I like deep fried tacos a lot, the kind with the puffy flour shells filled with meat and which are somewhat synonymous with Des Moines area Mexican restaurants such as Tasty Tacos or Raul's. A Road Tips reader, Dave S., e-mailed me a couple years ago about a place in Omaha that was famous for their deep fried taco shells - California Tacos and More. I tried to go there one time last year, but it was during the noon hour and the place was packed with the order line stretching nearly to the front door. I knew that I had to try back again at some point and on a recent trip to Omaha I had that chance.
California Tacos and More is located in the Midtown/Gifford Park area of Omaha at the corner of California and N. 33rd St. (see map) One of the reasons it was so packed the first time I tried to eat there is that it's close to the Creighton University Medical Center and Creighton University. Staff and students flock to California Tacos and More during the lunch rush through the week. I decided that I'd go in the evening, hoping that the crowds wouldn't be as big as they are in the middle of the day.
The building in which the restaurant is housed was built in 1914 by a Belgian immigrant who became a pharmacist. Jules "Frank" Bogard started California Pharmacy that same year and it became a cornerstone for a neighborhood of immigrants who were living just to the west of downtown Omaha. Frank and his wife Emily - whom he married just before immigrating to Omaha in 1910 - raised five boys and four girls in a house not far from the pharmacy.
In addition to being a pharmacy, California Pharmacy was also a soda fountain/ice cream parlor. The nine Bogard children all worked in the pharmacy doing everything from weighing out pharmaceuticals to being soda jerks behind the marble-topped counter. In fact, all five of the Bogard boys went on to graduate from the Creighton School of Pharmacy.
Frank Bogard, Sr. died unexpectedly in 1933 and the family all pitched in to keep the business going. When a grocery store that was housed next to California Pharmacy moved to a new location, the Bogard family took over that space and expanded the ice cream parlor. Frank Bogard, Jr. took over running the pharmacy for the family while his mother and siblings continued to help with various functions of the business.
After World War II, the soda fountain part of the business fell out of favor with the locals in the neighborhood who could now store ice cream in their own homes in lower cost refrigeration/freezer units. Frank Bogard, Jr. tore out the soda fountain in the east side and put in a gift/card shop in its place.
Into the 60's and 70's, the neighborhood around California Pharmacy changed into a hard scrabble area with lots of crime. In 1976, Frank Bogard, Jr. was shot in an attempted robbery and was left as a paraplegic. Tom Bogard came in to take over the pharmacy from his brother, but countless break-in attempts and a rapidly deteriorating neighborhood forced him to close California Pharmacy in 1987.
The building sat empty for 8 years before a gentrification effort in the Midtown/Gifford Park neighborhood began to take place. Tom Bogard's son Brad took over ownership of the building from his father, renovating the space into a restaurant that would serve their signature puffy tacos, chimichangas, burritos and enchilada. Brad Bogard opened California Taco and More in 1996.
The neighborhood is still a bit "iffy" around California Taco. I parked across the street near a corner convenience store and was promptly pan-handled by a young lady who said she needed $3.25 for bus fare to get back home. This is now a popular tactic used by modern day beggars in urban areas - a set amount to get bus fare or an amount that is needed to help pay a bill to get their car out of the shop. I've been pan-handled like this in Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee and now Omaha. (Although, I will say that a guy on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis had a sign that simply said, "I Need Five Bucks for a Beer." I thought it was so unique - and honest - that I gave him five bucks.)
Entering California Tacos and More, the place was about a quarter full of diners. A number of booths lined the windowed walls and there were a number of tables and chairs in the middle. A small bar area was off to the side. It wasn't a fancy place, but it was comfortable and welcoming.
Orders are placed at the front counter and you're given a number to place on your table so they can bring your food to you. The menu is on the wall behind the counter. Domestic and imported beers are available by the bottle, while Bud Light, Dos Equis and a Boulevard Wheat beer were all available on tap. Margaritas - including banana and mango flavored margaritas - as well as daiquiris and pina coladas were also available.
Being a California Tacos and More rookie, I noticed that one California taco ranged in price from $5.75 for a chicken taco to $6.30 for either steak or fish taco. I asked the guy behind the counter how big the tacos were and he showed me a small red basket. "They fill one of these baskets," he said. Just one, I inquired? "Just one," he said. "If you're really hungry, you could probably eat two of them."
I decided to get just one taco - a steak taco. I also got a Sol beer to go along with the taco. At California Tacos and More they also have a salsa bar that included a couple daiquiri-type dispensers that had a red salsa and a green salsa. I got a couple cups of the green salsa to take back to my table.
The taco was certainly good sized, but didn't quite take up all the space in the basket. The taco shell was thick and puffy with chunks of grilled steak laying under a bed of shredded lettuce and cheese. In fact, there was probably a little too much cheese, but it wasn't a deal breaker.
The first bite told me that even though it was good, it was different from the deep fried tacos I like to well over in Des Moines. The shell was much more doughy and chewy than its Des Moines counterparts. It wasn't as crispy as the ones at Tasty Tacos or Raul's, it had more of a consistency of bread. Not that it was bad - far from it. It was similar, yet different from the ones I've enjoyed in the past. The steak had a nice little seasoning and the chile verde salsa had a great kick that certainly got my attention without being overpowering in taste. I'm glad I only got one - it was very filling.
But the taco at California Tacos and More was very unique compared to other Mexican restaurants in the area - and there have been some very good Mexican restaurants in Omaha that I've enjoyed over the years. But none of them are anything like California Tacos and More. The taco - although a bit doughy for my taste - was good, good enough that I'd go back for a quick bite at some point. If you're looking for something a little different - and funky, in a fun sort of way - you'll need to try California Tacos and More.