When Patricia “Big Mama” Barron was a child in the 1950s, her family took road trips from Omaha deep into the south.
It was difficult to stop and eat on the way — many restaurants then didn't allow black customers — so they planned ahead.
“Before we left, my mother would fry up lots of chicken,” Barron said. “We'd take that chicken and put it on bread and put some mayonnaise and some onion sauce on it and eat that while we rode in the car.”
A version of that same cold fried chicken sandwich, made from the same recipe her mother and grandmother used, is the best-selling menu item at Big Mama's Sandwich Shop, which Barron opened this spring next door to the Carver Bank Building on 24th and Lake Streets.
That popularity is well-earned. The sandwich is delicious and deeply satisfying, the sort of old-school food that never goes out of style, especially when it's done with fresh ingredients and lots of heart.
Everything I tried on two recent visits to the tiny shop was made with the same care; all of it fit what Barron says she wants to make: “Real food.”
The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and Chicago artist Theaster Gates approached Barron about opening a second restaurant in North Omaha as part of the redevelopment of the Carver Bank building into artist lofts. Gates told Barron she reminded him of his mother, which she smiles as she repeats. She signed on immediately.
The restaurant, performance space and studios for working artists at Carver Bank opened in March 2013.
“I am born and raised in Omaha,” Barron said, “and I will do whatever I can to see 24th street revisited. I want to be part of the rise again.”
Big Mama's Sandwich Shop isn't a satellite location of her much-talked about full-service restaurant, Big Mama's Kitchen, which has been featured twice on Food Network shows.
Instead, it is an entirely different restaurant with its own distinct menu of sandwiches, hot dogs and a few desserts that diners order at a counter. Diners can eat at a bar with a few high-top seats or outdoors in an adjacent seating area behind the Carver Bank artist lofts. Most customers I saw during my visits took their food to go. Inside, the restaurant is small, modern and sleek but still welcoming, with silver metal and lots of warm gold wood that make up the counter and the rugged floor. The menu is written in big letters on a chalkboard and often, soul music plays from a small iPod dock.
On my first visit, I went straight for the cold fried chicken sandwich, which the friendly people behind the counter — one is Barron's daughter Debbie Craddock — assured me I was going to love. A friend ordered the Carver sandwich, roast beef, sauteed red onion, red and green bell peppers, swiss cheese and house-made mayonnaise on a Rotella's bun. All the bread comes from the Omaha bakery and diners have a choice between white or wheat.
Two other friends had a heart-smart veggie sandwich, which came with their choice of cheese and a heap of fresh vegetables that included spinach, onion, tomatoes, banana peppers and olives, among others.
The boneless breast of cold fried chicken cut into hunks was tender and chewy at once, topped with a heap of homemade coleslaw, lettuce and chopped red onion. Seasoned simply, the flavor of the chicken and of the soft-crisp breading dominated.
My friends were impressed with the variety of fresh vegetables on the meatless sandwich — at many places, the veggie sandwich seems like an afterthought, but this one didn't. One friend especially liked the dressing on the sandwich, which she said was similar to an Italian, but sweeter with the flavor of honey.
The beef on the Carver was tender and smoky, and Barron told me later that all the meats — beef, turkey and pork — are smoked in-house.
“It's the real stuff,” she said. “No pressed meats here.”
Everyone pretty much swooned over Big Mama's cranberry iced tea, which is so addictive that one friend I was with that day went back to the restaurant just to get a bottle of it, only to find it sold out for the day. That happens almost daily.
Barron said the drink, which she bottles at her other restaurant and brings over to the sandwich shop daily, is a blend of cranberry juice and her grandmother's sweet tea recipe. It's refreshing to a fault, both sweet and fruity, and I would drink it every day if I could.
On another visit, we tried Big Mama's version of a Cuban sandwich, which had that same deep smoky flavor along with the traditional yellow mustard and dill pickles. None of the flavors overpowered others on the well-balanced sandwich. The Cuban is served hot and pressed in a panini press. It was my husband's favorite of those we tried.
We also ordered the Lake Street hot dog, and it came with advice from the man behind the counter.
“You're going to need a lot of napkins,” he said.
Don't be fooled by the appearance of the dogs at Big Mama's. They look like your regular gas station variety — even the Lake Street dog, which is topped with a scoop of macaroni and cheese, didn't look like much. Once we bit into it, though, we realized it wasn't what it seemed.
Instead, like the meats, it had a surprisingly smoky depth, and the classic bright-gold, creamy mac and cheese added moisture and texture that we both liked. The dog was served searing hot on a soft bun that soaked up some of the cheese sauce.
Barron said the hot dogs are all-beef and are steamed in house. They're another take from her childhood.
“We used to put hot dogs on a slice of bread sideways and then top it with mac and cheese or beans or chili,” she said. “Whatever we had to dress up the dog.”
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My husband and I ate our second lunch in a park surrounding the Martin Luther King Jr. Cornerstone Memorial. Both my husband and I thought it was a nice place to sit, amid flowers and a big painted mural — not what many Omahans might expect to see on the corner of 24th and Lake Streets.
Barron said people from all over Omaha come into her restaurants — I saw that, too, when I was there. Some customers seemed like they lived in the neighborhood, while others dressed in business-casual probably came from an office downtown or midtown. A fair amount of blue-collar workers drove up in pickup trucks each time I was there. It was a diverse mix.
“Any time one of the shows is on the Travel Channel,” Barron said, “I get calls from people asking 'Is it safe?'”
Barron tells them it is. In my two experiences there, I never felt unsafe, either.
“I find that people come here, they talk, they eat,” Barron said. “That's the atmosphere I want to create. Every meal should be like Sunday dinner, a time of joy and of talking. I want to bring that back.”
From what I can tell, and from what I tasted, she's doing it in the most old-school, legitimate way possible: through good food, real friendliness and a touch of the past that's still relevant now.