If there’s one thing you can say about Omaha, it’s a town that loves to eat. As the food writer for the Omaha World-Herald, people ask me all the time, “Where should I go to eat?” It’s a fair question. Because I spend most evenings dining out to write reviews and it’s my job to find the city’s best food, hot new spots and hidden gems, I always have far too many recommendations to give.
While my recommendations always depend on what a diner is looking for, one thing is true: Some of the city’s best loved spots are funky, hole-in-the-wall, divey joints that serve up a heaping side of atmosphere along with the main course, and it’s not just people I don’t know that I send to experience them. Over time, I’ve introduced my husband, Matthew, to some of my hometown’s classics—here’s why we love them.
California Tacos and More fits firmly in all of those divey, classic Omaha categories. It’s a long-time neighborhood gem that leapt to fame after a spot on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. (If you missed the episode, the restaurant plays it on a constant loop via a gritty old television set hanging in one corner of the dining room, and has for years.)
Cali Taco, as it's known locally, specializes in “Americanized” tacos. I always order the classic beef version with its airy, just greasy enough fried puffy shell stuffed with seasoned ground beef—yes, this is still Nebraska—lettuce, shredded yellow cheese and tomato. The flaky crunch of the fried shell is at once indulgent and satisfying.
Matthew favors the steak version, with similar toppings and that same “greasy and yummy” shell, as he describes it.
“It appeals to people who think they don't like Mexican food and people like me, who love Mexican food,” he said.
A lime “mega” margarita on the rocks is my drink of choice, salted rim always a must, and Matthew goes for the blended strawberry. If you order chips—like we do—ask for half flour, half corn and try the pico de gallo for dipping.
The ride into Omaha’s North Hills is a pretty one, especially in the fall, though people make it year-round for one spot where the main attractions are two: fried chicken and a very much alive and hungry colony of raccoons. The Alpine Inn is more dive bar than restaurant, and even with its random tucked in the woods location has become a destination since it opened in the early 1970s.
The first time I took Matthew to the Alpine Inn, we snagged a seat in the dark dining room and ordered what the place is known for: a couple baskets of roasted chicken served atop thick fried potato wedges, a basket of onion rings to share and two Bud Lights.
Matthew had heard of the Alpine Inn from, of all people, my grandma, who first took me there when I was in my early 20s. The place hadn’t changed a bit in nearly 20 years, and neither had the food. We mowed through our crispy fried chicken, crunchy potato wedges dipped in ketchup and thick cut, golden fried onion rings.
We sat near the windows at one side of the dining room that look over a platform built right into the trees outside, and there, a big, extended family of raccoons (and some cats) dine on chicken scraps while we did. It’s kind of weird watching the raccoons eat the same thing you are at the same time you are, but there’s one thing you can say for it.
“Well, this is an original,” Matthew said.
Though it’s not for everyone, it’s a fun, truly Omaha experience.
The other big reason to drive into the north hills also has to do with chicken, but this version is served right on the edge of the Missouri River, at the Surfside Club. My friend Robynn is actually to thank for introducing Matthew to it, as she recently suggested that the three of us try biking to the Surfside on trails that led us straight there from downtown Omaha.
“It will really be worth it when we get there,” she said, meaning both for the views and the calories we’d soon take down.
Whether you bike or drive there, the Surfside’s menu is best enjoyed outdoors. We found a spot at one of the many picnic tables that line the river overlook and ordered from the simple menu. Matthew and I stuck with the classic chicken, and Robynn got a special breaded pork tenderloin sandwich. (We were on the banks of Iowa, home of the pork tenderloin, after all.)
The hush puppies have always been my favorite part of Surfside, and they still are. Rich with the flavor of cornmeal and fried to a deep hue of golden brown, they taste like summer. The chicken, fried to a super crisp finish, is juicy and satisfying, especially with a cold beer from the outdoor bar that the restaurant added a few years back. Robynn’s pork tenderloin, thickly covered in pickles and a healthy squirt of mustard, also satisfied.
“I’m glad we biked here,” I said. “It’s the only way to justify eating this much fried food in spandex.”
For Nebraskans like Matthew and I, Runza is a childhood staple and a welcome favorite whether it be at a Nebraska Cornhuskers football game in the dead of winter, along an I-80 road trip across the state or just on a random Tuesday. The huge appeal has helped grow the restaurants to cover the whole state and then some from the small 1940s beginnings as a mom-and-pop shop in Lincoln.
“Frings are where it’s at!” Matthew says every time I suggest we grab a bite at a Runza.
“Frings,” which we order every single time we’re at Runza, are a mix of the restaurant’s excellent crisp on the outside, mealy on the inside crinkle cut fries and a few golden onion rings tucked in the same bag.
“Why every restaurant hasn’t thought of this already, I don't know,” I said. I always order the classic Runza—it also comes with cheese and in a few other varieties—but the classic is what I like best. A soft, bready exterior comes filled with a blend of peppery ground beef, tender cabbage and savory onions. I like it best dipped in ketchup.
Though Matthew likes the Runza, he often goes for the restaurant’s excellent cheeseburger, a big patty of beef served on a soft bun with a slice of melted cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions, ketchup and mustard.
Runza restaurants are located all over the city, so you’re never too far from this local treat. And once you tuck into a yellow-and-green booth and unwrap your Midwestern delicacy, trust me, you’ll understand why the locals love this place.Pull up a chair at a favorite Omaha restaurant.