On our recent trip to Colorado, we drove from the Quad Cities to Denver. Traveling with my wife, I usually don't push the trip as hard as I would if I were by myself. A ten-hour drive with a couple stops for gas and bathroom breaks is doable for me. Five hours in a car is almost too much for my wife. We compromised and decided to make it out to Kearney, NE for the evening's stop, a little over halfway between home and Denver. We spent the night at the Hampton Inn near Interstate 80 and it had been quite sometime since I was last in Kearney so I wasn't familiar with a lot of places to eat. We asked the desk clerk for a nice place to eat and he immediately told us of a place called the Alley Rose in downtown Kearney. "It's my favorite place in town," he told us. We took off in the car to find the Alley Rose.
Quite actually, Kearney used to be one of my favorite places to travel to when I first became a rep on the road in the mid-80's. Kearney State College - now called the University of Nebraska/Kearney - was the main landmark in town and it was pretty much known as a party town. In fact, I was told many times by the locals - with a somewhat proud tone in their voices - that there were more liquor stores in Kearney, per capita, than any other place in the United States. I remember there was something like 1 liquor store per 800 people in the city.
I had only been out to Kearney once since 1991 and that was probably in 1999 or so. There used to be a nice restaurant in the Hilltop Mall in Kearney that I liked to go to, but it was out of business by the late 90's. My last time I was in Kearney, I ate at a Pizza Hut across from my hotel. I think that was the last time I've purposely set foot in a Pizza Hut.
The Alley Rose would have been open the last time I was in Kearney about 14 years ago. Owner Shawn Engberg opened his restaurant in 1991. Over the years he built up a steady clientle with lunch and dinner six days a week (they're closed on Sunday) and their wine offerings have been recognized by Wine Spectator magazine. Head chef Zach Nelson oversees the menus at the Alley Rose. It is known as the place for receptions and dinner gatherings in Kearney.
We found the Alley Rose on the east side of Central Avenue in downtown Kearney (see map). There's still a large bar presence in the downtown area and the University of Nebraska was playing football that evening. Understandably, the bars were packed with fans and parking was a premium in the downtown area. We finally found a car backing out of a spot across the street from the Alley Rose and we quickly pulled in and walked across the quiet street to the restaurant.
Walking into the restaurant, we were greeted by a young lady at the hostess stand. She asked us if we would like to sit in the Western rustic-themed bar area or in the more elegant dining room. I looked at Cindy and she immediately took a look at the two choices. The bar was nice, it had a lot of dark panel and a large fire place as a center piece on the wall across from the bar. But the dining room was nicer with heavy tables and high-backed booths along one of the red brick walls with an antique tin ceiling. On a riser near the front of the dining room were a handful of tables and an elderly lady playing flowing tunes on a baby grand piano. Cindy said, "Let's do the dining room." We were led to one of the booths along the north wall of the dining room and given dinner menus to look through.
We were greeted by our server for the evening, Kiley. She was dressed in a tuxedo vest and white shirt with a black skirt - stylish and elegant. She took our drink order - I started off with a beer and Cindy got a glass of the Fetzer cabernet. She asked us if we wanted an appetizer to start out and I noticed that they had pale ale beer battered onion rings. I'm a sucker for good beer battered onion rings, but having the batter made with the forward hoppy taste of pale ale beer piqued my interest. Plus, it was the lowest priced appetizer that included prosciutto-stuffed mushrooms (but my wife hates mushrooms), crab cakes, a tequila-lime shrimp that is flash-cooked in a pan tableside, and something they called "Black and Bleu Mussels", a pound of bleu mussels steamed in a white wine stock along with hickory-smoked bacon, Cajun seasonings, garlic and Roma tomatoes. It was then topped with gorgonzola cheese crumbles and served with small slices of crostini. To be honest, I almost jumped on the bleu mussels for my main entree for the evening. But we ended up getting the onion rings to start.
It wasn't long after we ordered the onion rings that Kiley brought out the onion rings. Piled high on the plate, we both knew there was no way we were going to eat the whole plate. Or, if we did eat the whole plate, we wouldn't have anything else. The sweet Spanish onion rings were coated with a thick, but flakey crust of pale ale batter that had been deep-fried to a golden color. A kind of ranch/garlic sauce with some Cajun seasonings mixed in was served with the rings. The onion rings didn't need any help, though. They were simply outstanding on their own.
Beef and seafood dominated the menu at the Alley Rose. They had steaks such as a Flat Iron steak that is a popular cut in Nebraska. In fact, some people feel the Flat Iron-cut is the tastiest part of the cow. For years, butchers threw away the top shoulder blade of the cow because of an inedible connective tissue through the cut. Once agricultural scientists at the University of Nebraska/Lincoln found a way to cut the meat into a tri-angled shape cut of beef (it looked like an old flat iron), the popularity of the beef took off. In fact, some high-end steak houses in New York City tout the Flat Iron as their best cut of beef at a reasonable price.
But the New York strip au poivre - a 14 oz. New York strip rubbed with cracked peppercorns and served with a cognac stock reduction sauce - caught my eye. As did the prime rib - I haven't had prime rib in quite sometime. And something that I didn't expect to see on the menu - a pork shank osso bucco - also got me thinking.
They also had a number of sandwiches on their dinner menu including burgers, a club sandwich, a couple wraps and something called the Chicken Cordon Bleu Melt - a grilled chicken breast topped with smoked pit ham, mozzarella cheese, and a hollandaise sauce and served on toasted pretzel bun. Their sandwiches all looked interesting and I was already trying to figure out if we'd be back through Kearney in time for lunch on our trip back home the next week.
It was down to the prime rib or the New York strip au poivre for me. But Cindy had made up her mind to get the steak au poivre. I said, "OK, you order the au poivre and I'll get the prime rib." And that's exactly what we did. I asked Kiley if she could ask the chef to get me the rarest piece of prime rib that he had. That usually means a good solid medium-rare at most places. She said she'd see what she could do. And for funsies, I also ordered up some sauteed mushrooms.
In the meantime, Kiley invited us to go over to their salad bar. Now, we had finished about half the plate of onion rings and we were worried that piling on at the salad bar would completely wreck our dinner. It turned out that the salad bar wasn't that large, but had enough things to make it interesting. I grabbed some greens and a little bit of their pasta salad. The pasta salad was very good - I wished I would have gotten a little more. But the greens were fresh and the housemade parmesan-peppercorn dressing was very good.
They also had thin slices of prime rib wrapped around green onion stalks. Those, too, were unbelievably great. It was stupid at how easy it is to make something like that and how great it tastes.
Cindy got some things from the salad bar, but also got a cup of housemade chicken soup served in a tomato-based broth. She said, "Oh, my gosh! You've got to try this soup!" It had large chunks of chicken breast in a light tomato broth. It was actually pretty good. But we made sure not to overeat on the salad bar offerings because we had a lot of food still to come.
While we were enjoying the items from the salad bar, Kiley brought out some homemade bread that was sort of like a focaccia bread with chunks of mushrooms baked on top (below left). The bread was light, airy, chewy and flavorful. It went great with the salad. Even my wife, who doesn't like mushrooms, liked the bread.
After we finished our salads, we were served a small cup of fruit sorbet as a palate cleanser (above right). It was an unexpected nice touch to what was turning out to be an A-Plus meal. I decided that I wanted to get a glass of wine to go with our main entrees and I ordered a glass of the 14 Hands cabernet.
Kiley brought out our steaks to the table not long after that. Cindy's New York strip au poivre didn't have as much cracked peppercorns on them as I thought it would and the cognac sauce wasn't all that noticeable. She got a medley of grilled vegetables with halves of roasted red potatoes. Although the strip steak wasn't that big in area, the thickness made up for the lack of real estate.
The prime rib was a slab-o-beef. Thick cut and juicy, the prime rib had a bright pink color looking more like a rare-plus cut of meat. But the meat was warm like a medium-rare and wasn't all that fatty. I, too, got a grilled veggie medley with roasted red potatoes, but I knew I wouldn't be touching any of those. But there was a sauce server filled with sliced sauteed mushrooms in which I was going to make a significant dent.
The prime rib was excellent. It had great flavor and was very tender. Dipped in the au jus sauce gave it a nice little punch in taste. But the au jus wasn't as salty as you find in other places. And the sauteed mushrooms were a great taste sensation with the beef. And the full-bodied 14 Hands cabernet was a perfect compliment to the big taste of the prime rib. This was simply a great meal.
Cindy offered me a couple bites of her steak. Although the taste was good, I was glad I went with the prime rib and not the steak au poivre. It didn't have much of a peppery taste and I like more of a creamy sauce with my steak au poivre than the cognac reduction sauce that was served with the New York strip. It was a mild steak au poivre in my estimation. Most people would probably like it that way, but if I were to go back at some point and order the New York strip au poivre, I'd tell the server to have the chef "step on it" with the peppercorns.
We both made significant progress on our meat, but there was no way that I could finish the whole prime rib that was served to me. Nor could Cindy make it all the way through the strip au poivre. We still had a lot of veggies left on the plates (although I did burn through all the sauteed mushrooms) and we sill had about half a plate of onion rings left to eat. When Kiley came back and asked if we wanted anything boxed up, we told her we were traveling and didn't have a refrigerator in our room. Cindy said, "Besides, onion rings generally don't taste that good reheated in a microwave."
Kiley said, "You know, for some reason, ours warm up wonderfully in a microwave. That's probably the number one thing that people have us box up to take home."
When Kiley asked if we wanted to see the dessert tray, I groaned and said, "No way." But my wife had other ideas. She asked our server to bring the tray over to take a closer look. Mixed in with the desserts was a key lime pie. Kiley admitted that it wasn't made in house, but she said it was still pretty good. Even with my protestations, Cindy order a piece of the key lime pie with two forks.
Unfortunately, the key lime pie was - by far - the lowlight of the meal. The pie was drab in taste and even the lime slices that we squeezed onto the top of the small slice didn't liven things up. Cindy said, "You make much better key lime pie at home. This is not very good." We didn't finish the pie.
After finishing up and paying the bill, we walked around the restaurant and found a number of awards and plaques for excellence the Alley Rose had gathered for both their food and wine selection. I'll have to say that I was thoroughly impressed with nearly everything I had at the Alley Rose.
The Alley Rose was about as best of a meal that you can have in Kearney. Heck, it would have been about the best meal you could have in a market that was ten times the size of Kearney. I've eaten in a lot of nice steak houses in my day and I would put the Alley Rose up against some of the best. Everything stuck out as being a great experience from the time we walked in the door at the Alley Rose. It was a little pricey - it was well over $100 bucks for the dinner and drinks before tip. And we left a lot of good food behind. There's other places to eat in Kearney, but I'll have to say the experience we had at the Alley Rose was top notch and I wholeheartedly recommend going there if you get the chance.