When it comes time for food while traveling, my hope is always to eat local and with locals. Usually, the food is good even if the establishment is far from classy. More often than not, it is the locals that make the experience truly fine dining. That was Omaha last weekend.
When the NCAA picks sites for the men’s basketball tournament, along with a top-notch arena or domed football stadium, an area like Omaha’s revitalized Old Market, just blocks from the arena, helps make the fan experience complete. Fans want fun places to eat, and especially to drink, within walking distance. It is the those fans, though, that make me look elsewhere.
Fortunately, there is Amato’s Cafe just miles from downtown but far enough away from the basketball crowd. The small Italian breakfast and lunch spot stood next to the old Ak-Sar-Ben horse track for years. The track and horse barns are now gone with new housing and shopping in their place, but Amato’s has not changed and remains far from fancy.
My arrival came after the morning breakfast rush. One of the two dining rooms was still filled with regulars. I was there for the pancakes to fuel a bicycle ride. My choice of wheat cakes filled with home-made ricotta cheese and fresh fruit was a surprising delight. The smoothness of the cheese balanced the tartness of the fruit and left me fully fueled for the afternoon ride.
What made the experience perfect was the arrival of an older woman. Staff called out to her by name as she slid into the booth in front of me. Her food and coffee arrived without ordering. The owner, Sam Amato, stood up from a table of men near me discussing Creighton’s NCAA tournament chances. He reached up to the old television hung high from the ceiling. The channel was quickly changed from ESPN to The Price is Right. Clearly, this was a daily event and the cafe’s clocks could probably be set based on the woman’s arrival.
To complete this wonderful scene, a waitress brought a stack of paper napkins and silverware to an empty table. As she wrapped a napkin around a fork, knife and spoon and bound each setting with a sticky paper wrap, her eyes never wandered from the game show contestants jumping with joy over their chances to win a prize package.
The next day was a California Tacos and More day. This one comes from the popular food show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Parking my car, it was clear this was one spot best savored during the day. The line was long. A group of large buddies in front of me, well lit from the early St. Patrick’s Day festivities, kept me entertained with their speculations over how much food to order. When one guy said two of the California tacos always made him feel full, a look at his bountiful belly meant one would be enough for me.
That is when the real entertainment began. Across the street, two men began beating up another man. This was full-on street warfare. Fists flew with fury. Once the two knocked their victim to the sidewalk, one pounded him in the head as the other kicked him repeatedly.
Everyone just stood and watched through the window, but took no action to help. I have assured my wife that my move to the door was never done with the thought of crossing the street. My only hope was that by screaming the police were on the way the onslaught might abate. Fortunately, before I could say a word, the victim managed to scramble to his feet and sprinted away never to be seen again.
Returning to my spot in line, the big guys were now ordering. The two taco guy chose to go light with only one California taco, but added two regular tacos and a side of Mexi-Tots. My order must have seemed like the child’s plate. One California taco proved to be a two-hander with its large, thick, toasted pita bread serving as the shell for the taco stuffings. The salsa choices brought it all to life for me.
Sadly, the dining experience drained all the life out of the food experience. Two affluent-looking couples in their late 20s, along with another female friend, were in deep conversation and could not be bothered by their four children. The youngsters were left to entertain themselves and did so by running from table to table, climbing on chairs and jumping down a short staircase over and over. This kind of floor show, in which parents fail to take responsibility to teach proper behavior and discipline their children, was way beyond selfish.
My final personal dining experience was truly the best. A tip from a man at the hotel led me south and east of downtown to the 11 Worth Cafe on Leavenworth Street. Get it? It is a place I was told “has been around forever” in a neighborhood far from what it once was when the cafe opened. That has not stopped people from flocking to the large three-room dining area. Cars filled the half-block parking lot. People stood outside the door waiting to be called. I squeezed by to give my name to the hostess and was told there was one stool at the counter “if you hurry.”
Spinning onto my stool at the end of counter, I immediately noticed the huge four-egg omelet the man next to me was devouring. Along with a separate plate of hash browns and toast, it all looked to be too much. Even the junior omelet I ordered proved to be too much for me. Everything was rich with flavor and surely too much butter, but I was going to battle 28 mph southerly winds on my bike that afternoon, so I enjoyed every bite I could handle.
My enjoyment came from the people of every walk of life. This was the complete local dining experience. I learned quickly to keep my right elbow tucked as I ate to avoid planting it into the stomach of a waitress speeding around the corner of the counter. Waitresses called to customers by name. Orders, if needed, came quickly and filled promptly. While I never felt rushed and enjoyed talking to the friendly man beside me, I also knew traffic had to keep moving as the long line of hungry diners swelled outside the door. Capping it all off, my omelet, hash browns, toast and drink along with a good tip still came in under $10.
That adds up to only three local establishments. There was food at the basketball games and some breakfasts were no more than a fruit smoothie. There also was a dinner with a friend that drove over from Lincoln and a special dinner with relatives to celebrate my aunt’s 87th birthday at one of my cousin’s homes.
Sitting with my aunt, my cousin and his wife and daughters, I thoroughly enjoyed the simple hamburgers and hot dogs fresh off the grill and the company of people who have meant so much to me for so long. It all added up to very fine dining in Omaha.