Walk toward the intersection of 50th Street and Underwood Avenue, and you'll smell something.
It smells rich. A little ethnic. And like something you want to eat.
That's the curry fries at Amsterdam Falafel and Kabob.
Kids walking home from school seek out the scent's source and order baskets of the potatoes, said Phil Anania, co-owner of the nearly five-year-old falafel joint in the heart of Dundee.
After 1 a.m., when closing time looms at nearby taverns, bar-goers flood the space, ordering the fries like mad. Suited businessmen order them for lunch. Moms share them with their kids. Skateboarders eat them sitting at the two outdoor tables, boards balanced on the wall nearby.
Those fries — savory, salty, spicy and yes, smelly — are one of only six menu items at Amsterdam, a restaurant that thrives in spite of its tiny location, scant menu and small staff.
"Amsterdam is simple," Anania said. "It is what it is."
During three recent visits, we sampled Amsterdam's entire menu save for one seasonal item, and found the food to be just as Anania described it: simple. It's also done very well.
Amsterdam is just under 550 square feet, including a restroom, and seats a mere 20 (16 inside, four outside). Diners order from a counter and pick up their food at the same spot minutes later.
Despite its size, Amsterdam has plenty of personality.
Three huge globe lights hang in the center of the dining room, giving the restaurant a warm glow through orange, blue and green plastic domes. A pop-art inspired mural of green bicycles covers almost the entire south wall, and seats along the front window give diners a good view of the activity outside and a nice breeze through open windows in milder months. The floor is half brown industrial tile and half worn wood.
The mainstays of the menu are two sandwiches: the falafel and the doner kabob.
The sandwiches are a variation on the same theme. The falafel sandwich is packed with two large falafel cakes, a popular Middle Eastern street food made of ground chickpeas and spices that are formed into patties and fried to crisp perfection. The doner kabob (doner is Turkish for "rotating roast") contains a pile of tasty, lightly spiced shaved meat with a pleasant texture and a firm bite. The meat, mostly lamb, rotates on a spit behind the counter.
Anania said the sandwiches are equally loved.
"The 9-to-5 crowd veers toward falafel," he said. "At night, it turns toward meat."
Dundee, recently named one of the top 10 neighborhoods in the nation by the American Planning Association, is an area that draws crowds during the day for lunch and at night for its handful of busy bars and hip outposts. Anania and his partner in the restaurant, Anne Cavanaugh, get that because they grew up in the neighborhood, and they hang out there still.
The two have been friends since high school. Anania graduated from Creighton Prep and Cavanaugh from Duchesne Academy.
Anania started working in the restaurant industry at age 15, helping his mom with her catering business. Cavanaugh and Anania worked together for nearly eight years at La Buvette in the Old Market. Cavanaugh also waitressed at the Dundee Dell.
They designed Amsterdam to fit in with the neighborhood they love, adding twists that remind them of their European travels.
"Our goals when we started were good fresh food, quality customer service and to stay open late," Cavanaugh said.
The restaurant stays open until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights — it has from day one — and starting at midnight, they sell anywhere from 50 to 150 falafels and kabobs, Cavanaugh said.
Both sandwiches are tucked into rounds of bread from the International Bakery in South Omaha. The bread is the shape of a pita but the consistency of a baguette, chewy and crispy at once. The sandwiches are topped with a cool slaw of minced garlic, bright purple cabbage, carrots, whole chickpeas, cucumber and tomato.
Diners can choose from three sauces for their sandwich: spicy (which is sambal, made from chili paste, and is really hot), green herb, or creamy garlic. The sandwiches also can be topped with house-made hummus and crumbles of feta cheese for an extra 50 cents. Most diners choose more than one of these garnishes, and sometimes get all five.
The falafel sandwich needs the hummus. The nutty, creamy spread is lightly flavored with tahini, a thick paste made of sesame seeds. It virtually melts into the hot bean patties once you cut into them.
The meat in the kabob sandwich plays well with the three sauces. It soaks up a bit of the heavy spice and stands up in flavor next to the garlic and herb. Both sandwiches are delicious.
As my dining partner and I got deeper into each sandwich, the ratio of sauces changed. Both our sandwiches had all three of the sauces, and my falafel sandwich also had hummus. We both chose to go light on the spicy sauce because it gets overwhelming. Some bites were still loaded with the spicy sauce. Others were cool and creamy with herb.
The slaw adds necessary crunch, and the bread has a crisp, crunchy exterior and a soft, chewy interior that it maintains. The crusty nature of the bread keeps it from getting soggy, and it stays strong enough to contain the bursting-to-the-seams sandwich.
The sauces have been slightly tweaked since the restaurant opened, Anania said. The spicy sauce got spicier. The yogurt-based herb sauce, with dill, parsley and cilantro, and the creamy garlic have both been subtly revised.
Thought also went into the kabob meat. They tried a few combinations of meat before settling on the highest quality meat they could find. They cook it at a higher temperature to caramelize the exterior. They also sampled ten curry blends before settling on the one they use for the french fries.
Oh, those fries.
The first thing to note is how they're served: in a thin cone of paper topped with a tiny translucent fork. These accessories, Cavanaugh said, are ordered from Germany. She searched high and low to find the perfect style, one that would be a nod to her European travels.
The potato matchsticks are crisp on the outside and pleasantly mealy inside. They're cut perfectly and tinted a pale yellow, with darker flecks of red and brown throughout. They're subtly Indian, but mostly American, and break on impact with a quiet crunch, then explode with potato and spice flavor in your mouth. They have what my grandmother calls a "more-ish" flavor: you just want to keep eating more.
When the fries come out of the hot oil, Anania said, they immediately shake Madras curry over them. Their Madras powder originates in the south of India and has a real kick to it. Ketchup is my dip of choice, though they also offer mayo.
There's no traditional wait staff at Amsterdam, but you'll get your food quickly and efficiently. Prices, too, are reasonable. Lunch for one person, including a soda, came in just under $10. Dinner for two including two sodas hovered around $15 (The price stays low for two diners because one order of fries is more than enough to share).
Amsterdam recently added a couple of items to its menu: a hummus platter and a seasonal soup.
The hummus platter consists of a huge bowl of the dip, the top coated in red paprika, raw carrot sticks for dipping and eight wedges of toasted bread. I had a lot of hummus left over, enough to warrant more triangles of bread.
The soup, served beginning in late October through February or March, is the only item I didn't try, and that was only because it wasn't yet available this season. It also comes with a side of the toasted bread.
The simple food Anania and Cavanaugh describe is exactly what they've created. Their small menu works because they do each thing on it to near perfection, and they add their own brand of European flavor. The price is right. The atmosphere is hip, but also welcoming. The hours of operation meet just about anyone's schedule.
These owners know their market because they grew up in it.
Find your way to Amsterdam. Just follow your nose.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1069, firstname.lastname@example.org