as the hardest job they ever had but the most learning job they ever had. That makes a difference to me.”
He and Gilmer admire the enterprising, ingenious chef owners who’ve emerged to elevate Omaha’s culinary scene. They host pop-ups to give people space for their dreams. The couple’s own dream is rooted in family. Howard’s is where Orduna’s love affair with food began. It’s still going strong in the family’s hands. Just as Rene and Rob support that legacy, the family supports the couple’s legacy.
“They’re all proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Orduna says. “Being able to be here with this place now is really great. They all come in here and have lunch or dinner on a regular basis. We go over there every Tuesday night for dinner. Oh yeah, we gotta make sure their food is right. We’re quality control.”
Open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m.; Saturday Brunch 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Dinner 5 to 9 p.m.; Sunday Brunch 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Closed Mondays. Visit http://dixiequicks.com/.