It's a long-standing debate among barbecue lovers: Smoked or grilled?
I think a little bit of both makes the best barbecue.
You can tell by the name what kind of preparation you will get at Mojo Smokehouse & Ales. Situated next to the Aksarben Cinema near 67th and Frances Streets, Mojo is a smoked meat place, plain and simple. Nearly everything that can be cooked is smoked in its hickory wood smoker. It's more than 8 feet long.
Reynold McMeen opened the Smokehouse in May 2011 with his brother Jason and son Fletcher. McMeen has worked in bars and restaurants in Lincoln, including more than two decades spent at Duffy's Tavern, on O Street downtown.
The early menu was very similar to other barbecue places around Omaha. After chef Terry Owen and his longtime sous-chef Adam Miller took over in December, McMeen moved to a menu with more smoked meat. Owen recently left Mojo for the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, and now Miller is head chef.
Our visits began with the smoked pork Mojo nachos, $9 for a full order. The dish includes a huge pile of homemade tortilla chips, black bean dip, cheddar jack and lots of shredded smoked pork.
The bean dip is a combination of black beans and black-eyed peas with mild, cilantro-spiked homemade salsa on the side. You also can choose smoked shredded chicken or no meat on your nachos. The pork was flavorful without being too spicy for kids, though the pieces could have been smaller. One pull of a chip can lead to a large amount of meat, leaving the next chip nearly naked.
Mojo has two dining rooms: The main dining room wraps around the bar, and a second dining room on the north side is used mostly for private parties. Projection televisions are on both sides of the bar, and smaller flat-screen TVs are in the corners.
Harlan Faust designed the restaurant's interior. He's with Faust Howell associates, a longtime local restaurant architectural firm. Three storage cabinets, more than 10 feet high, hang from the ceiling above the large square bar. The outside of the cabinets is covered in frosted plastic and they're lit from within with red lights. The top and bottom of the bar are wrapped in silver pressed tin, the same tin that surrounds the bottom of the dining room walls.
A large trough at the back of the bar is full of beer and ice, and the eleven Nebraska beers Mojo has on tap — in addition to a tap for PBR — are above the trough.
I can't say I've seen another bar like it in Omaha.
Mojo is very kid-friendly, with pool tables, dart boards, video games and, best of all, tables painted with chalkboard paint. Immediately our boys started writing their names and drawing pictures on the table. It's an updated twist on the butcher paper tablecloth.
McMeen said he originally wanted Mojo to have a tapas menu so diners could try a number of smaller dishes. He discovered that doesn't quite work for a barbecue joint, but the Mojo XL sliders survived from the tapas idea.
You can order any combination of the seven slider varieties on a plate of three, six or eight. I tried three.
The smoked brisket slider came with three slices of pull-apart tender meat topped with spicy barbecue sauce and served on a mini roll.
A telltale smoke line revealed that it had been cooked for hours.
The Mojo Chicwich came with the restaurant's original barbecue sauce, smokier and without the kick of the spicy sauce. I took the chicken off the bread and dipped it into the spicy sauce.
The crabby patty was my least favorite. It had small chunks of crab and onion, and the rest was breading. But the aioli that came with it saved the dish with its yummy garlic and red pepper flavor.
The sliders are served with a plate of light and crispy chips that weren't too greasy but could have used some salt or seasoning.
The best part of our first visit was the smoked strip beef loin. Two eight-ounce New York strips come with horseradish au jus. My wife and I were both surprised at the amount of meat on the plate: Diners get their $20 worth.
“We are not a petite restaurant,” McMeen told me later. “We want people to be full when they leave.”
The tender, smoky steaks, which we ordered rare, had a strip of fat on each side. I could cut the meat with my butter knife, and we both enjoyed the sharp flavor of the horseradish au jus over the top, though we'd take it on the side next time. We ordered red beans and rice as a side, and though they were truly Southern with nice seasonings, we'd have preferred vegetables. McMeen said veggies will be on the next incarnation of the menu, due later this summer.
The strip also came with a slice of cornbread and a delicious cup of whipped honey butter with chopped jalapenos mixed in.
I have always believed mac and cheese is a child's main course, but after our oldest ordered Mojo's version, I changed my mind.
The shells are covered in a three-cheese sauce with hickory-smoked bacon and parmesan bread crumbs. If you decide to get it as an entrée, which runs $12, you can add smoked sausage, chicken, salmon or shrimp for a couple bucks extra. After tasting the gourmet twist on a kid's classic, Kris and I both determined it was too good for only a 6-year-old to appreciate. Don't tell my Southern grandmother, but it's the best macaroni and cheese I've ever had.
Mojo's build-your-own-barbecue menu is its most popular section, McMeen said.
Diners get a choice of two meats for $16, three meats for $20 or four meats for $24 along with two sides. On our second trip, we ordered the sausage, baby-back ribs and meatloaf with baked beans and seasoned fries. I really enjoyed the sausage; it's a combination of Southern smoked sausage in size and consistency and Polish kiebasa in taste.
I have been working on recipes and making baby-back ribs for more than a decade, and Mojo does everything right. They were not “fall off the bone” tender, but still very tender and juicy.
The dry rub and the smoke from the hickory wood work well together. With a very light layer of Mojo's original sauce, the taste of the smoky meat was still the star of the show. A half a slab or so came with the three-meat platter. My only regret was not ordering more.
The old fashioned meatloaf was not popular with anyone at the table. The entree's consistency and smoky taste was unappealing, and I wouldn't order it again.
The baked beans were creamy and tangy with pieces of pulled pork baked in.
The Mojo wings were surprising. We ordered a dozen ($15) with two sauces out of the dozen Mojo's offers.
I really liked the spicy garlic wings. Prepared first in the smoker and then finished in a pan with the sauce, the wings are big and meaty.
The second sauce, cherries jubilee, is described on the menu as sweet and hot and had whole cooked cherries. It was good but in the end we wished we'd ordered a different sauce — McMeen said it and one other sauce, the Polynesian, won't be on the new menu. He's adding a horseradish barbecue and another new choice.
McMeen said he appreciates the diverse mix of restaurants in Aksarben Village. After 20 years in the restaurant business, he thinks the more the merrier in terms of new places in the development.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Mojo's is unlike anything else you'll find in the midtown neighborhood, or around Omaha.
Mike'l Severe is the co-host of “Unsportsmanlike Conduct,” a sports talk show on 1620 The Zone Radio, weekdays from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. He grew up in New Orleans, spending most of his childhood in his grandmother's kitchen. He first learned to cook from his father, Henry, who was a chef for more than 50 years. Mike'l and his wife, Kris, love to try new restaurants every Friday on date night.
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