The Omaha Tap House is just what it appears to be: a sports bar serving lots of sporting events, a menu mostly of burgers and lots and lots of craft beer.
I found some things to like at this bar-meets-restaurant on the busy corner of 13th and Farnam Streets in downtown Omaha, including the extensive beer list, with lots of creative seasonal selections. Two burgers were perfectly seasoned and cooked.
But the Tap House is a bar first and foremost. Some of the more unusual dishes weren't so hot, and a few of the sandwiches just had too much going on.
I went to the grand opening of the Tap House in August, and since then, the menu has changed. A large list of salads is pared to four. A dinner entree menu that included a pasta dish and steak frites is gone. It seems like the restaurant has dropped its planned gastropub model in favor of a burger and sandwich-centric menu with appetizers sized for sharing.
This is smart. I can't say I'd expect — or want — to eat steak frites while watching a Bears game.
“We are going for a place with a casual atmosphere with good burgers where people can watch the game,” owner Kent Letnes said. And it looks like that's just what people are doing.
On two recent visits, the Tap House seemed to be drawing after-work crowds for its daily happy-hour specials and hungry football fans on weekends. The restaurant is on the main floor of the historic Paxton Building in the former Crane Coffee restaurant space. The decor is straightforward: cushy booths that line the large windows, an open kitchen, a large bar and a mix of low and high-top tables.
My husband appreciated the wide array of games on the televisions and the fact that no matter where you sit, you can see at least one screen.
The beer list, in colored chalk on a wall-sized chalkboard, greets diners. We liked the variety of the list, which included good beers from popular craft breweries such as Rogue and Ska as well as a handful of seasonal choices. Rogue's Juniper Pale Ale was so good — smooth with a spicy, juniper berry finish — that we had it on both visits.
“Our philosophy when it comes to beer is that we will throw on a barrel of almost anything,” Letnes said. “We are trying to find the most creative beers we can.”
We tried the cheese curds appetizer — a dish you don't see many places in Omaha — and the curds in the wire basket were much larger than the ones I'd had in Wisconsin. Instead of being dime-sized, think half-dollar size. And instead of traditional white cheddar, think yellow cheese.
I ate two with a knife and fork and found the larger size to be somewhat overwhelming and almost too rich. My husband thought the bites were too close to something you'd eat at a state fair. (The Tap House menu also includes a fried candy bar, so maybe this is intentional.)
Letnes, who lives in Wisconsin, said the beer-battered balls are Eau Claire-style cheese curds, named after a Wisconsin town, and are the restaurant's top-selling appetizer.
“I think there's nothing better then a big chunk of cheese fried in beer batter,” he said.
We sampled two burgers, the mushroom burger and the brown sugar burger, which Letnes said is another best-seller.
Both burgers were nicely cooked, juicy and flavorful. I liked the simplicity of the house-made buns and the burgers, which Letnes said are hand-pattied, were just the right size.
We expected the brown sugar burger to be sweet, though we didn't expect it to be one-note. Bacon, house-made sweet barbecue sauce and cheddar cheese weren't enough to cut through the overwhelming sweetness of the caramelized Vidalia onions.
The sweet onions also took over my mushroom burger: There were way more onions on top of the burger and just a scant sprinkle of mushrooms. We both liked the hand-cut, skin-on French fries.
All the burgers at the Tap House are cooked on the flat-top grill and seasoned simply, with salt and pepper. Nothing we tried lacked flavor, and seasoning seemed spot-on. Letnes said the mushroom burger shouldn't have been so sweet, but the brown sugar burger is meant to be.
“The sweet is kind of odd for a burger,” he said. “A lot of people really like it.”
Prices are what you would expect. Specialty burgers hover around $9, sandwiches between $8 and $12, appetizers around $10. A craft beer averages around $5 a bottle and cocktails sit closer to $7.
On all our visits, service was fantastic: attentive, friendly and fast.
We ordered a huge bowl of hot artichoke dip coated in cheese, and it came served with four large chunks of garlic bread and a pile of tri-color tortilla chips. It could have fed three times the people at our table. But it was good, slightly tangy and rich, and we loved the crusty, garlic-laden bread. It took major willpower for me not to eat a second hunk.
The dip is made with artichoke, onion, mayonnaise and sour cream, which lent the tang I tasted.
“It's very rich,” Letnes said. “It's not something where you can eat the whole thing.”
The fish and chips were standard hunks of cod, beer-battered in the same style as the cheese curds. My husband said he didn't like this fish as much as that at the Dundee Dell, mostly because it wasn't served in a bag and wasn't sizzling hot. He also missed the more traditional potato slices. Tap House serve standard fries with its fish.
The one true stinker of the meal was a bowl of cream of chicken and wild rice soup. The cream had separated from the oil, leaving a grainy, greasy mess behind. The soup had lots of vegetables, meat and nice seasoning, though it was inedible as served.
Letnes said his guess was the soup had been held too long or reheated too fast.
The southwest rotisserie chicken sandwich I tried had a lot going on. A huge bun encased raw sliced onions, tomato and pepper (I would have preferred these sauteed), melted cheese and some really tasty rotisserie chicken, made in the restaurant's rotisserie oven downstairs. I ended up picking the hunks of moist yet crispy chicken off the bread and leaving the rest behind.
It's nice to see a restaurant on that busy corner of downtown Omaha, and it seems like a great location for a beer-and-burger sports bar joint that draws an after-work crowd with its great happy hour.
The Tap House seems to have things working in its favor, especially that creative beer list, fair pricing and excellent service. Streamlining a few of the dishes would build on that.
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