Omaha Cozies Up to Comfort Classics

The last several months have felt simultaneously dreary and frantic. Boring and frenetic. Monotonous and yet somehow still… unprecedented. I don’t know how much longer we are required by law to use that word in every correspondence, but there you have it. And while any therapist worth their salt will tell you that salty, fatty, starchy dishes aren’t a replacement for all that we’ve been doing without… well. They are a little bit.

Sorry Doc. You’re just wrong about this one.
And so this month, The Reader set out to find our favorite nutritionist not-approved dishes to fill the gaping void left by the… wait. Do over. This month, The Reader set out to find our very favorite soul-satisfying dishes to warm the heart.

When Patricia “Big Mama” Barron opened her kitchen, she created a seat at the family dinner table for every one of her customers. The heat of the kitchen was a breeze in contrast to the warmth she imparted on each dish, and her recipes were only half of the secret to her success. Truly loving the work and the community she served kept the kitchen cooking no matter what the outside world had brewing. When she passed in March of 2018, there wasn’t a chance her family would let her or her legacy simply slip away.

Her daughters took up the reigns, and in January of this year moved to Dining Room, the new Highlander Food Hall. There they continue Big Mama’s traditions of putting family first, and finding family everywhere you need one. The signature recipes remain on the menu, and one bite of Big Mama’s fried chicken will have you forgetting that only a short year ago people were fist fighting in drive-throughs for a fast-food chicken sandwich.

“It’s not love, it’s just gravy” I internally reason with myself as I beg the staff to adopt me. So far, they’ve all declined.

It would truly be a snap for me to walk out of Vidlak’s and never go back. I would simply have to drive the nine hours to a defunct dairy farm in Pelican Lake, Wisconsin where my children’s grandmother is probably preparing biscuits and sausage gravy for me already. But for those who aren’t a half a day’s journey from perfection, it can be found on any of the starchy, savory, and impossibly hearty dishes at Vidlak’s.
Every dish is made just like your mom (wishes she could have) made it, and no matter what you order you will leave uncomfortably full, and proud of yourself for cleaning your plate. But for those cold, wet, gray days that leave you chilled to the bone, there is exactly one remedy. The classic chicken fried steak in country gravy with silver dollar pancakes. And a nap.

Both the menu and the atmosphere make JoJo’s a standout on this list of primarily greasy-spoons. This Benson hot spot serves a more elevated comfort food, but your granddad will still find something on the menu he loves. In fact, you may consider hosting your family’s Thanksgiving here and simply banning all talk of politics.

The fun environment, clever plating, and thoughtful menu make JoJo’s just about the only place that not one person I know could find fault with. Order a plate of avocado toast and some chicken fried duck and see if you don’t walk away with the answer for world peace.

Since 1975, Jack and Mary’s has served Omaha from-scratch comfort foods, all day breakfast, and fresh pies and desserts. While they’ve been celebrated for their chicken (Awards. So, so many awards…) I’m going to sidestep it and suggest the meatloaf. Served with mashed potatoes, gravy, and your choice of a side, one bite will have you declaring that you would, in fact do anything for love. But not that. Never that.

It’s pretty easy to “other” vegans, assuming that they have somehow transcended the need for food as comfort. They haven’t at all, they simply haven’t as many commercial opportunities to indulge. Isa Moskowitz stepped in to serve as a young vegan gran to anyone in need of comfort (even the carnivorous among us).

In fact, all of Isa’s dishes are generously heaped with thoughtful touches and loving care. A vegan queso gordita crunch will permanently change the way you taco Tuesday, and if you simply think about the pumpkin coconut curry long enough you’ll find yourself with a phantom case of warm soup belly.

While everything on the menu has the capacity to significantly improve your life, this post is specific to comfort classics and not deliciously challenging your palate. And so I submit my suggestion: Mac and shews. Grab the build-your-own option and marvel at the modern magic of cashew cheese.

Our final entry on today’s list is the new kid in town, national soup chain Zoup. The latest addition to Aksarben made our list in spite of our general avoidance of including chains for a number of reasons. First, what’s more comfort classic than soup? Second, the soup they make, they make well. Third, three words: Take and Make.

So far I have ordered family-sized containers of Zoup Soup and delivered them to a friend who just had a baby, a coworker recovering from Covid, and a certain writer who is homeschooling three children and sometimes forgets to thaw chicken for dinner. You’ll always find a container of the harissa cauliflower in my freezer, while my kids prefer the smokehouse ham and white bean.

Omaha is home to the people, causes, and restaurants that make even a global pandemic tolerable. Thanks for locking down with me, for wearing your masks, and for continuing to support your neighbors and friends who find feeding you is their own greatest comfort.

Did we forget your favorite? Drop an email to [email protected] if you’ve got a local comfort favorite and we’ll be sure to feature them this month on our Instagram @TheReaderOmahaDish

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