Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Everything's Up to Date in ... Omaha

Last and only other time I visited Omaha was some 20 years ago. Along with one of my magazine’s salesmen I was there to drum up business from companies such as First Data. I can't say I remember much about that trip. This one made a much deeper impression, and not just because it was just a few days ago.

On our way back from Arizona and New Mexico last week, we stopped in Omaha to hook up with Ellie and Donny at his parents’ home in Bellevue, an adjacent suburb. Rodgers & Hammerstein once wrote “Everything’s up to date in Kansas City.” The same, and possibly more, could be said about Omaha.

Along the Missouri River Omaha has constructed an inviting waterfront with parks, fountains, bike share stations and a pedestrian bridge to Council Bluffs, Iowa. Even a brisk breeze—okay, a stiff wind—wasn’t strong enough to deter our walking across, letting Gilda add Iowa to the list of states she has visited.

A new minor league baseball stadium hosted the College World Series. There’s a mix of modern and refurbished brick buildings downtown that house an international array of cuisines and beers as well as funky, artsy stores. At several intersections enterprising troubadours staked out claims at each corner. The streets were sufficiently wide to keep their voices from discordant harmonizing.

There are several must-see, must-eat attractions if you spend any time in Omaha, and we dutifully played the willing tourist for Ellie, Donny and his family.

We dined in Johnny’s Café, a steak house landmark since 1922. Should you go to Philadelphia, it is required you eat a cheesesteak sandwich from either Geno’s or Pat’s. In Omaha, you must go to Runza’s for its signature chopped meat, cabbage, cheese, mushroom and onion sandwich which locals insist must be dipped in ranch dressing.

Our flight home Monday wasn’t until 1:10 pm, which gave us plenty of time to skip breakfast so we could eat our first meal of the day at the one and only Stella’s in Bellevue which had people waiting for the door to open at 11 am. Quickly the joint filled with patrons for really great burgers and fries. A single 6 oz. burger is about four inches high. But they also come in double decker and triple decker sizes. 

For the truly hungry and adventurous, or just plain exhibitionist, there’s the Stellanator Challenge. To beat the Stellanator you have 45 minutes to eat:
* 6 burger patties 
* 6 fried eggs 
* 6 pieces of cheese 
* 12 pieces of bacon 
* lettuce 
* tomato 
* fried onions 
* pickles 
* jalapenos 
* peanut butter 
* a bun 
* and an order of fries 

Gilda recently read about a slim woman, Molly Schuyler,  a Bellevue-based professional eating champion, who devoured the Stellanator  in 3:40 and then continued her eating rampage by downing four more burgers, three grilled cheese sandwiches and a basket of fries and onion rings. 

We spent Saturday at Omaha’s world class Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. Lots of animals in natural environments or as close to natural as man can make an enclosure thousands of miles away and tens of degrees hotter or colder than an animal’s normal habitat. On the Skyfari we soared above rhinos, cheetahs, monkeys and giraffes, amazed to see small children show no fear and their parents no worry while Gilda, Ellie and I clung tightly to the restraining bar keeping us snug in our chairlift.

Omaha’s Offutt Air Force Base is home to the Strategic Command, our nation’s multi-faceted air, land and sea defense network. It’s where they took George W. Bush on 9/11, down to a bunker three stories below the surface. 

We toured of Offutt’s public areas. Prior to his retirement Donny’s father piloted a B-52 bomber armed with nuclear missiles and conventional bombs. Gilda and I are not hawks, by any stretch of the imagination. But we were impressed with the dedication and commitment exhibited by Don Novak and his colleagues.