I have an on-going battle with Omaha’s potential. Will it ever be a world-class city? No. Will it ever be a hidden American gem of a city? Some would argue that it already is. The argument (and NPR trend pieces) typically involve the following words in some sort of order: Slowdown, Saddle Creek, creative class, NoDo, young professionals, Old Market, Bright Eyes, Cursive, indie, artists, Film Streams.
Those are the most widely known things and people making Omaha better. More importantly, they’re giving Omaha a distinct sense of self. They’re giving the city things that you can’t get anywhere else which, in the grand scheme of things, is why people love places like Austin, Portland, Milwaukee and Nashville, not to mention the already well-established “world-class cities” (Chicago, New York, San Franscisco, et al). They have things that are unique. There is a core group of people devoted to developing that in Omaha, but it’s hard work. As evidence of how hard it is, I offer you this:
According to the just-released, 11th annual Best of Big O awards the best steakhouse in Omaha is Texas Roadhouse.
Reader’s choice votes are notoriously bad indicators of quality thanks to the Big Bang Theory. Not that Big Bang Theory, but the embarrassingly average television show that’s also embarrassingly popular. It’s not a good, unique, inventive or particularly funny show, but its weekly success in the Nielsen ratings, for me at least, tends to revoke America’s tastemaking rights as a whole. The country, in its entirety, is content not to think about this stuff, and that’s fine. I wish I could not think about it, but I can’t. Hence my outrage at the popularity of Texas Roadhouse (in Omaha) and the Big Bang Theory (in America). (And that show is only my personal pet example. Feel free to insert your least favorite Hollywood blockbuster, Janet Evanovich novel, or Maroon 5 song here.)
That sort of American unexceptionalism is painfully evident in the “Best of Big O” voting. A bit about the voting itself: To be deemed the “Best of” a nominee had to get 50% of the votes in a category or be the top vote-getter. Beyond that the levels of fame are (in order) Readers’ Choice, Readers’ Recommended, and Readers’ Refer. Full disclosure, I frequently write for The Reader, the publication that has conducted the polls (but not counted the votes) for all 11 years, but it really has nothing to do with the publication. All it did was open the polls.
Back to the American unexceptionalism as evidenced by the “Best of Big O” voting. Here are the 10 Worst Best of Big O awards:
10. Best Cell Phone Provider: Verizon – This has nothing to do with the provider that won and everything to do with the fact that, as Americans, we all have the right to be universally underwhelmed by our cell phone carrier. If cell phones are grass then whichever carrier you’re not using is the proverbial other side. I thought everyone was on the same page here.
9. Best Men’s Clothing Store: Men’s Wearhouse – A trick question. There is no place to buy real, honest, quality men’s clothing in Omaha. No cool boutiques, no local institutions that aren’t any different than the chains, nothing. Need proof? J.C. Penney made it as a Readers’ Refer choice.
8. Best Bargain Restaurant: Taco Bell – In a city that Forbes bills as the “most affordable city in America,” isn’t there one local place that can compete with 99-cent chalupas? Of course there are. Find any taco truck in South Omaha. The good news? The combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell did not win Best Pizza Parlor.
7. Best BBQ: Famous Dave’s – Sad because it might be true. I’m an asshole when it comes to BBQ – well, as you are probably gathering, about a lot of things actually – and when people ask me where to get it in Omaha I tell them not to get it in Omaha.
6. Best Italian Restaurant: Lo Sole Mio – The local institution rightfully got the win here, but look just below that and you’ll see the Olive Garden. Here’s everything you need to know about the Olive Garden. New Jersey Housewife Teresa used it as a way to discount the Italian heritage of one of her fellow cast members. Great mind, her.
5. Best New Restaurant: Ingredient – The sleek and forgettable Midwestern chain wins over the one new addition, The Grey Plume, that is actually of some national merit. The Grey Plume did pick up wins in other categories, thankfully.
4. Best Retail Meat Counter: Fareway – If either Just Good Meat or Stoysich House of Sausage where located in Brooklyn – and I’m well aware that Brooklyn has its own cultural backlash at this point but I’ll still use it as an arbiter of taste – you’d get tired of reading about it in your Sunday New York Times. Here they both lose out to the big-box grocer.
3. Best Beer Selection: Old Chicago – Here is a short list of the cities where I’m relatively certain that Old Chicago actually has the best beer selection in town: Conway, Ark.; Cedar Falls, Iowa; Rockford, Ill.; Merrillville, Ind.; Okemos, Mich.; Branson, Mo.; and Casper, Wyo. Not 20 blocks away from the downtown Omaha Old Chicago, we have Crescent Moon, a place that over the past 15 years has worked hard to be the sort of unique beer bar that offers the region’s best brews. Does it have “110 beers on tap” like Old Chicago? No, but it has a curated list that’s always rotating with beers you can’t get in Casper or Branson or any of the 100+ other Old Chicago locations throughout the country. Old Chicago is fine, but it doesn’t add anything to Omaha, and that’s sort of the case for most of the selections on this Not Top 10 list.
2. Best Pet Store: PetSmart – Convenience rules the day.
1. Best Steakhouse: Texas Roadhouse – When the thousands of visitors come to Omaha for the College World Series each year, what is the one thing they have to have? A steak. It’s become synonymous with the city. Whether that’s a justified reputation or not is an argument for another time. The booming mail order business of Omaha Steaks, along with the name, may have more to do with that than the actual quality of Omaha’s dwindling number of old school steakhouses, but is anyone in Omaha actually sending one of those visitors to Texas Roadhouse? Based on this vote, the majority of people would and I’m not sure there’s any way to reconcile that.
“Welcome visitors from Texas/California/Louisiana. You want a good steak? I got just the place. It’s right next to the Best Buy, behind the Border’s that closed two months ago. Just like in your hometown, when you see the sign for Bed, Bath, & Beyond you’ll know you’re there. Enjoy.”
There’s no accounting for taste, and that’s too bad.