Chef Joel Mahr wins The 2013 Neighborhood Chef Award in our Trailblazing Chef Awards.
Great neighborhood restaurants often need to marinate for years to become full-bore local institutions, but Lot 2 is a startling exception: It's well on its way after less than two years. The formula for being welcomed with open arms? Find a neighborhood that's underserved, and park the menu at the intersection of comfort, approachability, and adventure.
The restaurant—owned by Brad and Johanna Marr—was a blessing to Omaha's Benson neighborhood, which is now slowly being revitalized. "Benson is a small, quaint neighborhood with not a lot of food options. There was nothing like what we're doing," chef Joel Mahr says. "We do fine-dining food, but in a way that fits the neighborhood, for residents who are young and hip."
"They brought a whole new level to dining in the area," says frequent customer Michelle Grossman. "Joel's food is approachable with a unique twist."
There's a global/local vibe to Mahr's offerings, instantly obvious from the four sandwiches on the dinner menu: a Cheeseburger (with bacon-onion marmalade, on a brioche bun); a Meatball (with caramelized onions and Gruyère); a Chicken Shawarma (with pickled beets and a tahini aioli); and a Seitan Gyro (with jalapeño-mint raita). That enticing quartet sounds a lot more San Francisco than Omaha.
For mains, there's the hugely popular Bangers and Mash, a classic British pub dish that Mahr turns into a nod to Omaha's sausage-loving German and Eastern European heritage, with house-made bangers, garlicky mashed potatoes, and a stout-beer gravy. But he also serves up a gorgeously plated seared duck breast with a delicate parsnip puree.
And there's a kale salad side that's so beloved, customers often have a double order for their main dish. The greens are raw, topped with yogurt dressing and sprinkled with toasted walnuts, golden raisins, capers, and Parmesan cheese—a little sweetness, some briny notes, a hit of umami. Coming up with the kale salad "was a shining moment," Mahr says, "because nobody else in town was really doing anything with kale."
"Joel is doing something different with food that's not really happening in Omaha at the moment," says Sara Blake, another regular customer. "It's casual but elevated—more sophisticated. There's an open, community feel that's welcoming and warming. I really can't imagine the neighborhood without it."
Mahr likes to hear that. He goes onto the floor every night to connect with customers, and he values the instant feedback. "Sometimes there's constructive criticism, and I don't take it personally. I don't know if I'm doing a good job unless somebody says something." Overwhelmingly, Mahr gets smiles and compliments from a happy—and now much better fed—Omaha neighborhood.