While in Omaha recently, I had time to stop in and grab some lunch at McKenna's Blues, Booze and BBQ, a hot spot for great barbecue and top notch blues music. It had been quite some time since I'd been in to McKenna's and I was sort of shocked to find that I had never written about the place on Road Tips until now. It's one of my favorite places to eat when I'm in Omaha.
McKenna's Blues, Booze and BBQ first opened in 1991 tucked back on the south side of Pacific at S. 74th St. Place (see map). Owner/founder Billy McKenna combined his love for good ol' Southern barbecue along with his passion for blues music to bring some of the best food and music under one roof. My first visit to McKenna's was in 1999 and I was blown away by the food, then blown away by a blues band from some small Nebraska town that was playing there that evening. For a guy like me who loves both blues and barbecue - well, and booze - it was like I'd found heaven on Pacific St. in Omaha.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. McKenna's was seized by the I.R.S. in 2006 for non-payment of taxes. A lot of people thought McKenna's run was over, but in 2007 the team of Kyron O'Brien, Randy Murphy and Chris Bollinger stepped in and re-opened McKenna's. They kept a lot of the same format of blues music and great barbecue. (Billy McKenna opened a restaurant on S. 108th St. called Billy Mac's in 2007. That restaurant closed earlier this year.) The only difference is that McKenna's has live music only on the weekends and not from Wednesday thru Saturday as they did when Billy McKenna ran the place. It's not a large place and it can get pretty loud in there.
One of the reasons - if not THE reason - McKenna's food has stayed the same under new ownership is that executive chef Manny Ayala and his son, Raul, were brought back in to run the kitchen and smokers. The menu at McKenna's features both Southern barbecue and Cajun styles of food, along with variations of Hawaiian pork and Jamaican chicken. McKenna's also has about 15 sandwiches to choose from including a brisket sandwich, a homemade smoked sausage sandwich, and a smoked turkey sandwich.
I was met by a hostess when I walked into McKenna's a little past noon the day I was there. Since it was just myself, she said, "You can sit at the bar, if you want." Sure, that works. There was one other guy at the bar eating what appeared to be a cheeseburger. Well, I was going for barbecue that day.
The only thing that I don't care for at McKenna's is that their combo plates all include chicken. I don't like barbecued or smoked chicken. I love boneless chicken breasts on the grill, but I don't care for bone-in "barbecued" chicken. Their "three-way barbecue" offering on the menu has smoked chicken, brisket and baby back ribs. I wanted two of those things. What to do, what to do...
One of the reasons I wanted the brisket is that McKenna's slow cooks their brisket for up to 10 hours. It comes out juicy and flavorful. I decided to get just the brisket platter that's served with McKenna's signature jalapeno corn bread (it's OK) and a small cob of sweet corn (I'll pass). I got two sides with the meal and I remembered that their red beans and rice were outstanding, and a side of their baked beans.
McKenna's has sort of a Southern road house feel to the place. It definitely pays homage to a lot of the great blues artists with pictures and memorabilia all over the place. Toward the back of the McKenna's was a corner that was dedicated to all things B.B. King including pictures, posters, memorabilia and a copy of King's famous "Lucille" guitar on the wall. It brought back memories of the time I met B.B. King a few years ago. (Click here to see that entry on Road Tips.) McKenna's always had some great stuff to look at each time I came there.
The bartender brought my food out to me less than 10 minutes after I ordered it. It was a pretty good sized portion of brisket on the plate. The smoke ring at the top of the meat was very visible and it was covered with a smattering of McKenna's homemade sweet and somewhat spicy barbecue sauce. I usually like to slather my meat in barbecue sauce, but at McKenna's they only provide a small cup of sauce. It turns out I didn't need any more than that.
The brisket was exactly has I remembered - flavorful and tender. It was lean and very juicy. It was - in a word - outstanding. McKenna's makes some of the finest brisket I've encountered in my culinary pursuits.
One thing that I usually do with baked beans at most barbecue places is add some of the barbecue sauce to help zip up the taste. At McKenna's I didn't have to do that. They make their baked beans with their barbecue sauce and there's plenty of it in there. The beans, too, were just outstanding.
As were the red beans and rice from what I remembered on previous visits. One thing that I almost got for lunch was the smoked sausage with red beans and rice platter. I had that on a visit about six years ago and the taste sensation was out of this world. McKenna's makes their own sausage with a combination of spices and herbs added to the meat, then they slow smoke the sausage. Combined with the red beans and rice, it's out of this world. But the red beans and rice on their own, well, I'd put them up against any Cajun restaurant I've visited, including Heaven on Seven in Chicago or Crawdaddy's in Milwaukee - two of the best Cajun restaurants in the Midwest. Both the rice and the beans weren't overcooked and I'm still trying to figure out the wonderful concoction of spices they add that made the side a little zippy, but not enough that it was overpowering.
I had to have a bite of the jalapeno corn bread with a little dollop of McKenna's homemade honey butter on top. I'm not a big fan of corn bread, but the bite I had of McKenna's jalapeno corn bread was good. Not enough that I wanted to have more, but it had a nice little singe to the taste. But, for me, corn bread is just too dry for my taste.
If I hadn't read an article on the wall about the new owners of McKenna's Blues, Booze and BBQ, I would have thought it was the same place that I first tried over 10 years ago. And in a way, it is. Getting the Ayala's back into the kitchen was a big get for the new owners. And they continue to make some of the best Southern style barbecue in the Midwest. Go for the barbecue, stay for the blues. McKenna's is a great place for both.