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Unexpected pleasures of eating rural
by Pam Soreide, Betty Sayers and Phil Soreide
Frankly, it annoys us when people presume the only food worth eating is in population centers of over a million. We have driven many miles in search of unique rural dining experiences, and darned if we haven’t found quite a few that stand up completely on their own merits.
This month we highlight some of the things that we think set our restaurants on a par with any urban fare you’re likely to encounter, along with a few unexpected pleasures to eating rural.
Best onion rings
We have to start here, because in a way, it’s where we started. Early on, we thought we should have some dish that we could compare between restaurants, and we settled on onion rings because we all like (ok, LOVE) them. Now granted some of the restaurants we visited didn’t have them on the menu — it’s evidently not a staple of Thai or El Salvadoran cuisine — but we have tried the onion rings at a lot of restaurants. Several served rings clearly out of the restaurant equivalent of a bag: perfectly round, identically battered; one restaurant didn’t have rings but served battered “onion chips” instead; we didn’t consider those a fair comparison. From our extensive research we would say if you have a hankering for crispy, hand-battered, made-to-order onion rings, do yourself a favor and take a drive out to the Speak-Easy Restaurant near Holdrege. They come fresh out of the fryer, piled high and steaming, nicely spiced with a cool ranch dipping sauce. An order of those to share, a side salad and an adult beverage, and you have a dinner to remember.
Best salads and salad dressing
We know that salad is not often the dish that comes to mind when recommending a rural restaurant, but for many of our adventures we have had a vegetarian teenager in tow, so salad became a vital menu item. Salad isn’t a focus in a lot of Nebraska restaurants, but the salads we had at the Bella Italia in Cozad and the Cunningham’s Feed in Arapahoe were particularly memorable.
Although we expect you can get a salad with Ranch dressing at the Bella Italia, it’s a great opportunity to experience real, made-from scratch Caesar. A generous amount of crisp, bite-sized romaine, tossed with a freshly made dressing (the way a Caesar should be) made with anchovy, egg and Dijon mustard, and lavishly topped with shaved (not grated) parmesan. We thought it was worth the trip all by itself.
In the summer, Cunningham’s Feed in Arapahoe has its own garden. The lettuces are fresh and dark green, and accompanied by cucumbers and a variety of heirloom tomatoes (which really are different and better). We especially like their handmade blue cheese dressing (all Cunningham’s dressings are made in-house), and their Greek vinaigrette, a mix of basil, red wine vinegar and a fragrant olive oil.
Now, about bread, we are picky. We make and respect bread, and restaurants that make and respect bread too create a dining experience that calls us back. So, Bella Italia Chef Shadi and I had a side conversation about his bread-making techniques, which include a homemade starter that gets used enough to be sweetly, tangy and unique to his kitchen. Cunningham’s part owner, Mitzi Urbom, grew up in a family of professional bakers, so recipes for breads, rolls, cinnamon rolls, cookies , bread puddings and more were passed down and now find their way to Cunningham’s menu.
Another not-to-be-missed destination for artisanal bread lovers is the Back Alley Bakery in Hastings. They sell bread by the loaf, but also have a charming European-style restaurant with selections that feature the sweet raisin, walnut raisin, roasted garlic cheese, olive, and sweet potato breads, among others. If you know someone who is going to Hastings on other business, talk them into stopping in to the Back Alley Bakery to bring home some of that wood-fired oven wonderful.
Chuck Laier at Lucky Chuck’s in Eustice is a man who knows his meat...and his smoke...and how the two combine to create a taste that transcends them both. He’s passionate about it — get him talking, as we did when we were there, and he can go on at length about the virtues of mesquite smoke over other hardwoods, how a brisket should be handled, why dry barbecue is superior to barbecues in other parts of the country, and how to cook, serve and pick a whole hog. Chuck knows his meat and he especially knows steak. When a juicy, tender steak shows up on our most wanted list, we drive to Eustice and Lucky Chuck’s.
Since steak and Nebraska go together like football and Nebraska, we also tried and can recommend steaks from Burchell’s White Hill Farmhouse Inn in Minden, Tub’s Pub in Sumner, the Town Talk in Cambridge, Lakeshore Marina at Johnson Lake, and the Bonfire Grill in Broken Bow.
None of us ever eat dessert at home, and we only do it in these columns for you, dear Reader. Really. But, hypothetically, if we were to choose a place for dessert and coffee, where would we go?
Well, Burchell’s White House Inn has a fabulous dessert tray, including sublime brownies. We like to get them to go, and sometimes they even make it all the way home. As hinted earlier, Mitzi Urbom also makes a great tray of hard-to-choose-between-them desserts, including cheesecake bites and still-warm donut holes coated in cinnamon sugar and accompanied with dipping sauces of warm chocolate and caramel rum.
Most unique dish
El Rinconcito, a Salvadoran restaurant in Lexington, makes a pupusas, a Salvadoran favorite. Puposas are a thick, hand-made corn flat bread stuffed with cheese, fried pork, beans or loroco (a vine flower bud from Central America) and baked on the grill. They are served with condiments such as curtido, a marinated cabbage, onion, and shredded carrot slaw with a sweet, mild lemon-fresh dressing or pico de gallo. And they’re fabulous – warm and savory and filling – and surprisingly affordable: $1.50 for an order of two. We’re sure they are not unique in El Salvador, but they were a delightful find for us.
Most unexpected pleasure
We were a little nervous pulling into the Suwannee Thai Cuisine in Kearney, situated as it is in a little strip mall near the college campus, next to the Konica-Minolta copier store. But looks are oft deceiving, and the Suwannee turned out to be delightful in every respect, from appetizers to well-prepared expressions of such Thai favorites as Drunken Noodles and Crispy Basil Duck as well as a spectrum of curries from delightfully mild to set-your-tongue-on-fire spicy.
We also found the Down Home Cafe in Franklin to also be an unexpected pleasure by being the closest restaurant experience you’ll find to eating at your grandmother’s table. Every selection on the menu is homemade — for real — and most of the vegetables are grown in the garden of Alicia and Michael Williams, who also own and staff the restaurant. This is a great place for meatloaf, baked chicken and pot roast, but try the Whole Meal Taco, a handmade tortilla filled with garden fresh lettuce, tomato and onion, and spicy beef.
Most like a vacation
Sometimes we yearn to take a day as if we were on vacation. On these days, we like to find towns that have squares or main streets with shops, businesses, hotels, and restaurants clustered close enough for exploring on foot. Sometimes there is even nightlife with a coffeehouse, brewery or house concert venue, and a bed and breakfast to complete the fantasy of a vacation.
The Back Alley Bakery is on such a main street in Hastings. There is a theater, several bookstores, a wonderful yarn shop, art galleries and much more to occupy a couple bent on taking a day off to enjoy each other’s company. As the wonderful smell of baking bread wafts out the open doors to diners on the sidewalk, one can easily imagine a similar experience on a European street or a trendy California town.
Sehnerts Bakery in McCook is another delightful place, for much the same reason. Shopping includes Knowlen & Yates, the best rural kitchen store we’ve ever seen, and other charming shops. And if you time it right, you might even catch the concert of a talented singer-songwriter on the intimate stage of the adjacent Bieroc Café.
For a completely different reason, we also recommend you spend an hour or two at the Mac’s Creek Winery, a short drive from the Interstate in Lexington. Sharing a basket of bread and cheese and salami along with a glass or bottle of wine and a view of vines heavy with grapes from their spacious deck, one need only squint the smallest amount to imagine oneself far away in the wine country of Napa or Tuscany. Living well takes only a little longer than stopping at the McDonalds, and this adventure will create wonderful memories of how lovely Nebraska can be.
What makes a restaurant romantic? We’re inclined to say soft lighting, mood music, art, and a predominance of couples instead of family groups. Spacious table placement, leading to a feeling of convivial privacy. Servers experienced enough and subtle enough to recognize any need and attend to it discreetly rather than bouncing by once in a while to interrupt with, “anything I can getcha?” Then, there’s the food. It wants to be creative and delicious, but served with a light touch so you leave the table comfortably full.
When love is young, you hardly remember what you ate. But the message of the ambiance, the discussion of the merits of this mélange of flavors versus that one, deciding on a wine together, all contribute to the emotional thrill of love expressed through sharing food, a pleasure that can last a lifetime. Next anniversary, I’m holding out for Bella Italia.