The next morning, we had one remaining piece of business in Iowa to take care of before moving on to Nebraska. While knocking down a breaded pork tenderloin the previous day was partially about duty, eating a loosemeat sandwich was all desire. They are similar to sloppy joes, but without so much sauce.
Iowa is – partially by default – the home of the loosemeat sandwich. And there are probably more loosemeat establishments in Northwest Iowa than any other part of the state. I chose from several places I had been reading about for years on the roadfood web site. My selection was the Miles Inn of Sioux City, IA. It’s a festive-looking bar that has been serving loosemeats for years. Loosemeat is actually a generic name. A handful of places give the sandwiches their own unique moniker. At the Miles Inn, they are called Charlie Boys, and mine was delicious, with lots of flavor and a nice, moist texture.
While most of our vacation took place in Iowa, we did cross over the Missouri River into Nebraska for a little over 24 hours. We were heading to Lincoln to see the state house and then on to Omaha for another classic steakhouse and a little sightseeing.
Along the way, we discovered that Nebraska also has cornfields. And we stopped for a snack in Oakland, the Swedish Capital of Nebraska. Just as Pella, Iowa was founded by Dutch settlers and has a Dutch theme, Oakland must have been founded by Swedish settlers, as signs of its Swedish heritage were easy to see.
In need of a quick drink and bite on the run, we went to Nelson’s Food Pride in Oakland. Nelson’s started as a small grocery store in 1910 and expanded into what was then a modern supermarket in 1961. The store, which was in beautiful shape during our visit, is still owned and operated by the Nelson family. I picked out a regional candy bar called Twin Bing that consists of cherry-flavored nougat covered in a layer of milk chocolate and chopped peanuts. I’m not sure I’d buy another Twin Bing. But we survived the experience and our hunger was temporarily satisfied.
Upon arriving in Lincoln, Nebraska’s capital, we proceeded straight to the state house. Along with seeing as many state houses as we can, it’s become a tradition that I pose in front of each capitol building for my wife. While we were in a city named after him, we’ve discovered that Lincoln statues are somewhat common on the grounds of American state houses.
On our way out of Lincoln, we drove past the University of Nebraska football stadium, where many a big game has been played, often against Oklahoma during the days of the Big Eight.
Our next stop was Omaha. We stayed directly across from the stadium where the college baseball World Series is played each year.
One of our main reasons for going to Omaha was to eat at another classic steakhouse-supper club type restaurant. For those of you not familiar with the term, ‘supper club,’ it was essentially adult dining the first few decades after World War II. There were cocktails and often nice decor. It was a place for married couples to go to to get away from the kids and let their hair down for a night. There are still a good number of supper clubs in Wisconsin. But they have mostly died out in the rest of the country.
Our dining destination in Omaha was Johnny’s Cafe, which opened in 1922 as a tiny saloon next to the Omaha Stockyards and gradually expanded to its current gargantuan size. Even the bull logo on the carpet in Johnny’s lobby is big.
They have multiple rooms, but we were seated in what I assume was the main dining room.
Johnny’s is still owned by the family that opened it nearly a century ago, but unfortunately, my impression was that it has seen far better days. While the dining room has an extremely classic look to it, such a large space needs a lot of people in it to feel alive. There were only perhaps a half-dozen other dining parties there during our meal, leaving the room to feel more like a mausoleum than anything that would remind one of festive. But I could imagine what the room must have felt like when it was full during its heyday.
That’s not a reflection on the food though. While browsing through menus during my pre-trip research, I noticed that onion rings were a standard appetizer offering at steakhouses in this part of the country. We tried an order at Johnny’s and they were mighty fine. There was no relish tray this time, but there was cottage cheese and crackers. Someone at our table was happy about that.
There was a prime rib special that night that I couldn’t pass up. The thick cut was beautifully medium-rare and mostly tender – one end was just a little tough. I again ordered hash browns on the side.
For breakfast the following morning, we went to Harold’s Koffee House, which was a nice contrast to Johnny’s Cafe. Harold’s is small, but bustling. While mini donuts are one of their trademarks, I passed those up and ordered a plate of pancakes with bacon. I had intended to get pie afterward, but the pancakes – in addition to being wonderful – were so big that I was left with no appetite by the time I finished with them. That was disappointing. I had intended to order a slice of lemon-meringue pie.
We had time for some sightseeing before leaving Omaha to return to Iowa and settled on historic Union Station and the Durham Western Heritage Museum within it. The interior of Union Station is a spectacular example of Art Deco architecture.
The museum included a look at rail travel in its heyday, including a small exhibit on what train travelers ate on board in those days. There was also a temporary exhibit of some of the most spectacular wildlife photography I’ve seen.
One of the highlights of Union Station’s lobby is their classic-looking, old-school soda fountain, where my wife and I enjoyed a couple fine beverages of our choice; two sodas that you don’t find very often in our home region. The sarsaparilla will be familiar to fans of The Big Lebowski. Cheerwine is a cherry-flavored soda that is typically found in and around North Carolina, the only other place I’ve enjoyed it.
We needed to hit the road for Des Moines relatively early, as we had a major meal stop planned along the way; our fourth and final classic steakhouse-supper club of the trip. We were back where the corn grows high.
Our dinner stop was one I had been eagerly anticipating for weeks; the Redwood Steakhouse in Anita, Iowa, home of the mother of all relish trays. It’s the relish tray I placed at the top of part one of this trip report.
The interior of the Redwood is old-school indeed. They give wood paneling a good name. There was a nice bar inside, but I wasn’t able to get a shot of it, as there was a large party sitting between it and our table.
In addition to a breaded pork tenderloin sandwich and a loosemeat sandwich, I had decided in advance that I didn’t want to leave Iowa without trying a pork chop. This was to be my last opportunity, so there wasn’t much doubt as to what I would order. Actually, they had a couple kinds of pork chops on the menu. I went with the Windsor chop, which reminded me of a high quality dinner ham. I enjoyed it very much. By now, I was a little tired of hash browns, so I had shoestring fries on the side. But first, there was that relish tray. Wow! And as you can see, there was also salad and cottage cheese with crackers. I went light on all of this stuff to save room for my meal, but it sure looked spectacular on our table.
After finishing dinner, we drove back to Des Moines for a final night of rest before flying back home the next morning. On the way from Anita to Des Moines, we noticed a highway marker for a Bob Feller Museum at one of the exits. Feller was a hall-of-fame pitcher for the Cleveland Indians and a big favorite of my father-in-law, who grew up in Cleveland. Unfortunately, it was too late to visit the museum. I’m sure it was closed by then. If we ever get back to Iowa, we have our first sightseeing stop lined up.