Ethel Mae Martin is determined to succeed.
Martin's latest endeavor — Ethel Mae's Cajun Cafe, on the east end of Benson — brings part of the soul food menu from her former North Omaha cafe to one of the city's most up-and-coming foodie destinations. And, even better, it does it in tandem with a busy bar and a live music venue.
Martin opened Ethel Mae's Soul Food Cafe, just west of 24th and Patrick Streets, in November 2011. I visited there in late January hoping to do a review. She opened the Benson branch in February.
Then the North Omaha location ran into some problems: Martin worked a full-time job in addition to running both restaurants, and when she was at work, her family had to manage the business. The Martins kept prices low at the Soul Food Cafe, but they may have been too low. And worst of all, customers weren't finding the off-the-beaten-path location. The family closed the North Omaha restaurant this spring, before the review could be published.
So I turned my attention to the new place.
Von Martin, Ethel Mae's son, said he likes the location of Ethel Mae's Cajun Cafe: Thousands of cars and potential customers flow past every day.
Basically, Ethel Mae's Cajun Cafe is a little kitchen in the back of Louis Bar and Grill, near 57th Street and Northwest Radial, the gateway to Benson's main street. The spot used to be home to Gourmet Burger and Co.
Ethel Martin's small food prep and cooking area is between the bar and a stage where there is live music almost every night. It seems like the perfect spot to highlight a region of food that has always been tied to live music.
Servers at the Cajun Cafe wear T-shirts emblazoned with "Good Music, Good Food and Great Fun" and they work a half-dozen tables and booths. Bar seating also is available and games include darts, pinball, Keno and pool. A small outdoor patio has a couple of tables.
The menu at the Cajun Cafe includes more bar food than Ethel Mae's earlier restaurant. The Martins are slowly working soul food into the menu.
I tried the battered shrimp plate to go on one visit. It also was on the menu at the old location. Around a dozen large shrimp, served on white bread, are fried butterflied and with tails on in a cornmeal batter with salt and pepper. They come with fries, and cocktail and hot sauce for dipping. My wife Kris and I enjoyed the shrimp, and we could tell the batter was homemade because the result was so crisp.
The restaurant served stewed cabbage as a special on St. Patrick's Day. It was such a hit that the family added it to the regular menu.
After trying it, my wife and I understand why so many people want it: It's slowly stewed for several hours on top of the stove, with lots of onion and pieces of bacon that make it perfectly southern. In some parts of the South, the cabbage is often made in the oven to save space on the stove for other cooking. We loved it.
The family also plans to add collard greens to its menu.
On Soul Food Sunday — another holdover from the old restaurant — diners can get a main course, two sides and dessert for $10.
The Sunday we visited the now-closed location, beef tenderloin was the main dish, and it was so tender my wife cut a piece from my serving with a plastic spoon. Ethel Martin cooks the meat for several hours.
It came with sides of mashed potatoes, homemade gravy and buttered corn with just enough salt. I mixed the potatoes, gravy and tenderloin together and enjoyed it very much. The gravy is thick but not lumpy, filled with long pieces of grilled onion, giving it the distinct taste of smoky onions.
Ethel Mae's serves some of the best fried fish I've had in Omaha. I tried both the catfish and tilapia at the old place, but only the catfish has been carried over.
A large filet of breaded catfish was lightly cornmeal-battered and seasoned with salt and pepper. The edges of each piece were slightly dry, but the rest was moist and flaky. Ethel uses this same light batter in other dishes — chicken strips and okra, for example. The black pepper-spiked batter gives Martin's fried food just enough spice without overpowering what it covers.
The fish comes with fries or surprisingly unslimy fried okra.
The pork chop plate includes two lightly breaded fried pork chops served on toast with tomato, pickle and sliced onions. The chops were not falling off the bone, but they were very tender and seasoned with salt, pepper and Morton's Season-All, a type of seasoned salt that's popular in Southern cooking.
I found myself chewing the bone once the meat was gone.
The restaurant also serves a wide variety of hamburgers, along with steaks: strips, ribeye and T-bones included.
Kids will go for the chicken strips: sliced chicken breast with poultry seasoning, seasoning salt, a little cayenne pepper and very lightly breaded in seasoned flour. There's a good chance you will borrow some from your kid's plate. We did.
Ethel's is inside a full-service bar, which comes with traditional bar conversations. We visited in the early afternoon and our kids played with the dart board and jukebox, but it might not be as kid-friendly after dark.
As disappointed as some folks might be with the closing of the soul food cafe in North Omaha, it may have been a blessing in disguise for a wider audience in a more high-profile location. More people now can enjoy a spicy double-decker chicken sandwich with a side of collard greens or cabbage.
The Martin family took a while to find a place in Omaha's dining scene, but it appears the final stop is where they should have been all along.