Chow Down in the Cornhusker State: What to Eat in Nebraska

There's more to the Cornhusker State than corn. Get an earful and a stomach-ful of steak, pork tenderloin and Omaha-only pizza.

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Corn and More

Nebraska is probably best known for corn and beef -- don’t worry, we have both in this lineup -- but it’s also a state full of chefs aiming to serve much more than those two staples. We have Alton Brown’s favorite burger in the nation. The Reuben sandwich. An amazing array of Mexican. The Tin Roof Sundae. And yes, perhaps the best bone-in, whiskey marinated ribeye you’re likely to find anywhere.

Chicken-Fried Steak

There may not be anything more Cornhusker than a beef steak that has been fried in flour and egg until golden brown. Chicken-fried steaks appear on menus throughout the state, in most small-town diners and cafes, in Omaha steakhouses and even at a few high-end joints. In Omaha, many fans favor the traditional and gigantic steak served at the 11-Worth Cafe, a mom-and-pop diner where portions are generous. The Millard Roadhouse, in Omaha’s western suburbs, serves one coated in spicy chicken gravy. Shirley's Diner, in West Omaha, will give you a chicken-fried steak on a bun or one doused in hot sauce. But the best chicken-fried steak may be found at Gorat's Steakhouse, Warren Buffett's hangout, where they fry up an honest-to-goodness steak and douse it in gravy, just like your grandma intended.

Ice Cream

Nebraska is dairy country, and Nebraskans go nutty for ice cream when the weather is warm. Whether they’re helping students experiment with new flavors at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln’s Dairy Store, waiting in line for a cone at Zesto — an old-school Omaha classic — or hitting locally owned small-town scoop shops Nebraskans don’t spare themselves their cones. In Omaha’s Dundee neighborhood, local owners did good with eCreamery, a shop that made its name with Shark Bait ice cream, which they debuted on the reality show Shark Tank. The flavor is one of its most-popular: sea salt caramel gelato studded with chocolate-covered pretzels.

Bone-In Ribeye

When travelers arrive in Nebraska, they often have one question: “Where do I get some steak?” The answer is both simple and complex: It’s served nearly everywhere, including small-town steakhouses like the Speakeasy, near Holdrege, in the heart of central Nebraska; or Misty’s, a Lincoln classic. One of the best steaks anywhere is served in the heart of Omaha at the Drover, where the meat has been doused in a secret whiskey-based marinade for more than 40 years. Any cut can be “whiskied,” but we suggest the house classic, a bone-in ribeye.

Biscuits and Gravy

Generations of farmers have eaten the same satisfying meal before a long day planting soybeans. That dish is biscuits and gravy, a combination that is too good to improve on. In Lincoln, try the Engine House Cafe, a converted firehouse in the historic Havelock neighborhood, where they make their own biscuits and their own sausage gravy. Amato's in midtown Omaha serves their spiced-up Italian-American version of the dish with thick gravy featuring huge sausage hunks. But the best biscuits in Nebraska, and thus the best biscuits and gravy, are likely found at Shirley's Diner in Millard, a suburban spot that maintains its timeless, small-town feel.

Tin Roof Sundae

The tiny town of Potter, Nebraska, is home to this big treat, an ice cream sundae that played with sweet and savory combinations long before it became a trend. Harold Dean “Pinky” Thayer came up with the combination, which tops chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce, then a scoop of vanilla ice cream, then warm marshmallow cream. The whole thing gets a sprinkling of skin-on Spanish peanuts. The Potter Sundry in town is the place to get one, and it draws tourists from around the globe to sample the dessert, especially in the summer.

Chili and a Cinnamon Roll

What sounds like an epically strange combination is actually incredibly common in Nebraska — and, it turns out, also surprisingly delicious. Many Nebraskans first encounter a bowl of chili served with a warm cinnamon roll as a school lunch. Runza, the Nebraska-based chain that also sells bierocks, is the best place to get this wintertime special — served September through April. A warm bowl of the restaurant's house chili comes served with a Miller and Paine cinnamon roll. The recipe for the rolls was salvaged from a long-closed department store in downtown Lincoln. Runza acquired the recipe, and the rest is history.

Go to: Runza

Macaroni and Cheese

Mac and cheese often gets relegated to side status, especially when steak is around. But Nebraskans know how to give cheesy pasta its due, even when there’s no cheese involved. At Modern Love, vegan chef and cookbook author Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Omaha outpost, the Mac and Shews, made with vegan cashew cream, is a staple on the menu, and the restaurant’s most-popular dish. At Marks Bistro in Omaha, you’ll find the full-on cheese version, made with four cheeses and blasted in an oven so the panko top crisps. Add-ins, which rotate regularly, can include steak and vegetables

Omaha-Style Pizza

Though it might not be as well-known as Chicago or New York, Omaha has its own specific style of pizza, and you’ll find it at La Casa Pizzeria, an old-school shop with an incredible neon sign out front. The crust is rich and sort of flaky, a buttery biscuit-like concoction served in a giant rectangle and cut into squares. The most-popular topping combination is a layer of ground beef topped with onions and mushrooms. The tomato sauce is thin and bright, hidden between the crust and meat.

Go to: La Casa Pizzaria

Reuben

Though there are a few origin stories for the Reuben, Nebraska legend has it that the iconic sandwich came to be during a poker game in Omaha’s late Blackstone Hotel. Reuben Kulakofsky, the sandwich’s namesake, was playing and likely suggested the combo to the hotel owner, Charles Schimmel, who first made the sandwich, then added it to his menu. Diners can still find juicy corned beef, melted Emmental cheese and sauerkraut mixed with Russian dressing on menus all over the state. Find a version with perfect sear and tender corned beef at Omaha’s Crescent Moon Alehouse, right across the street from the old hotel.

Burger

Nebraska is one of the country’s largest purveyors of beef, and there’s no shortage of burgers, whether they’re fresh off the griddle at an Interstate 80 roadside dive or made from high-end wagyu at a top-tier Omaha steakhouse. High-end casual dishes are the specialty at Block 16, including the Croque Garcon, a favorite of Alton Brown’s. The ⅓-pound burger comes topped with cheese, ham, a sunny-side-up egg, mustard and truffle mayo on a ciabatta bun. It’s not the only burger on the Block’s menu: The classic Block Burger, cooked medium rare and topped with the classic fixings, is not to be missed, either.

Go to: Block 16

Stromer Sandwich

The Barrel Bar in Hastings, Nebraska, deserves a special shout out for its uber-creative way to fit as much ground beef onto a plate as possible. Their creation is called the Stromer, and it's been a mainstay at the Barrel as long as anyone can remember. The stromer is a cheese charburger covered in meaty chili, served open-faced with sliced onion on a single bun. It's like a chili-cheese dog, except with more hamburger and better. You can actually get a Polish stromer, their version of a chili cheese dog with Polish sausage, at the Barrel Bar, too.

Pork Tenderloin

Though plate-sized pork tenderloins are generally thought of as an Iowa specialty, Nebraskans have learned a thing or two from their neighbors to the east. Breaded and fried to perfection, the pork is often topped simply with pickles and a bun that seems miniscule in comparison to the giant cut of meat. The best versions allow the flavor of the meat to come through despite breading. Find a banner version at Catfish Lake, on the outskirts of Omaha, where the juicy tenderloin is, yes, giant, but made with fine panko breading and top-quality pork.

Beer

Breweries have bloomed all over Nebraska, and plenty of them are taking advantage of local, seasonal ingredients. Take Ord’s Scratchtown Brewery, where the beer is made in ultra-small batches and some seasonals never make it out of town. The list changes all the time, but you’ll find some of their larger batches on tap in Omaha at Local, a beer hall with several locations. Lincoln’s Zipline Brewing operates a beer hall in Lincoln and a tasting room in Omaha. Their IRA, a mix of hoppy India Pale Ale blended with malty red ale, is a local favorite.

Onion Rings

If you’re in the mood for both a scenic road trip and a great onion ring, head toward The Rustic in Fort Calhoun, where the onion rings come hot, crispy and heaping over their baskets. The delicate, peppery breading clings to the sweet, melty interior, transforming the lowly vegetables into something sinfully good. Be sure to get a side of the homemade ranch dressing for dipping.

Corn

Though it’s easiest (and often tastiest) to buy sweet corn from pop-up farm stands in gas station parking lots come high summer, a few restaurants make good use of Nebraska’s second-most-famous product when the season hits. Enterprising restaurants craft all sorts of dishes, including corn ice cream. For a fluffy bite of summer, opt for cornbread made from scratch at Big Mama’s Kitchen, in North Omaha. You can even take home one of Big Mama’s housemade cornbread mixes to fix it at home.

Bolognese

Omaha has strong Italian-American heritage, which could be why locals have such fondness for classic bolognese. Restaurants around the city experiment with pork, beef and veal ragus, but the best rendition is at Dante Ristorante, where the sauce features deeply savory beef and pork ragu served on a swirl of perfectly executed homemade pasta topped with thick shavings of Grana Padano cheese.

Garlic Bread

When a steak restaurant in Nebraska’s Sand Hills professes to do something else as well as it does red meat, you should order it. That’s the case with the garlic bread at the Peppermill Steakhouse, in Valentine. The crusty garlic bread comes thick-cut, seasoned with fresh herbs and rubbed with garlic; char marks cover both sides and lend a delicious grilled flavor. It traditionally comes with bright marinara sauce for dipping, but the menu mentions that the kitchen is happy to substitute that for a bowl of meaty beef au jus for dipping instead, which, frankly, is a terrific idea.

Bierock

A true Nebraska original via a specific group of immigrants —Germans who emigrated from Russia — the bierock is a meat pocket loved statewide. Traditionally, the soft, just-sweet bread is filled with a mixture of cabbage, onions and ground beef; cheese is often in there, too. They’ve been made famous under another name, runza, and are served in the Midwest thanks to a restaurant chain of the same name, as well as during Nebraska Cornhusker football games in Lincoln. But find a locally made version in McCook, where Sehnert’s Bakery serves their own version with a crustier exterior and heartily seasoned beef inside.

Mexican Seafood

Nebraska has a surprisingly rich array of Mexican restaurants, including many that specialize in flavorful seafood. In O'Neill, La Heradura serves a killer version of sauteed shrimp that comes with a kicky mix of seared tomatoes, peppers and jalapenos alongside beans and rice, all best perked up with a heap of homemade green salsa. And in Omaha, El Dorado specializes in towers of seafood sized for a crowd at a price that is hard to beat.

Corned Beef Hash

Nebraska uses beef in every possible way, so salt-curing it to serve between a bed of fried potatoes and a runny egg seems perfectly reasonable. You can find good corned-beef hash at most diners, and on many weekend brunch menus. Try it at Harold's Koffee House, a postcard-perfect diner in Florence. The fancier version at Over Easy, a West Omaha breakfast spot, involves house-cured corned beef and a pepper-and-onion potato rosti. If it's brunch time, head to downtown Omaha for the corned beef hash at Wilson & Washburn, a solid beer-and-cocktail bar that brightens their version with horseradish aioli.

Pho

Lincoln has a thriving Vietnamese community, which means it's home to a great Vietnamese food scene. Banhwich Cafe specializes in banh mi sandwiches, with a lineup that includes the traditional version, along with plenty of meatless choices and a selection of boba tea. Pho Factory prepares a lovely, large bowl of homemade broth studded with beef, tendon and meatballs along with savory noodles and the soup’s classic toppings. There’s also seafood and tofu pho on the list, as well as a pork and cabbage dumpling soup and a lemongrass version.

Whiskey Cocktail

Cowboys drink whiskey, and they drink it straight from a shot glass, just like John Wayne intended. Nebraska does love its whiskey, but increasingly when it’s shaken or stirred together with other beautiful ingredients in a coupe or a tumbler. For an urban whiskey cowboy experience, park your pick-up truck at the Other Room in Lincoln, a tiny downtown speakeasy and the state's only bar to receive a James Beard Foundation semifinalist nod. Or head to the Boiler Room, in Omaha's Old Market, one of the state's best restaurants and a place that also serves delicious Old Fashioneds and Manhattans. But if you want the best whiskey cocktail in the state, check out Mercury, a new-ish spot on Omaha's 16th Street, where Head Bartenders Clark Ross and Colin Breen mix all manner of drinks, including Granddaddy Low, a bourbon, lemon and amaro drink that will leave you smiling as you ride your horse into the sunset.

Munch Basket

A specific delicacy of fried goodness in a basket, a munch basket — or combo basket — is found in almost every small-town cafe. The baskets can include all sorts of fried items, but generally, you’ll find French fries, onion rings, mozzarella sticks and fried cauliflower and mushrooms. At Glur’s Tavern, in Columbus, the basket comes with fried balls of cream cheese studded with spicy jalapenos. And at Eat Restaurant, a tiny spot in Dodge, the hand-breaded munch basket uses seasonal vegetables and a light, airy tempura breading, with homemade aioli for dipping.