Finicky Frank’s stands apart from North Omaha restaurants with its farm-to-table commitment and casual-meets-fine dining balance. Chef-owner Kesa Kenny sticks with quality ingredients and keep things simple to create five-star comfort food.
The Salina, Kansas native worked the family farm growing up, gaining an appreciation for fresh-natural-local even though things often got overcooked by her elders. As a stay-at-home wife and mother, she raised the kids, maintained a home and made art (dried gourds became a medium). Then, almost on a dare, she poured her creativity and love of good food into cooking.
She stretched herself in the kitchen to the point she made her own cheese, butter, bread, noodles.
“I was awfully close to self-sufficient. I went to the library and researched. I just got into cooking. I guess I always had been, but didn’t realize how good it could be,” she said.
After moving to Omaha in the late 1990s, she worked factory line shifts and flipped houses, saving enough to open her first eatery, the soup-salad-sandwich Center Street Cafe. It was a hit but when she couldn’t swing buying the building to renovate, she looked elsewhere.
The first version of Finicky Frank’s – named for a persnickety Ponca Hills neighbor – folded at the Forgotten Store. Then she and husband Brian Kenny, who manages and tends the bar and repairs anything that breaks, opened in one small bay of their present 9520 Calhoun Road location.
They found kindred spirits among the local gourmands, small growers and urban farmers, thus making her farm-to-table practice a welcome fit.
“They are kind of foodies for the most part out this way.
The restaurant soon outgrew its snug confines and seven years ago the couple expanded into the adjacent bay – doing a total makeover. The result is a cozy spot with a not too heavy black and white tiled motif. The laid-back, curated ambience extends from the art on the walls to the music overhead to the soul satisfying, un-rushed food coming out of the kitchen.
The aesthetic is hers.
“Art flows in everything I do,” said the self-taught Kenny. “Anything creative is my realm. Anything I can get my hands on, found objects or ingredients, I repurpose. It just follows me.”
As time allows during service, the plain-talking Kenny engages diners about their meal or makes small talk. If there’s a snafu with a dish, she personally addresses it.
It’s a neighborhood place but both loyal followers and newbies come from near and far. Everyone’s treated the same: warmly.
The same confidence and drive that convinced Kenny to be a restauranteur infuses her cooking approach.
“I’m not afraid of anything.”
Years reading recipes and food books, finding new ingredients and ways to use them, fortify her culinary arsenal.
“You just change it up. That’s what keeps me fired up.”
She’s open to good ideas wherever she finds them. Like her fried chicken.
“I stole that recipe from a restaurant I waitressed at years ago in Kansas.”
She starts with fresh, never frozen, organic free-range chickens from the family farm. Salt, pepper and flour. Fried in a stainless skillet in pure vegetable oil.
Simple sums up her overall approach to cooking.
“Start with a good basic ingredient and keep it simple. If you mess that up, you have no business behind a skillet. Don’t overcook it, don’t over-stress it, don’t overwork it.
“It’s wise to keep it to good basic comfort foods people remember growing up. That’s why our Saturday night fried chicken is a huge success, Some of my fondest memories are passing platters of food at family dinners and having meatloaf or chicken night. It’s bringing those things back and just putting a little twist on them of my own and keeping it fun to where I can stay creative.”
The same ethos applies to her walleye Thursdays. Her meaty, slightly sweet catch come direct from Canada.
“It brings people from all over the place. I keep it as simple as can be with a light coating of homemade bread crumbs. Salt and pepper. Served with twice-cooked Yukon gold potatoes and fresh cole slaw. It’s just like the lakeside meals you make with fresh caught fish.”
For her succulent steaks, she uses teres major cuts (shoulder blade) from a local purveyor.
“That piece of meat is like a filet – a little more marbling but not much. The flavor’s really nice. It’s tender every time.”
People tell her her burger is “hands-down” the best in town. It’s all in the details. She hand forms full 8 ounce patties of 80 percent lean Angus beef accented with sea salt for a medium grill on the flat-top. Grilled red onions add a sweet, creamy bite. She serves it all on a buttered brioche bun with choice of add-ons and sides.
The moderately priced menu also includes crab cakes, a veggie stir fry, a seafood enchilada, a spinach-mushroom enchilada, a Reuben sandwich, a pork tenderloin sandwich, wood-fired pizzas, scratch soups, crafted salads and various wines, draft beers and cocktails.
A small patio offers an outdoor seasonal dining option.
She decides daily specials by whim, weather, season and what diners tell her they’re craving.
Her own urban farm-garden at her 11-acre Hills home supplies kale, bok choy, peas, green beans, cucumbers. radishes, onions, peppers, tomatoes, fingerling potatoes, cilantro, basil, parsley, et cetera.
“It means getting up earlier in the morning to pick and wash, but it’s worth it. It doesn’t get any better than right out of the ground.”
The nearby Florence Mill Farmers Market is another fresh produce source.
“I bring it from there right over here. It’s so wonderful to have that and it supports them.”
She’s a vendor at the market, where she likes educating people’s palettes with homemade, garden-fresh salsa and guacamole and from-scratch roasted veggie broths.
At Frank’s, everything is prepped back of the house to arrive ready in the galley-style kitchen, which has the same black and white checkerboard tile as the rest of the place. About the tile, she said, “It’s fun, it’s vibrant, it keeps the kitchen a part of the whole and it cleans really well. Tile never wears out.”
She has anchors in her husband – “He will never let me give up on an idea” – and daughter-in-law Stephanie, who waitresses there – “We mesh like no other.”
The most satisfying thing for Kenny is seeing customers savor their meal by tipping back a bowl to drink the last of their soup or sopping up sauce with a dinner roll. Best of all is when they “clean” their plates.
“That is like the best compliment ever. There is something about me that always has to be loved and I figured out through cooking no one will never bite the hand that feeds you.”
She’s enthused by fellow North O good eats destinations (Alpine Inn, Enzo’s, Florence Mill, Fat Shack BBQ, Omaha Rockets Kanteen). Area options took recent hits when fire totaled Mouth of the South and Fair Deal Cafe closed.
Kenny said northeast Omaha is still “underutilized and under-seen.” She envisions a trolley tour hitting historic venues, scenic overlooks and area food spots.
She feels North O still suffers a stigma that sees business drop after high profile shootings – even if incidents occur a mile or more away. She wants folks to know about gems like hers and there’s nothing to fear unless you’re counting calories and carbs.
Lunch: Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m to 2 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday, 5 pm. to close.
Visit finickyfranks.com or call 402-451-5555.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.