Omaha is a city that has no shortage of good tacos.
I've probably eaten hundreds of small homemade corn tortillas, their long-simmered, meaty fillings topped with homemade green or deep red salsa and big chunks of bold Cotija cheese. Putting away three at once is never a chore.
I've had good tacos all over town — of course on South 24th Street, but in West Omaha, too.
Those are not the tacos I had at Voodoo Taco, a much-hyped, hip restaurant that opened this summer in northwest Omaha.
The voodoo theme I'm OK with. The restaurant's atmosphere is convincingly creepy, and less fast food-y than I expected. The dark interior is lit with flickering-bulb candelabras and decorated with reclaimed barn wood, corrugated metal, graffiti-style red flames and voodoo dolls tacked to a wall.
It feels a bit like a chain — and it soon might be. Last week, Voodoo announced it will open a second restaurant in the revamped Nebraska Crossing outlet mall. Owner Eric Newton said much of the theme came about by chance, but it felt more calculated than that to me. The restaurant promoted itself like crazy before it opened, and one recent gift certificate giveaway garnered thousands of comments on Facebook.
The restaurant forgot to consider one thing: creating a good taco. We tried many and found little to go back for.
A theme quickly developed. The restaurant's creative, tasty meats are getting buried by sauce and toppings
I liked the small bites of smoky fish in the salmon taco, but the rest of it was forgettable. The dry carrots, cabbage, shredded Asadero cheese — a soft white Mexican cheese similar to Monterrey Jack — and cilantro were just fine. But it was all overpowered by fresh, seed-in jalapeńos.
The alligator taco had nice chunks of pink, spicy, flavor- filled gator sausage. But a bright red “peri peri churrasco” sauce — which looked and tasted more like wing sauce — along with a too-big wad of lettuce drowned the good bits.
If you order the green chile taco, read the fine print. My husband, Matthew, did not, and I think one of those voodoo dolls might have had his name on it.
“Ghost chili dust” are three important words, it turns out. This taco, so hot and spicy it should come with a glass of milk, burned out his tastebuds, lips and the rest of his mouth after two bites. The pork carnitas, which looked tender and tasty, was virtually invisible. If you like spicy, you'll like it. If you don't, avoid at all costs.
He also tried the short rib taco — thankfully, before the ghost chili dust taco. The tender, flavorful meat had nice flavor and texture, and he liked a middle-of-the-road spicy Aleppo sauce that we got on the side. It was made with zingy Syrian peppers, a nice blend with the sweet Aronia berry sauce already on the taco.
It was the best of what we sampled.
The worst was the flour tortilla that hugged the meatless portobello taco. It sucked up the liquid from the marinated mushrooms and vegetables and turned into a soggy sponge. A layer of refried beans in the bottom of the taco did nothing to help. All of Voodoos tortillas — the flour ones we tried and the corn ones that are also available — are pre-packaged.
Newton told me the salmon and portobello tacos were his least favorites of the menu. But the salmon is popular, he said. The portobello has since been revamped, and the juice from the marinated mushrooms is gone, replaced with a drier grilled filling. The alligator tacos are sometimes sauced too heavily, he said.
The pork carnitas, the short rib and the barbacoa tacos are the restaurant's most popular, Newton said.
We went back for breakfast on a Sunday morning and tried two breakfast tacos: black bean, egg and cheese; and chorizo, egg and cheese. The chorizo was the standout. The meat tasted like it could have been made in-house, even though it isn't. The restaurant gets it from Hormel. The black beans had a nice smoky, bacon flavor, and the scrambled egg inside both tacos had moist texture. I was surprised to see shredded Colby-Jack cheese on both tacos. Newton said the restaurant uses that because it's the traditional breakfast taco cheese.
I give Voodoo props for using unusual meats, like barbacoa and alligator. Fillings like smoked brisket and short ribs seem to fit a creative taco restaurant. But Newton said those unusual meats aren't their main focus.
“We want to be different,” he said, “but this is still Omaha. We have to please the palettes. We don't want to get too crazy.”
Crazy doesn't have to equal bad. And basic doesn't always mean good. Ingredients matter. So does flavor. I didn't find enough pleasing combinations of either to be under the spell of Voodoo Taco.
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Where: 5402 N. 90th St.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Voodoo has a number of sauces, rated from mild to spicy on its menu, that diners can order with their tacos. I assumed they were all house-made, but owner Eric Newton said only half are. The extra spicy ones are made at Volcanic Peppers, an Omaha spice company. Sauces include chipotle ranch; tomatillo; dona, my favorite, a creamy garlic-jalapeńo; and two very hot sauces, habańero lightning and raspberry scorpion.
The restaurant offers a monthly special taco that's not on the regular menu. The most recent was the pho sho, a taco inspired by Vietnamese pho soup and filled with short rib and kimchi. This month, Newton said, the special taco will be inspired by Indian food and have a chicken tikka masala filling with Sriracha slaw and avocado.
Vegans will want to take note that Voodoo's refried beans are made for them, while the black beans include bacon. Corn tortillas are available upon request.