Category Archives: Nebraska

Willa Cather in Red Cloud, fried chicken in Omaha — a quick drive through central to eastern Nebraska

Unlike Nicodemus in Kansas, Willa Cather-land in the famous author’s hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska is closed on Sundays. But we walked along the wide main street, paved with red bricks, peeking into the windows of the Visitors center and Willa Cather Foundation, Museum and archives. And we picnicked in a quiet town park across from Willa’s small unassuming childhood home, where she lived from about age 9 to 17 before hitting it big as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and going on to live much of her life in New York City. It would have been nice to tour these buildings but just seeing the town on a peaceful day, with few other people around, and also driving on country roads through dormant yellow farm fields almost felt like being in one of Cather’s novels.

In Omaha’s Blackstone district, we had a quick dinner at Dirty Birds in The Switch Food Hall. The pastrami and bagel place we went in the Hall a few years ago had closed, sadly, but Dirty Birds did the trick, with ginormous fried chicken thigh sandwiches, served in various degrees of heat, with large dill pickle slices and crispy fries. We ended up splitting one sandwich and taking the other one home for two lunches. The place also turned out to be dog friendly so Millie joined us, charming young children and older customers but one young woman looked terrified when she suddenly encountered Millie. (Note to self: keep Millie on a short leash in these situations.) We’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many hotels, motels and restaurants are dog friendly. Millie even visited an antique store in Las Vegas, NM, although that was a little nerve wracking for us.

Other cool architecture in Red Cloud, NE

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Fort Hartsuff/Burwell, Ansel’s Bagels/Omaha, Dittmar’s Orchard/Council Bluffs – Drive from NE Sandhills home to DSM

Easy drive home from Burwell, Nebraska with a few stops, starting with Fort Hartsuff, an 1880’s U.S. Army calvary outpost fort from 1974 to 1881  on the edge of town.  It’s a well-preserved state historical park on the edge of the windswept Sandhills but several buildings were closed due to Covid-19 precautions. Further east in Omaha, we found even more happening in the Blackstone District since we were last there in 2018 including a new attractive food hall,  The Switch Beer & Food Hall, (a clean, ultra-modern space on bottom floor of a clean, ultra-modern new high-rise) which has several good dining options (complete with outdoor seating)! We opted for the well-reviewed Ansel’s Pastrami & Bagels where we had the famed pastrami sandwich (delicious but seemed more like brisket than pastrami) and bagel with dill cream cheese and lox. Bagels are good – heavier and chewier than I’m used to but that’s fine. Next time, I’ll try the Vietnamese Street Food option. Over the Iowa line in Council Bluffs, we stopped for some Jonathan apples at Dittmar’s Orchards, which was full of families picking apples and pumpkins. (We were the only ones wearing masks…)


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Cowboy Trail bridge/ Plains Trading company in Valentine, NE, south on 83 through Valentine National Wildlife refuge to Sandhills Scenic Byway to Burwell (sandhill suites and sandstone grill) – the Nebraska Sandhills

(Sadly Covid did happen and was happening when we were there in mid-September….wonder if attitudes/practices have changed since I wrote this:)

Great to get away to a land where, as Dirck aptly put it, Covid didn’t happen…or so it seemed in Burwell, NE. Few cases. No masks. Busy restaurants and shops. An old car show. Tiny town movie theater showing “American graffiti” in exchange for “ a good will offering.” Felt like we were in “Back to the Future.”

And we finally “get” the Sandhills. I thought they’d be like the Flint Hills in Kansas but they cut a broader swatch through this state and look like more concentrated mounds than the more spread out mounds of the Flint Hills. The Sandhills look shaggier version too. They’re small sand dunes covered with short grass prairie (not tall grass prairie as found in Kansas. The wind was out in full force, pushing the grasses (and us) this way and that. We drove on two-lane largely empty roads and one “auto route” off highway 83 to get a feel for the Sandhills’ lonesome vastness.

In Valentine, we stopped at a great bookstore with the un-bookstore sounding name the Plains Trading company. It had a broad selection of regional books, crafts and homemade goodies. Picked up a book with an irresistible title. ”love and terror on the howling plains of nowhere” byPoe Ballantine, a memoir set in Chadron NE (the book was as good as the title!)

Dirck and I also did a little bike riding, quickly learning that wind is a major issue. We rode over the dramatic Niobrara Rail Bridge converted part of the Cowboy Trail outside Valentine, with panoramic views of the river valley.

Here in Burwell, we rode to the small and famous rodeo grounds (100th year in 2021) and around the dusty town and the square lined with viable small businesses, bars and hopes. We’re at The Sandhill suites, a boutique hotel (believe it or not) in an old brick building. Still feels like an old apartment building with a shiny patina. Fun to be here.

Dinner was perfectly cooked steak and delicious pie (burgers looked great too) at the renowned Sandstone grill, connected to our hotel. It was packed with large groups of non-masked diners on a Saturday night. We were clearly tourists in our masks. It felt wonderful and scary to eat inside a restaurant, which we have not done since March. We decided to take the risk since this area has so few virus cases. But never totally relaxes. Earlier I found an old Windsor style chair in a shop (another rare experience for us these days), going inside a shop) and the owner insisted on bargaining even though I was happy to pay the asking price of $75. “$60?” I asked. “$62.50,” he replied. “Let’s shake on it.” I shook his hand before fully realizing that I haven’t touched a strangers hand or almost anyone’s hand since March. I used hand sanitizer soon after.

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canoeing on the Niobrara River – Sparks Nebraska

I may not walk straight for awhile and my knees, arms, shoulders and back ache after canoeing Nebraska’s premier river, the Niobrara for 7 hours. We put in at Cornell Bridge, passed the famous Smith Falls State Park (home of Nebraska’s highest falls – not Ithaca but still lovely) and ended at the cabinand outfitters where we are staying, SunnyBrook camp. The river was peaceful in most parts but we had to navigate some rocky rapids and got stuck on some sandbars and rocks. The weather began chilly, about 59, and gradually the sun won its battle with clouds and we think smoke from the western fires. The temps were in the low 70s, but lots of vigorous wind. I don’t think I can canoe without a seat back any more and sadly, the outfitter told me, way after the fact, that he had a seat Back I could have used. Next time we may try a double kayak. We were envious of their seats.

But we did have the river almost entirely to ourselves which was great. Wepassed through grassy banks of the sand hills and high soft stone bluffs dotted with red vegetation. Not too much wildlife. Some ducks took flight. A snake slithered past on the muddy bank. We spotted an elegant blue-gray heron.

Cabin porch view
Nebraska’s highest falls!

It was great canoeing right up to our rustic cabin, the only one we saw right on the banks, at a gorgeous bend in the river. At 7 a.m. fog and mist were rising off the river. It looked very mysterious. The cabin is huge and very comfortable. There is a second bedroom with bunk beds and a double bed. It’s all knotty pine, with a huge open living room, full kitchen (but no plates, cups, utensils which apparently is a Covid preventive measure the owners forgot to mention…fortunately we had some paper and plastic stuff.) There is a big stuffed deer’s head on the wall, lots of wood antlers to use for hanging wet clothes. The best part is the rustic wrap around porch with a rocking chair I melted into after canoeing and old rusted metal chairs. Apparently this is a former dance hall from the early 1900s that was moved here in 1980.

mysterious morning in the cabin

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Enchanted Highway/ND, more Badlands and tribal territory in South Dakota

(From our September trip) We drove 6.5 hours south through gorgeous wide open country, ranch land , Indian reservations and South Dakota Badlands to Valentine, Nebraska, just over the South Dakota line and from there 40 minutes east to Sparks, NE where we are suddenly in a huge cabin (sunny brook cabin) by the side of the river — quite a change from the past three nights lodging where we had only a room to ourselves and the rest was shared space.

A highlight was the early part of our trip when we drove down a two-lane highway south from I-94 to Regent, ND through vast open fields of pasture, sunflowers and corn. The road was dotted with about six huge fantastic cut metal-and-welded metal sculptures, designed by a guy looking for a way to boost the economy of his small struggling town of Regent. It seemed to work because we weren’t the only ones opting for this road (there were other options) and pulling off every few miles to stare in wonder at massive metal sculptures — a grasshopper, flock of geese, fantasy fish, a farm family and of course Teddy Roosevelt on a bucking horse. Regent has a handful of worn buildings, several empty, one with a local history museum and one with a good gift shop where we bought a small replica of one of the Enchanted Highway’s metal sculptures. That will spice up our garden back in Iowa.

We made a u-turn in the small northern South Dakota (that’s confusing terminology) town of Lemmon, after driving past a local butcher, LemmonMade.

Me: Wait,wait, slow down, what was that?

Dirck: (half-heartedly) you want me to turn back?

Me: Yes please.

Dirck: (3/4ths-heartedly) Okay.

Turned out to be a great find. We loaded up on fresh brats, ground meat and teriyaki beef jerky— from what smelled outside like very nearby livestock. When in the Dakotas…

In South Dakota, we found a tiny picnic area by a small lake to eat lunch (now starring the beef jerky) and continued on almost empty two-lane highway through several reservations (standing rock, Cheyenne river, pine ridge, and rosebud.) We saw only a few signs that we were in tribal territory including a handmade sign reading “Indigenous Lives Matter,” a casino area inside a gas station/convenience store and a Covid -19 checkpoint at the Pine Ridge Reservation manned by several no-nonsense Native Americans wearing masks, the only masks we saw during our 6-hour drive. (We didn’t go through the checkpoint and probably couldn’t. Tribal communities have been hard hit by the virus and are taking it seriously. The checkpoint was a sign we were driving the wrong direction. Fortunately briefly). We also passed a fat ass tractor flying a Trump 2020 flag and a few other trump signs.

Now we are in our rustic cabin by the Niobrara River, which we discovered has no plates, cups or silverware – apparently removed due to Covid. This place isn’t cheap so not good. We fortunately were warned to bring our own bedding and towels, also a preventative Covid measure, which doesn’t make that much sense science-wise. We had some plastic plates and plastic ware in the car so we managed to eat our brats (purchased at the roadside butcher in Lemmon, ND.) We also wisely grocery-shopped at the IGA in Valentine before the 40-minute drive to this remote location. It’s on a beautiful isolated bend in the river which we will paddle on tomorrow morning.

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When next in Omaha – Farine & Four, Time Out Foods, Block 16.

This courtesy of the NYTime’s Sam Sifton: (although I gotta say, I DO know what crag rangoon is (after 30 years living in the vicinity of Nebraska) and putting it on a burger sounds, well, awful.


Good morning. I was in Omaha over the weekend, talking food and culture with the good folks of Lauritzen Gardens and driving around town with Sarah Baker Hansen, the food critic for the Omaha World-Herald. We drank tall lattes from Archetype and ate ridiculously good focaccia at Farine and Four, then woofed down fried chicken for elevenses at Time Out Foods in advance of lunch at Block 16, downtown. Later there were slabs of Flintstone’s-style beef from Omaha Steaks.

It was a wild day of eating, and if I remain haunted by the Time Out chicken and the size-large T-bones, it’s the food of Paul and Jessica Urban at Block 16 that I’ll be messing around with in my kitchen at home, no-recipe cooking to recall their sly, joyful takes on late-night Midwestern restaurant food. First up, their Three Happiness burger, named for a local Chinese restaurant known for its crab Rangoon — fried won ton dumplings filled with crab-flecked cream cheese.
The Urbans cover a griddled burger with that filling, top it with a stir-fried coleslaw and chile sauce, and serve it on a soft sesame-seed bun. This is shockingly delicious even if you are not inebriated — even if you’ve never heard of crab Rangoon! —

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Here’s my travel story about Omaha’s Blackstone District from the Minneapolis Star Tribune

I keep forgetting to add my Midwest Traveler stories for the Minneapolis Star Tribune! Here’s one on Omaha’s Blackstone District!

Midwest Traveler: Omaha’s Blackstone is reserved for dining out

Revived neighborhood is the place for eating and drinking in the Big O.

By Betsy Rubiner Special to the Star Tribune


DECEMBER 6, 2018 — 6:12PM

We were not hungry when we arrived on a Saturday afternoon in Omaha’s recently revitalized Blackstone District — about 2½ miles west of the long-gentrified Old Market area, where we used to begin our occasional visits to big-city Nebraska.

But because eating is the thing to do in the district’s commercial stretch — along Farnam Street, roughly between 36th and 42nd streets — my husband and I gladly began our weekend getaway at the Blackstone Meatball, an Italian restaurant specializing in mix-and-match homemade meatballs and sauces (theblackstone­

The delicious meatballs, casual ambience and lively crowd provided a good introduction to an up-and-coming neighborhood, full of fledgling restaurants and bars, that I had not heard of until an Airbnb search produced an intriguingly titled option: “Cozy, centrally located art-nest in Blackstone.”

“What’s Blackstone?” I asked Iowa friends who grew up in Omaha. I learned that Blackstone is now the hot spot, but not long ago it was a not-spot, well past its midcentury heyday when the former Blackstone Hotel hosted dignitaries from Eleanor Roosevelt to Richard Nixon.

Commercial and residential development, begun about six years ago, continues to transform the area, luring new residents and tourists. My friends’ upbeat report was bolstered by glowing press from the likes of Food & Wine magazine, which this year dubbed Blackstone “just about” Omaha’s “coolest place,” “changing the way we think about Omaha.”

I don’t know about that. But Blackstone did prove to be my kind of place — a morphing urban neighborhood at that bittersweet stage between begun and done, still a little rough around the edges but with enough street life, eclectic dining, people-watching and independent businesses to feel worth exploring.

It is also a great jumping-off point for nearby Omaha attractions, thanks to its location near downtown, between the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the Mutual of Omaha headquarters. Beyond Blackstone, we enjoyed scenic Missouri River views while walking across the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, aka the Bob Bridge, honoring the former governor and senator.

Near the Old Market, we happened by an open house with international artists-in-residence at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, wandered through the deluge of vintage junk and sweets at Hollywood Candy and admired the art deco magnificence of the Durham Museum, in Omaha’s former Union Station.

Dining was reserved for the Blackstone District, which was hopping on a Saturday night, with people eating Mexican fare at Mularestaurant/tequileria (; sipping cocktails with names like Whiskey Smashed at the open-air front window at Blackstone Social(; and standing in line at Coneflower Creamery, a “small batch” ice cream shop.

We strolled past low-rise renovated brick buildings and new modern complexes, some under construction. A still elegant brick-and-stone mansion was a clue that Blackstone is part of the Gold Coast Historic District, a 30-block midtown area with several mansions built by affluent city folk.

I later learned that the mansion we admired was built in 1906 by Gottlieb Storz, a brewery owner. It once hosted a movie premiere party attended by Jimmy Stewart, and has remained a single-family residence.

Slated for reconversion is the 1916 Blackstone Hotel, which became an office building in 1984. Last July, developers announced a $75 million project to revive and reopen the Blackstone in 2020 as a hotel, complete with restored ballroom and marble staircase.

Dining recommendations

Although we did not come close to exhausting Blackstone’s new dining options, we enjoyed our picks, several recommended by our thoughtful Airbnb hosts at the “cozy, centrally located art-nest.”

At the Blackstone Meatball, opened in 2016, we skipped the “meatball flight” — featuring the restaurant’s five varieties of meatballs and sauces — but did enjoy a design-your-own slider. We picked the Romesco Pork meatball made with roasted red pepper, garlic and cheese (Parmesan, Romano, ricotta) and topped with Pomodoro sauce, which was refreshingly light and moist.

We were glad we booked a table at Stirnella, a casual gastropub with lots of exposed brick and burnished wood. It was packed with diners sitting at communal and private tables. We shared a burger made with fancy wagyu beef, a seasonal heirloom tomato salad (with burrata and caper salsa verde) and a refreshing tuna poke with melon, avocado and red onion (

On Sunday morning, we arrived too late at the Early Bird, which opened in 2017, serving brunch daily. Finding a crowd already waiting for tables, we went instead to Bob’s Donuts, which serves morning coffee, “artisan” doughnuts, fried chicken concoctions and tater tots. We drank strong coffee and shared a decadently large and doughy glazed doughnut, watching attractive tattooed parents with young kids come and go (

Before driving home on Sunday, we made a final foray to Coneflower Creamery, where we found a shorter line of about 30 people. A self-described maker of “farm-to-cone ice cream,” the tiny place touts its fresh ingredients from Nebraska dairy and produce farms. The butter­brickle, with bits of toffee, pays homage to the Blackstone Hotel, which reportedly originated the flavor. I can confirm that the “garden mint chip” tasted like mint leaves plucked from a garden. We’ll be back (coneflowercream­

Getting there

Omaha’s Blackstone District is about a 370-mile drive southwest of the Twin Cities.

More places to eat and drink

Crescent Moon Ale House ( has over 60 beers on tap plus pub grub including the Blackstone Reuben sandwich, reportedly invented in the 1920s across the street at the former Blackstone Hotel. Pizza options include Noli’s Pizzeria (thin-crust New York style) and Dante Pizzeria Napoletana (wood-fired Southern Italian style).

For local craft brew, try Scriptown Brewery and Farnam House Brewing Co.; for cocktails, Nite Owl and the Red Lion Lounge; for vino, Corkscrew Wine & Cheese; and for java, Archetype Coffee.

More information

Visit Omaha: 1-866-937-6624;;


Betsy Rubiner, a Des Moines-based travel writer, writes the travel blog Take Betsy With You.


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bob’s Donuts, The Bob Bridge, Durham Museum, Hollywood Candy, Cubby’s convenience, Coneflower ice cream – Omaha

pplaying catch up from a hospital bed in dsm, post arm surgery, and no joke…my nurse is name bob

which brings me to our Sunday in Omaha which was a lot of fun. We stuck to our neighborhood, the Blackstone District and when the wait was too long for the early bird restaurant, we went next door to bobs donut coffee and chicken where we had two of the three (I don’t get the chicken thing). It was perfect and I enjoyed watching tattooed parents coming in with their little kids for breakfast.

from there we drove downtown to the Nebraska side of the bob (Kerrey) pedestrian bridge whic has some great views of the two states and the river. Found a spot to be in Nebraska and Iowa simultaneously.

onto some other Omaha hotspots that we have somehow missed during brief drive throughs in the past. Our kids, when they were little, would have loved Hollywood Candy, which not only has an outstanding selection of vintage candy (my Royal Crown sour candys greeted me right at the front door) but also an amazing collection of vintage kitsch, old pinball machines, lunchboxes, trolls, records.

we didn’t go into the exhibits at the Durham Museum but we walked around the Art Deco former train station in awe. Lunch was a surprisingly good shared tuna sandwich at the Cubby convenience store near the Old market (it even has an outdoor patio, away from the gas pumps.) . We were saving up for Coneflower ice cream in the Blackstone District which was excellent (the garden mint chip really did taste like it had I mint from our garden). Omaha was fun!

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Blackstone District, Bemis Center, Hotel Deco – Omaha

Our Blackstone District “art nest”

We have passed through Omaha many times, sneaking in a quick visit to the Indian restaurant in the Old Market, but we have never stayed overnight to explore. So here we are, staying in a spacious 1920s era apartment (thank you Airbnb) in the recently revived Blackstone District on Farnam Street, about 2 Miles west of the old market area. It consists mainly of about 4 blocks of interesting restaurants, bars and a few shops in older brick buildings in what was not long ago, we’ve heard, a rundown area. So basically, our kind of place.

We stopped at Blackstone Meatball because we’d never been to a meatballery before and sure enough they had quite the selection including a meatball flight (a variety of 5) and the meatball of the day (chorizo). We split a small meatball slider – pork with peppers, ricotta, Parmesan, garlic. Very moist and flavorful. Almost light.

we also chanced upon an artist’s in residence open house at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, located in a big red brick former warehouse near the old warehouse district. It’s been around for decades but we’d never heard of it. Our Airbnb hosts suggested it. Walking around the studios that double as living spaces on the second floor, we met an artist from Dublin and another from Riga, Latvia. Word has it there are 10 artists in residence who get a three month live/work studio here — as part of one of the top international residency programs. The work was pretty avant-garde. The main floor is a huge gallery, which was devoted to a one -woman show of “Hot Mess Formalism” by nyc artist Sheila Pepe, with giant fiber macrame installations, as well as ceramics and other mediums. To mark the show, free “hot mess” ice cream (a strange mix of vanilla ice cream and chocolate chips and bits of red licorice was served in little Chinese takeaway cartons. We were advised by some of the artists not to try the other option — avocado ice cream

we also dropped by the Hotel Deco downtown which has a tiny intact original Art Deco lobby and some interesting little bar spaces. Omaha is looking good!

Dinner was at a good small plates place, Strinella, a short walk from our Airbnb, well-recommended by our host. We were too full for ice cream nearby at Coneflower, which is just as well since there was a long line, maybe 50 people, waiting to get into the little place.

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Lewis and Clark monument — council bluffs, Iowa

We found our J & J Jackson water bottle that we mistakenly left behind!

We visited the place where the council in Council Bluffs comes from. Who knew, although I could have guessed, that the council refers to a meeting between native Americans and the explorers Lewis and Clark. We learned this while visiting a very cool, somewhat hidden memorial marking this council, located high on a bluff with a panoramic view across the Missouri River of downtown Omaha and the Omaha airport.

What did we do before Google and cellphones? (My mother, writing  in her travel journal 25 years ago, asked “what did we do without faxes?”) We found this place, off a winding country road, past horse farms on the outskirts of Council Bluffs, after I googled to find a picnic spot with the best views of the river. It turned out to be a dramatic overlook with some 1930s’ poured concrete, possibly WPA reliefs, depicting the “council.” It seemed like a local secret. There were several well positioned picnic tables, although we could have used a little shade.

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