Tag Archives: Nebraska

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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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 (theblackstone­meatball.com).

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 (mulaomaha.com); sipping cocktails with names like Whiskey Smashed at the open-air front window at Blackstone Social(blackstonesocial.com); 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 (stirnella.com).

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 (eatbobsdonuts.com).

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 (coneflowercream­ery.com).

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 (beercornerusa.com/crescentmoon) 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; visitomaha.com; blackstonedistrict.com.


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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Watching the Solar Eclipse in Humboldt, Nebraska

To my surprise, I was awestruck – and humbled – when I witnessed the great solar eclipse yesterday in Humboldt, Nebraska.

Staring into the sun with my special eclipse glasses, I was amazed to see the bright orange blob (the sun) being slowly but steadily overtaken by a black blob (the moon) – and at the same time, down on earth, to feel my own environment changing, with the wind picking up, the sky darkening, the confused birds flying by and sounds of night at 1 p.m. When it got dark and stayed dark for a minute or so and then brightened my friends and I were stunned. We’d been told to expect this – so that shouldn’t have been a surprise – but maybe what was stunning was that it happened, just as expected.

The journey was half the fun! Four of us left Des Moines in the dark during a downpour at 4:30 a.m. and headed south and west on back roads toward “the path of totality,”  hoping to avoid the crowds expected on the major interstates — which we largely did (until our trip home).  En route, we bumped into the occasional fellow eclipse chaser  – two women from Minneapolis; a bunch of young Mennonite guys from somewhere in Missouri – and made a few stops, including at the infamous Ax Murder House in Villisca, Iowa (one of the state’s stranger tourist attractions) and Brownville, Mo. (a pretty old town along the Missouri River that I’d like to explore more). Our original destination – Falls City, Nebraska – had rain and cloudy skies so we drove further north and east until we found clearer skies in what turned out to be Humboldt, Nebraska.

We joined a few other cars parked on a gravel service road above the county road, next to the Humboldt water tower.  Like other groups, we unloaded our lawn chairs and picnic goodies and waited for the show in the sky. It was fun to meet fellow travelers from Kansas, Iowa and Minnesota and especially a nice young guy from Japan who had come to the U.S. for three days, specifically to see the eclipse. (He had some serious binoculars, spoke good English and was fun to talk with.) We hit some traffic on the way home but the Nebraska state troopers helped when and where they could and switching to back roads in Iowa helped. Such an adventure!

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Cornhuskers/Wildcats, Beatrice, Runza: A visit to Lincoln, Nebraska

We don’t go to college football games that often (especially outside Iowa) but the one we went to yesterday in U of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium was pretty near to perfect. Starting with the weather, which was autumn glorious. High 50’s/low 60’s, sun, light breeze, bright blue sky. Amazing and a great backdrop for 90,000 fans, many wearing Nebraska Red. We had great seats behind the end zone (a new vantage point for me) and, as promised, the Nebraska fans were very friendly and polite, even when the team started losing to the Northwestern Wildcats (final score 30-28, Wildcats win). Have to admit it was a nice change from the nasty drunken  behavior of some  (by no means all)  of the U of Iowa fans we’ve experienced during the past few years in Iowa City.  I dutifully tried my first Runza – a hot pocket sandwich filled with peppery ground meat-and-cabbage (and maybe some cheese?) I pronounced it “not bad” but no one else in my group wanted one. They’d been there, done that.

My friend Anne, an alum, walked us around campus afterwards – and we stopped for coffee in the spacious student union, much changed from Anne’s college days, she reports. The night before, we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Beatrice, about 40 minutes south of Lincoln (home of Anne’s brother, who cooked up this whole football trip and generously found us tickets!).

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