Happy Hour at M’s Pub

One of my Omaha standbys for late night downtown dinners and people watching is — has always been — M’s Pub. The restaurant recently introduced a happy hour, and I checked it out. We tried three of the new menu items (Though I love revisiting the old standbys on the M’s menu, new food at a reliable restaurant is always exciting.)

Ms1I think grilled peanut butter and jelly is one of the most underrated sandwiches, so I had to sample the grilled CB&J, which is a cashew butter and jalapeño jam sandwich served on brioche from local bakery Le Quartier. It’s amazing. (The spicy jam is optional.)

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The restaurant’s Prowl winning crab cakes have been re-imagined on preztel-bunned sliders for another small plate.

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The pizzette is a twist on the restaurant’s classic Lahvosh, with a thicker, breadier crust and toppings that tasted reminiscent of a salty spinach and artichoke dip.

The plates are sized for one, though I recommend you share a few. The happy hour, which also includes drink specials, runs 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and again for a reverse happy hour that runs from 10 p.m. to close. It takes place from 5 p.m. to close on Sundays.

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The B.T.C. Old Fashioned Grocery Cookbook

A friend in Oxford asked me excitedly during my recent trip to the South if I’d heard of or owned the B.T.C. Old Fashioned Grocery Cookbook. I had a copy sitting on my desk way back in Nebraska and I had to admit that I hadn’t even cracked the cover before I left for the Delta (read more about my trip here, here and here.)

BTC[1]The book was first on my list once I got home (after deadlines and oodles of email) and once I started reading and thumbing through the recipes for dishes like pimento cheese, sweet potato and green chile casserole, shrimp and grits and dill biscuits, I knew I had to get to work sampling some of the recipes. It’s one way to transport myself back to the Delta’s small cafes where good food is the rule every day.

The B.T.C. Old Fashioned Grocery is about 25 minutes outside of Oxford, Miss., and owner Alexe van Beuren opened it in 2010. It wasn’t the most logical place to open a grocery selling glass-bottled milk, local produce and handmade pie, but the name stands for the kind of ideals van Beuren wanted for the small town of Water Valley. She hoped the store could “Be the Change” she hoped to see. In its first year, the store barely stayed open, and after hiring five cooks in the hopes of making the grocery into a cafe, van Beuren met Dixie Grimes, an Oxford native and five-star chef looking for work. She hired her on the spot and within a few months, B.T.C. had earned a reputation for its hearty comfort food. Many of those recipes — two of which I’ll share with you today — are in the book.

I love the straightforward style in which van Bueren tells the story of the small-town cafe and how it went from a pie-in-the-sky dream to an important spot for food and community to thrive. The stories behind Grimes’ recipes are a lot of fun to read — the book shares yarns about regular customers but also about the family traditions where the food and recipes originated. Grimes even shares some of her own secret family recipes in the book, too (an example: the sausage gravy recipe.) Between recipes and gorgeous photos are short essays about the people and places of small southern towns like Water Valley. The book’s a testament to the power of pure, good food.

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Caraway Dill Biscuits
Makes 6 to 8 biscuits

Dill is ridiculously easy to grow. And it’s a pretty plant, tall and airy. Dill is also a wonderful accent in baked goods, elevating the ordinary biscuit into something more savory. These biscuits are wonderful for that midmorning meal of brunch. Serve with thinly sliced Home-brined Corned Beef Brisket and some good coarsely ground mustard.

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill
¼ cup lard
½ cup whole milk
½ cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Using a whisk, whisk in the caraway seeds and dill. Using a fork, cut the lard into the flour until you have small pea-size crumbs. Make a well in the center and pour in the milk and buttermilk. Slowly stir in the flour from the sides until the milk is evenly incorporated.
Dump the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead it until smooth, about 2 minutes. Using a rolling pin that has been dusted in flour, roll out the dough until it is about ½ inch thick. Cut out biscuits with a 3-inch round biscuit cutter and put them in a cast-iron skillet with the sides touching.
Bake until the tops are golden brown, about 15 minutes.

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English Pea Salad
Serves 8

I’d never heard of English peas before I moved to Mississippi and began hanging out with farmers. Turns out they mean what my mama just called peas: the sweet green peas commonly found canned or frozen. This salad reminds me of one that my Pennsylvanian nana used to make. She was a wonderful cook and a complete eccentric who was as well known for her skinny-dipping and airplane flying as her dinner parties. I liked her salad so much during my childhood that I asked her for the recipe when I was in college. Sadly, I lost it and she passed on, so I’ve never had the chance to compare the two. But Dixie’s tastes like my nana’s with one exception: bacon.

When I make it, I add bacon, like my nana did. Hard to go wrong with bacon. Soul food seasoning is a spice mix that you’ll find in most grocery store spice aisles. Dixie’s recipe calls for canned peas for year-round convenience, but if you happen to find fresh peas at your farmers’ market in early spring, use those instead!

2 ounces Cheddar cheese, shredded (½ cup)
2 hard-boiled eggs, grated
1 small yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded, and finely chopped (½ cup)
2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
2 teaspoons chopped pimiento
½ cup Hellmann’s mayonnaise
½ cup sour cream
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar (Dixie prefers the Bragg brand)
3 tablespoons dried basil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon soul food seasoning
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 dashes Tabasco sauce
4 (14.5-ounce) cans baby peas, drained (Dixie prefers Le Sueur brand)

In a large bowl, combine the cheese, eggs, bell pepper, onion, pimiento, mayonnaise, sour cream, vinegar, basil, sugar, soul food seasoning, granulated garlic, parsley, pepper, and Tabasco. Stir in the peas and refrigerate overnight. Serve at room temperature. The salad will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 5 days.

Recipes and photos reprinted from The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook by Alexe van Beuren with recipes by Dixie Grimes. Copyright © 2014. Photographs copyright © 2014 by Ed Anderson. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House LLC

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Faulkner and the Blues

I started reading William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom! before we left for Oxford, and what started out as a bit of a slog turned into an absolutely fantastic read as soon as we got on the plane to Mississippi. (If you give it a go, stay strong through chapter 3.) I’m nearly finished with the book now, and the fact that I was in the middle of it when we visited both Faulkner’s home in Oxford and an exhibition of first editions of his work on the Ole Miss campus made both visits all the more special.

The Faulkner sites and collection in Mississippi are the largest in the nation devoted to the work and life of a single author. We have the second largest right here in Red Cloud, Nebraska, dedicated to none other than Willa Cather.

Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s historic home and 33 acres that surround it, are near the Ole Miss campus and the town’s bustling square, but far enough from both that the grounds are quiet save for the sound of chirping songbirds and the rustling of the towering cedars that lead visitors to the front door of the house.

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The remains of an antebellum maze garden near the house. I like to imagine what this must have once looked like.

faulkneroutlineThe outline of Faulkner’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel A Fable penciled in graphite and red on the plaster wall of his study.

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What could be more perfect for a food blog than Faulkner’s Mint Julep recipe? Nothing, I reckoned.

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My favorite of the gorgeous art-deco era book covers on display at the Ole Miss library.

We spent some time with Faulkner and soaked up history. We also soaked up history of a very different kind in Clarksdale, home of the “Crossroads,” where, if legend serves, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. We may have missed our chance at a juke joint, but we didn’t miss our chance to visit a first-rate blues club.

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We caught a cover band playing more ’70s funk than Delta blues, but Ground Zero — co-owned by Morgan Freeman, a Mississippi native — was still definitely rockin’.

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Only one other time have I stayed at a place like Clarksdale’s Shack Up Inn, and that’s in far western Nebraska at the fantastic High Plains Homestead in Crawford, Neb. If you get the chance, stay at either, or both. The Shack Up is a B&B — they say it stands for bed and beer — where the cabins are in the style of old-fashioned sharecroppers shacks, with all modern amenities, of course. It’s kitsch in the best possible way, if you’re open to it.

shackupshackup2Next week: If you can’t make it to Mississippi, two newly released books that will help you recreate the spirit of the South in your own kitchen.

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More on the Mississippi Delta

monkeys2It goes without saying that the Mississippi Delta, the swath of land between the Mississippi and the Yazoo Rivers on the western edge of the state, is a land of contrasts. I can’t do the few days I spent there justice — I said it in my post about Taylor Grocery, and I feel the same way now. I have the desire to write about it, but I’m simply not sure how to do it. There’s too much to say and even now that I’m back in Nebraska, it still feels a touch dangerous to tackle a bit of writing about my experience. I want to get it right.

I had no idea what to expect going into a trip to Mississippi. We’ve all read the negative statistics — you look up a statistic about the state, its going to be bad — and that’s about all I knew of the place. But there’s much more to it. It’s overflowing with culture and tradition, with wealth and poverty, with the sound of the blues and some of the most amazing home cooked food I’ve ever tasted.

The sign above is from Po’ Monkey’s, one of the last remaining juke joints in the Delta. As fate would have it, and thanks to a delayed flight on Delta Airlines, we missed our chance on Thursday night to see the place hoppin’. The fact that I missed it is enough to make me want to return to Merigold, Miss., just to walk through the door.

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The food is another reason. Home cooked spreads are available every day in every restaurant and gas station through the deep south. Buffet-style offerings always include, at the very minimum, greens, beans, biscuits, ham, bacon, eggs, hush puppies, creamed corn, rice, gravy, neck bones, fried chicken and at least a handful of flavors of pie and pudding. Home-brewed sweet tea and hot coffee are a given.

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We had breakfast our first morning at an old-school place called Mama Jo’s Country Cookin’. I barely put a dent in the buffet with my above breakfast, which the lady working the buffet told me was “weird.” I think it was the greens. Andrew Zimmern’s photo is on the wall at Mama Jo’s and she told us that he was “weird,” too. “He ate the bones,” she told us, a proclamation that nearly made me choke on my cup of coffee.

We drove a couple of hours straight into the heart of the Delta for lunch and hit the soul food lunch buffet at The Senator’s Place, in Cleveland, where my eyes were definitely much bigger than my stomach.

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Sen. Willie Simmons and his wife, Rosie, run the restaurant. May I recommend the neck bones and banana pudding?

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Another thing I didn’t expect on the trip: the homemade tamales, which are everywhere on the Delta.

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When I got home, I read this article, which offers a few theories on how tamales came to the Delta. They might have come with the Mexican laborers who came to the Delta in the early 20th century to harvest cotton. They may have arrived via soldiers from the south that fought in the U.S.-Mexican war a hundred years earlier. Or the Native Americans who lived in the area for thousands of years might have introduced them. Whatever the case, they’re there. We had them twice, and the two versions we had couldn’t have looked or tasted more different. The above basket we found at The Lamar Lounge in Oxford; I washed mine down with a local beer. Inexplicably they came served with wrapped soda crackers. I liked the pile of gently pickled vegegables (under the crackers in this photo) a lot more.

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lamar

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We found our second tamale — and an otherwise incredible meal (have I said that too many times?) at Doe’s Eat Place, in Greenville. Though I liked the tamales at Lamar better, it was interesting to see how the Delta has really adopted the tamale — its clear there’s more than one way to make the same dish. Instead of a husk wrapper, Doe’s wraps its tamale in what appears to be a thin sheet of parchment tied with a string.

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Doe’s opened in 1941 as a restaurant — the same family owned the grocery store that opened there in 1903 — and the family lived in a house behind the store. Around 1941, the grocery started selling homemade tamales, and that was the beginning of the restaurant.

At first, Doe’s was strictly for blacks, and customers entered through the back door. A local doctor, who was white, started coming in for meals, and word got out. Today Doe’s is half 1940s grocery store, half homestyle steak restaurant, and diners still enter through the kitchen. There’s no menu, instead, the wait staff rattles off a list and diners pick. Its no secret that beef is what to get at Does. Being both a Nebraskan and a steak lover, I give their beef — and the gorgeous char on the outside of my medium rare filet — two thumbs up.

doe1 doe2I have one more post coming, about our trip to Mississippi native William Faulkner’s home and an exhibition we saw about his life and work, a visit to the home of the blues and a stay at a one-of-a-kind bed and breakfast.

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Taylor Grocery & Restaurant

taylor3I can count my “incredible dining experiences” on my ten fingers. They don’t happen that often. The latest happened during a handful of days last week in  Mississippi. It’s one of those dining experiences that makes me want to rely on cliché: “I’ll never forget it” or “You have to see it to believe it” or “too amazing to be captured with photos.” I can’t say how much I love the above sign, which applies to Taylor Grocery, but to me, too.

I want to carry on and on about the hand-crafted food, the giant sweet teas, the twangy live music, the location that doesn’t even seem like it should exist outside of a sound stage in Hollywood. I want to tell you to just go to Taylor Grocery and Restaurant yourself instead of relying on a dozen iPhone photos and a few sentences. But we’re in Nebraska, and Mississippi probably isn’t on your bucket list (speaking of cliché) though I’d recommend you add it. Anyway. Here goes.

taylor4taylor1If you try and type “Taylor Grocery” in to a GPS, you’ll end up in a cemetery in the middle of a field somewhere (this according to the restaurant’s website.) Somehow that seems perfect. The building dates from 1889 and started its life as a grocery store and remained one through the great depression. In 1977, it became a restaurant specializing in catfish. That’s what it is now. You can get your catfish blackened or fried and it comes with hush puppies and two sides. Of course, we tried both.

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It goes without saying that every morsel we ate tasted fantastic. The fish, firmer and more flavorful than any catfish I’ve ever had from the Missouri, was good either way, though I preferred the blackened. The rice isn’t the standard dirty rice; on the menu it’s called “Big Deb’s World Famous Brown Rice,” and it is fantastic, smoky and sweet and oniony.

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We also tried the grilled boneless pork loin, wrapped in bacon and charred to perfection, and I drank my fair share of half sweet, half unsweet brewed tea. Lord, the tea.

taylor6Every wall, every surface, inside Taylor is covered with “Kilroy was here” style graffiti: walls, ceiling beams, signs, tablecloths, chairs. Next time I’m in Mississippi, I’ll come armed with a Sharpie to leave my own scribbles on a wall deep in the South instead of waiting until I get home to write my words on a blog instead.

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I’ve got more on Mississippi this week. Still to come: Neck bones, juke joints and the Crossroads.

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Breaking the Ice

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Three Little Birds Punch from Le Bouillon

Yesterday, the Omaha Craft Bartenders Guild had its first public event, Breaking the Ice, at the Joslyn Castle. If our experience is any indication, it was a rousing success. The guild is a new member-organization that includes lots of local restaurants and bars focused on craft drink making. Clark Ross, bartender at The Boiler Room, gathered his colleagues — the city’s best and brightest in the field — to create some drinks for the afternoon. Everyone brought their A-game, and we enjoyed every single drink we tasted.

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The End of the World from V. Mertz (Bombay Sapphire East and Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur in a gelee, with Pearls of Green Chartreuse and lime and tincture of cardamom)

plume1Derby Tea from The Grey Plume 

br2Bartender Colin Breen making two cocktails — Post Haste and Mas Rapido — at The Boiler Room’s booth

As you can see, the drinks were teeny-tiny. That was smart — With two cocktails at each booth, and booths from bartenders and sponsors on both floors of the Joslyn Castle, it would have been a bit overwhelming had they been any larger. We kept our focus and just took sips of things that looked most intriguing. The crowd, incredibly well-behaved, seemed to have gotten the same cue. Lots of passed small bites — pate on crisp bread, cheese and cornichons, savory cheese straws and chicharrón, among other snacks, helped.

br1Gorgeous golden-hued spelt whiskey from Koval, a Chicago-based distillery and one of the event sponsors

plume2Meringue cookies from The Grey Plume

leb1Lazy Suze blood orange cocktail from Le Bouillon

krugGlengarry scotch cocktail from Krug Park

moonOrange you Fresh beer cocktail from the Crescent Moon

If you missed yesterday’s event, don’t despair. Clark promises Breaking the Ice will become annual, and there’s many more events he  has begun planning in the interim. In the meantime, you can purchase a special, limited run of Koval Whiskey that the guild members hand-picked and the distillery bottled specially for them at guild member bars and restaurants as well as Spirit World.

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Food Prowl: Nebraska Brewed Beer

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Meeting very cool people at bars and breweries all over town to sip on beers and opine on their flavor, like I did for the first Food Prowl of 2014, is an enviable job. It’s a ton of fun. But it’s not always that easy (I know, I know, that seems like a lie.) But as evidence to the challenges of a story like this one, wherein a team tries more than 50 beers and talks in detail about every single one, I give you this photo. The Spreadsheet.

photo 1 (5)This nerdy, beer-stained document turned into the team’s saving grace. Because we tried so many beers, it became hard to remember what we sampled, where we tried it and if we liked it or not. In the end, the beers we loved — the ones we called winners — stood out. But we still had to have a paper vote — that’s those little scraps on top of the spreadsheet, which I kept in my handbag after our final meeting so I could later make sure I got our votes tallied correctly. The beer prowl is only the second time a team has had such varied opinions that we turned to paper votes. The first time we did it was on the prowl for the city’s best Eggs Benedict, where Dixie Quicks prevailed.

photo 4 (5)I am thrilled with the diverse and varied list of winners the team came up with. I am also quite proud of myself for getting past my wine and whiskey only rule and venturing into porters — especially Zipline’s Oatmeal Porter — and hops. I plan to have a summertime love affair with Nebraska Brewing Company’s Hop God. Amazing stuff.

If you missed it, find the story, a list of all the winners and a list of every beer the team sampled right here.

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The Other Room

The only evidence I have that I was ever in the Other Room — a fantastic new speakeasy in Lincoln’s Haymarket — is a business card.

IMG_6272You can’t take photos in the intimate space, which seats just 25. And the thing is, you don’t really want to. It feels right to tuck your phone in your bag and simply enjoy being in the bar. That’s because The Other Room is the first craft bar in Nebraska, as far as I know, that feels truly intimate and special. The decor is warm but modern, the service friendly and the cocktails are definitely worth waiting for.

Bartender Jill Cockson (whom you’ll remember helped me find Omaha’s best Old Fashioned) is behind the place. It’s located in a remote spot off an outdoor courtyard in downtown Lincoln — I’d post an exact address, but I can’t find one — and a light outside lets you know if there’s room inside. The courtyard is off P street adjacent to Vincenzo’s and up the street from The Mill. When that light is green, you’re in, when it’s red, you’re not.

I tried two of Jill’s drinks: an anise-forward, seasonal drink called “Carthusian’s Mistress” that I loved and a second from the list of drinks using her house-made tonic. The “Dr. Suze” featured an orange-cinnamon-clove tonic and a lovely orange peel garnish studded with whole cloves. She has an Old Fashioned on her menu inspired by the one we chose as the Food Prowl winner, at Omaha’s Boiler Room Restaurant. Needless to say, I’ll be back for more.

The bar doesn’t have a website or a Facebook page, but you can find Jill on Twitter.

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Chicago, part one

I hadn’t been to Chicago in a long time — years, literally — before December. And now I’ve been to the city twice in the past eight weeks. Chicago is as cool as ever (albeit freezing cold this time of year) and despite the wicked winds, on both trips I had a great time and discovered some new favorites. Here’s a run down.

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Intellegentsia. How I wish we had one in Omaha. Their tiny cappuccinos are magical. (Thankfully Omaha is getting more serious about coffee. So that’s good.)

lula5Lula Cafe is another place I wish had an Omaha branch. The hip brunch spot is my new favorite. I had creative, delicious food — the rutabaga gratin with savory granola, egg and seared greens above included — along with delicious sweets and pastries.

lula4lula3Speaking of breakfast, Firecakes is fantastic. The Valrhona chocolate cake doughnut had this incredible crunchy exterior that drove me wild. Again, I found myself hoping that Omaha gets on the fancy doughnut bandwagon really soon.

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Longman and Eagle was on my list of Chicago places I wanted to try, and we made it during the second trip and snagged a coveted bar seat (the wait for a table when we arrived at 7 p.m. topped three hours.) Their house made burrata is incredible, and my photo doesn’t do it any justice.

burattaI didn’t get any photos when we dined at Maude’s Liquor Bar but trust me when I tell you the mussels are fantastic and the atmosphere is, too. The Dawson, a drinking-focused restaurant, comes through with creative cocktails, like the Zodiac Cobbler, which in December I could not resist, as I am a Capricorn.

zodiacYes, I had to filter the photo but I wanted to show you the bits of chamomile on top, which sunk into the drink as the ice melted and changed the flavors. The Capricorn edition of the drink included carpano biano, armagnac, rhum clement, vsop, lemon, blackberry and chamomile.

nicoThe wall of brick and greenery and cabinet of curiosities at Nico Osteria was so cool. I loved the vibe of this new restaurant. I also loved my meat and cheese small plate, which I didn’t get a photo of but food blogger Samantha at Chicago Food Authority (a new favorite) did.

instagramWe returned to the Violet Hour and after a short wait, I met my favorite drink once again. This Ramos Gin Fizz had an impressive column of delicious foam on top, and I break the no photos rule to snap a quick shot. Also great in the drinks category: Dive bar meets craft bar The Whistler, where I had a mean Old Fashioned.

ramosI’ll end with a Chicago classic. On the December visit, I’d just finished the epic Omaha Pizza Food Prowl, and I was in the mood for a slice even after all that, so we ventured to Lou Malnati’s and ordered the Malnati Chicago Classic, made with sausage, cheese and tomato sauce served on their signature “buttercrust.”

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In part two of my Chicago posts, I’ll detail course by course the reason for our first trip to the city: dinner at Next.
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Blatt + Lagunitas Beer Dinner

Last week, I went to my first beer dinner. I’d been to plenty of wine dinners — I wrote a story about the ones I visited — but never one focused on beer. I like the menu at Blatt Beer and Table and I like the Laugnitas beers I’ve sampled, so to have the two together seemed like a treat. Also, at $30 a head, a decent deal, too.

setupThe first course: Pub peanuts (honey roasted, chipotle chili-dusted and seasoned with cinnamon, cumin and coriander) paired with Dog Town Pale Ale. At the start of each of the five courses, we got a bit of information about the food and then a bit more about the beer.

beerThe pours of beer were 8 ounces at the beginning of the meal and by the last two courses, reduced to six ounces, and I thought it was the perfect amount to enjoy both the taste of the food and the ale together and alone.

saladIndian spiced chicken salad got paired with Lagunitas IPA. (We had one course in between that I got too excited for and forgot to photograph: Blatt macaroni and cheese paired with Little Sumpin’ Sumpin Ale.)

chickenwafflesWe ate chicken and waffles — which has been completely overhauled for the better since I reviewed Blatt last year — paired with Hairy Eyeball Ale, a beer specially formulated by the California brewery to help with a hangover.

brittleDessert was both my favorite course and favorite pairing of the night. Blatt’s bacon brittle is full of small bits of applewood smoked bacon and salty caramel, making it pretty over the top. It tasted great with Brown Shugga Ale, and the pairing brought out roasted flavor in both the ale and the sweet. I’m really tempted to, next December, sprinkle some sea salt and bacon through my grandmother’s peanut brittle recipe, which she’s promised to teach me how to make. But that’s another blog post for another time.

The next beer and food pairing at Blatt is slated for Sunday, Feb. 16 and is a $20 Lucky Bucket brunch.

This is not a sponsored post. I just like beer dinners and paid for both meals.

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