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A year of eating rural
by Betty Sayers, Pam Soreide and Phil Soreide
[Editor’s note: We started the Rural Foodies as a lark. As a column for Nebraska Rural Living, we thought it might run a few months before it was superseded by something else. But we found we enjoyed it and readers responded to it, so now we’re in our third year of seeking out culinary adventures in Nebraska’s rural cities and towns.]
We’ve been to some pretty interesting places this past year: the Lobster Capitol of Nebraska; a “little corner” of El Salvador; and Mountain Oyster Night in Sumner. We found fabulous chefs in Broken Bow and Cozad. We discovered the Jiffyburger in McCook. We even did our own Farmers Market Throwdown, inviting friends to bring us their best fresh and local dishes from the farmers market.
Join us for a look back at eating rural in 2010.
The China Hy Express
Chinese cooking is one of the great cuisines of the world, an ancient tradition of vast subtleties, rituals, and poetic references. Cooking in China is high art and has been for millennia, yet here in America we usually get just the tiniest glimpse of the treasures it might hold because even native-born chefs are trained to cook for the American palate. The result is it’s often hard to tell one Chinese restaurant from another, so when you come across one that seems a cut above the rest, you need to spread the word.
Our order at the China Hy Express in Lexington was not unusual for an American Chinese restaurant — Kung Pao Shrimp, the Shrimp with Green Beans special, Broccoli Beef, and Hunan Chicken, with rice, soup and an egg roll — but the skillful blending of tastes and artful preparation of the food moved this restaurant up a notch .The food was served steaming hot, fresh, and superbly seasoned. The Hot and Sour soup was a fabulous example of the genre, with a rich broth, flavorful spices and a hint of vinegar expertly melded together. The mushrooms in the beef dish were obviously marinated in sherry. The Broccoli Beef had the texture and flavor of meat that has been cooked until its juices and the seasonings caramelize into a meaty, garlic flavored sauce. The green beans were beautifully stir-fried to just the perfect state of al dente and the sauce was delightful.
Our advice: way better than typical Chinese; definitely worth a visit when you’re in the mood for Moo Goo Gai Pan.
We were certainly the only Gringos in the place the night we visited El Rinconcito, the “little corner” of El Salvador in Lexington, but we felt totally welcomed, especially by our bright-eyed, vivacious waitress, a girl of about fourteen.
With her help we took a small culinary tour of her native land.
Of course we tried the Pupusas, a specialty of the house. They are a thick, hand-made corn flat bread stuffed with cheese, fried pork, beans or loroco (a vine flower bud from Central America), baked on the grill and served with curtido, a marinated cabbage, onion, and shredded carrot slaw with a sweet, mild lemon-fresh dressing or pico de gallo. The tamales were a light, fluffy, steaming cornmeal mixture almost like a delicate corn bread infused with chicken or pork. The tacos were fresh, handmade tortillas made with marinated meat fresh-fried on the grill.
We also tried the Horchata is a sweetened, spiced, rice-milk that tastes a bit like rice-pudding-through-a-straw, and the atol de elote a thick drink, almost a cold, sweet soup with distinct corn and cinnamon undertones and a wonderfully fresh flavor.
Our advice: be not afraid of going somewhere different and trying something new.
As with many of our Rural Foodies adventures, the outside of Tub’s Pub in Sumner is unprepossessing, but inside, even though it’s a Wednesday, Tub’s was vibrant and packed with people. It was especially packed with men. Big men, with cowboy hats and boots or seed caps and work pants who stood in line in the middle of the restaurant at what appeared to be the salad bar. The reason soon became clear. We had arrived on the fourth Wednesday of a month containing five Wednesdays: Mountain Oyster Night.
Mountain oysters, also known as calf fries, prairie oysters, cowboy caviar, or Montana tendergroin, undoubtedly evoke the “eeeeww” factor in some, but they are considered a great delicacy by many. At Tub’s, they are peeled, breaded, pounded flat and deep fried. We didn’t try them, alas, instead going for the smothered chicken dish (a Tex-Mex treatment with a spicy gravy), a nice breaded tilapia, the rib eye steak, and one of Tub’s Pub’s signature dishes, the chicken fried steak — surely one of the best guilty pleasures of a Midwestern life.
It was all expertly done, explaining how, over about three decades, Tub and his wife built a small bar into a restaurant with a huge regional draw.
Our advice: when you go, go hungry.
Back Alley Bakery
For many years, the Back Alley Bakery in Hastings sold wonderful artisan-baked sourdough bread from a humble storefront, literally in a back alley. Over time they attracted a larger and larger following of loyal customers almost exclusively through word of mouth. When the adjacent retail space finally came available, the owners renovated it and opened the perfect restaurant for a placed called the Back Alley Bakery, where the rustic and the funky combine with the stylish and sophisticated to create an experience in Hastings you wouldn’t expect to find outside of, say, Santa Barbara or Charleston.
In addition to a changing selection of sourdough breads and rolls, there is a changing selection of soups, salads and sandwiches. For our visit, we selected a turkey breast and gruyere Panini; Mulligatawny, an Indian soup spiced with turmeric and curry; the classic quiche; and the March Hare salad, a chopped vegetable salad in a creamy cottage cheese. It was all fabulous. The Panini crisp outside and gooey inside; the soup rich and satisfying; the quiche a fine example of an old favorite; and the salad wonderfully crisp and creamy.
We can only envy people who live close enough to get a regular supply of crisp-crunchy-chewy artisan sourdough from the Back Alley Bakery.
Our advice: take home a loaf or two for later.
The Palace Steakhouse
Few restaurants in Nebraska make it a point to buy Nebraska beef, and the fact that the Palace Steakhouse in Red Cloud does piqued our interest. As you push open the door, you can see the emphasis owners Tom and Linda Hitchler place on their beef: their grill is right out front, waiting; hot; smoking a little; sizzling. Okay, interior decoration is not the strong suit of the Palace. It’s a family place, a community place, so a few gents in seed caps are having beers at a venerable wooden bar, while families and small groups are scattered at the boxcar-siding booths and tables with sturdy metal chairs. It’s the kind of place where people can come and just relax; where you wouldn’t kill yourself if you spilled a glass of Coke on the carpet.
Was our experience at the Palace Steakhouse sublime? Transcendent? Finest restaurant we ever saw? Well, no. But in absolute terms it was still darn good. The food was well-prepared by people who cared, the staff was friendly and attentive, the drinks were generous, the salads crisp, the steak tender, juicy and richly flavorful.
Our advice: top choice in Red Cloud.
The Bonfire Grill
Afif Espindola is a chef who earned acclaim for some years in high-end hunt clubs and luxury dude ranches. Well known for his way with wild game (he marinates chukar in a balsamic-garlic-flavored mayonnaise with herbs, quickly pan-sears it, and serves it with apricot-jam-flavored sauce, for example) Espindola came earlier this year to be the executive chef at the Bonfire Grill in Broken Bow.
Oh, lucky Broken Bow.
On our visit, we were enchanted by the rolling Sandhills. We were charmed by the beautifully-restored Arrow Hotel which houses the Bonfire as well as the tastefully-decorated restaurant itself. We were impressed by the servers and the service. But we came for the food, and we weren’t disappointed The Bonfire sirloin with a seasoned dry rub was highlighted as a special for the evening, so we requested that, the flat iron steak, the pan-seared walleye with mango salsa, and the grilled halibut, served with tarragon lemon butter. Everything was sublime, with special attention paid to the side dishes and vegetables.
Our advice: save room for dessert.
Farmers Market throwdown
On the Food Network, a “throwdown” is a culinary challenge. And although that seems kind of an aggressive term among mild-mannered cooks such as ourselves, in August the Rural Foodies issued a throwdown to a few friends — bring us your best dish that originated at the farmer’s market, and we’ll see who really has the “fresh-and-local” chops.
There’s not room for the recipes or the full adventure here, but suffice to say we had a wonderful meal of bruschetta, barbecued pork on sprouted wheat bread, Southwest black bean salad, eggplant nicoise, tarragon green beans, kohlrabi coleslaw and rhubarb pie. No one suffered, except a thermos of coffee would have been nice with the pie.
Our advice: the best fresh-and-local is DIY.
Sehnert’s Bakery and Bieroc Cafe
Sehnert’s Bakery and Bieroc Café is something of a landmark “on the bricks” in McCook; it’s a place everyone in town knows and loves. Once Tanner, the eager young man helping us behind the counter, understood what we were about, he entered into the spirit completely, sharing his favorites while pointing out the widely popular dishes favored in the community.
We ordered a bieroc, of course. How could we not? We got the Happy German — corned beef, swiss cheese, kraut and 1000 Island dressing — as a lettuce wrap, and then Tanner insisted we try the Apple Planter (which we may not have otherwise), featuring sliced turkey, bacon, provolone, and thinly sliced apples on Focaccia with mayo and honey mustard. Tanner’s personal favorite was the BBQ Chicken Wrap, so we ordered one of those, as well. Behind us in line, a fellow who was obviously a regular advised us to try a Jiffyburger. Well, why not? Three people and five sandwiches…what’s wrong with that?
We were especially taken with the Apple Planter – wonderful Focaccia – and all agreed the bieroc was in no way the same animal as a Runza. The Jiffyburger was not at all what we expected — the meat is like a sloppy joe, only without tomato sauce, served on a smallish bun with a dollop of mustard-mayo-pickle-onion relish in the middle. Tasty and great fun.
Our advice: get there early if you want the legendary peanut butter rolls.
Shadi Aboushady, the chef and co-owner of Bella Italia in Cozad, was born in Alexandria, Egypt and grew up learning to cook all over Italy, resulting in a wide and interesting repertoire with French, Italian and Middle Eastern influences. He learned to cook professionally at a café on the Piazza San Carlo, generally acknowledged to be the most beautiful in Turin, then moved to New York as a young man where he honed his skills in the kind of New York restaurants that get written up in the Zagat Guide.
The night we visited, we didn’t order the Ravioli Alla Purro Nero, seafood ravioli sautéed with fresh crabmeat, shrimp, butter and fresh herbs; nor the Tuna Mustardello, Yellow Fin Tuna sautéed with mushrooms, sweet red pepper, black olives, fresh herbs and white wine Dijon mustard; nor the Beef Tenderloin Au Poivre, seared with black pepper and sautéed with wild mushrooms in a poivre sauce of cognac, Tabasco and sherry. No, we had to settle for the Grouper Parmesiana, which was sautéed in white wine, lemon and nutmeg and topped with crabmeat and melted parmesan cheese; the Clam Linguini which came with succulent clams swimming in a butter-garlic-parsley sauce; and a marinated, grilled Leg of Lamb with a delightful fresh mint sauce.
More’s the pity we had but one stomach apiece.
This is not our first visit to the Bella Italia, nor will it be our last. We don’t think you’ll find better Italian gourmet anywhere in the state.
Our advice: Get the Caesar salad, it’s made fresh (the way a Caesar should be) with anchovy, egg, Dijon and shaved (not grated) parmesan. Yum.
Another year, another 10,000 calories
Where do we go from here? Well, we always appreciate tips from readers (click here to send us an idea or suggest a restaurant) and we already have a line on some places that might be worthy of a visit from the Rural Foodies. We’re planning to explore more options in some of our rural cities on the theory that rural people are accustomed to driving to get the things they need, and sometimes you need a Beef Tenderloin Au Poivre. And we’re also planning some more do-it-yourself kinds of adventures where we hope to let out our inner chefs.
Our point, as it has been from the beginning, is that you shouldn’t have to give up delicious and interesting food choices just because you don’t live in a big city. Granted, you may have to be more flexible, you may have to plan, and you may have to drive a bit.
But isn’t that part of the fun?
Who to Contact
China Hy Express
413 N Washington
Lexington, NE 68850
El Rinconcito Restaurant
105 W Pacific St
Lexington, NE 68850
Tub and Carol Hoos
107 West 5th Avenue
Sumner, NE 68878
Back Alley Bakery
609 West 2nd St.
Hastings, NE 68901
Facebook: back alley bakery
125 West Fourth Street
Red Cloud, NE 68970
509 South 9th Ave.
Broken Bow, NE 68822
Sehnert’s Bakery and Bieroc Cafe
312 Norris Avenue
Mc Cook, NE 69001-3706
Bella Italia Restaurant
114 W 7th St
Cozad, NE 69130