Carp (Joe Tess Place)
In my never ending quest to seek out the unusual and unique, I was slightly nervous heading to Omaha, Nebraska. I mean, seriously – Omaha? I’ve always relied on asking the locals (usually at the hotel) where I can get food unique to the area; I’ve only been disappointed once when someone in San Diego directed me to Taco Bell for Mexican food. In this case, the desk clerk asked, “Have you been to Joe Tess?”
There are no fancy awnings or wood-and-rope walkway, no koi pools, no Cape Cod-style affections on the outside; it’s a simple, cinder block building on a residential street. Since their specialty is seafood, the decor inside looks like someplace you might find on the New Jersey turnpike, like a converted Denny’s with nets, mounted trophy fish and rustic signs on the wall; the bar is shaped like a wooden rowboat. The name bothers me a little – it seems in desperate need of an apostrophe, but hey, it’s not my restaurant.
I know I haven’t presented anything exciting here; Joe Tess Place is a small neighborhood restaurant that started as a tavern in the early 1930s, specializing in seafood… oh, wait, did I say “seafood”? Scratch that – make that freshwater fish (salmon, walleye (pike), catfish, tilapia, trout and carp). Yes, carp. Carp is their specialty and they proudly boast that they catch and prepare it themselves. They are so well known for their carp that it’s listed as “Famous Fish” on the menu. For those unfamiliar with the fish, these are pond and river dwellers that look like goldfish on steroids. The reason you won’t find them in a basket cuddling up with fries at Long John Silver’s is because most people regard them as garbage fish. They are bottom feeders, eating everything (and I do mean everything) they can find at the river bottom.
I asked the waitress for a recommendation, and she suggested a Double Fish Dinner, which comes with two pieces of “ribs”. Like you, when I think of ribs the image of those colossal bronto-ribs that upend Fred Flintstone’s car pops into my head, so I was trying to figure out what a rack of carp ribs would look like. What arrived at the table looked like two massive chicken breasts that had been run partially through a bread slicer. I asked the waitress if the chef sliced them, but she stated that the meat separates along the ribs as they cook. The fish straddled a large piece of rye bread that had caraway seeds and little chewy bits embedded in it (the bread was fascinating on its own). A small bowl of coleslaw was unimpressive, but not bad; the cottage fries (fried, pre-parboiled potato slices) were the perfect texture and not at all greasy.
But what of that dark brown delicacy that brought me there in the first place? Well, it’s definitely a departure from what you would expect from fried fish. The flesh is somewhat oily and a little spongy, almost like the texture of a firm bread pudding – if you’ve had bluefish, it’s very similar. In fact, it was hard to tell where the flesh ended and the batter began. The taste is sweet, yet with an undertone of something from a river. I was worried about the bones, but they were so large (like the long thin bone on a chicken leg) that the meat just fell off them. It’s somewhat surprising that their fame was built on a fish that is difficult to find on a menu anywhere else in the country, but I was glad I had the opportunity to try it. One more tasty critter I can cross off my list.