Letter from Omaha
Famed Nebraska Sirloin? HAH. At Joe Tess the star of the menu is a reputedly tastebud-tingling unspecified food -- so says Tribune contributor Larry Fruhling.

No carpin' here about "famous fish"

The big golden-fried slab of famous fish is served on a slice of rye bread. Many people prefer to sprinkle it generously with hot-pepper sauce. Other people would prefer to go hungry.

The famous fish is referred to on the menu only as "famous fish." This is not an oversight.

"Everyone knows what it is," says Bill Falt, who has spent a small part of his 65 years defending the famous fish, but a lot longer selling it by the tens of thousands of pounds.

"Just like you," Falt says, eyeing a visitor who to Falt looks a little finicky. "If we said what it was on the menu, you'd be against it right away."

What Falt is suggesting is a societal prejudice against carp, the famous fish and most popular item on the menu at Falt's well-known Joe Tess restaurant, where Omahans have been crunching and savoring batter-fried carp for six decades.

To the outside world, Omaha is famous for its thick, tender T-bone, ribeye and sirloin steaks.

But on the city's south side, in the old ethnic neighborhoods around the once-bustling Union Stockyards, lunch is carp on rye at Joe Tess and dinner might well be the same but with cole slaw and sliced, fried potatoes on side dishes. All accompanied, of course, by a distinctively Nebraska cocktail: beer and tomato juice.

Bill Falt bought the business 35 years ago from the widow of Joe Tesnohlidek, who had simplified his last name to Tess following the example of thousands of Eastern European families who came to South Omaha to work at four huge packing plants near the yards.

About 1940, Joe Tess gave up commercial fishing in the Missouri River and, with his wife, opened a tavern. Mae Tess started serving deep fried carp sandwiches, which, according to South Omaha lore, were an instant success.

After five years under Falt and his three sons, the business has grown to a 400-seat restaurant a few doors from where Tess and his sons also expanded to a second location on Omaha's west side.

Although the Joe Tess restaurants sells chicken, catfish, shrimp and salmon raised in ponds out in the ranch country of western Nebraska, the overwhelming favorite is the "famous fish," Falt says.

Falt says carp - "a noble fish" – is his favorite, too, both from the standpoint of taste and economics. The famous fish sandwich sells for just $1.80. Add the coleslaw and potatoes and the dinner portions is $3.80.

The carp are raised in the wild and taken from the Mississippi River, nearly 400 miles from Omaha, and from even more distant Midwestern lakes.

"We buy everything every thing live, top-quality live," Falt said. "We load them in trucks while they're swimming."

Even so, Falt can't entirely explain why the famous fish appeals not only to Omahans but also to the many outsiders who drive 100 miles or more to crunch carp.

Noting the presence at a nearby table of a man from Auburn, Ala., who, working temporarily in Omaha, has become a steady customer, Falt says, "What is he doing here? In Alabama they'd throw a carp back on the bank if they caught one.

In Omaha, one pokes fun at carp at his own peril.

This became clear in 1989 when Lionel Atwill, a writer for Sports Afield magazine puzzled at Omaha's penchant for the "slimy scaled, mud-sucking, hyperthyroid goldfish," nearly inedible, according to Atwill, unless it was aggressively slashed and pounded to destroy its feathery bones.

Robert McMorris, a popular columnist for the Omaha World-Herald, quickly fired back questioning what somebody with a first name like "Lionel" could possibly know about anything. "I don't eat the scales anyway," McMorris wrote.

One recent diner, John Miller, an Omaha real-estate salesman, says he's been coming to Joe Tess for carp for more than two decades. "I'm not a fish lover, but I like this," said Miller as he pulled the last bits of famous fish from its ribs.

Miller's luncheon companion, Mary Jane Mayavski, who also sells real estate, said her father used to tell her that carp was best served on a shingle. "His advice was to throw away the carp and eat the shingle," she said.

That's a line that Falt has heard for years. His best response is the multitude of Omahans who have dined regularly on the famous fish for decades.

Falt is sanguine about the sanguine about the future too. In strongly Catholic Omaha, many people habitually eat fish on Friday, which, in the words of one of Falt's sons is "the busiest carp-eatin' day of the week."

The American Catholic Bishops are proposing a return of the rule requiring Catholics to strengthen their faith by forgoing meat on Fridays.

"I'm on their side," Falt said.

Larry Fruhling
Chicago Tribune
January 14, 1998