Over the past 20 years, the population has grown by 16 percent — to approximately 454,000 people — according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It is home to some of the biggest companies in America, including Union Pacific Railroad and Berkshire Hathaway, the latter headed by Warren Buffett, who stands among the world’s richest men. Along with New York, this is the rare town that has opened two baseball stadiums in the same year — one a suburban ballpark that is home to the Storm Chasers, the AAA affiliate of the Kansas City Royals; the other a 24,000-seat downtown field for college games.
But the Big Apple doesn’t have Joe Tess Place, where they sell carp — fresh, pickled, smoked or made into sausage — in case a King Carp (a 24-ounce fried whole fish) sandwich on rye isn’t sufficient.
Suh had recommended Blue, a sushi spot with three locations in Omaha, but I came here. Though the place dates to the 1930s, it doesn’t look a day over 50. It’s a humble but spacious neighborhood joint with burl wood tabletops and mounted fish on the walls. Diners are serenaded by a polkacentric jukebox with a selection that ends when they quit making 45s, and it doesn’t accept money — you can pick tunes all day at no charge. Carp, catfish and buffalo fish are sold at an adjacent live market, and the fish on your plate was swimming yesterday.
A watchful waitress, understanding that carp isn’t for everyone, offers to take the fish off the bill when she notices I am barely picking at my first-ever carp. I am, apparently, in a tiny minority.
They go through 2,000 pounds of carp a week here, according to Darrell Rytych, who is foreman of the live fish market. What this South Omaha eatery doesn’t use gets shipped out to VFW halls, taverns and restaurants in other parts of Nebraska as well as Iowa and Missouri. Yes, Joe Tess delivers, even to New York, where tanker trucks haul 50,000 pounds of live buffalo fish a week. The carp come from Minnesota, South Dakota and Wisconsin, where they are seined from lakes in 3,500-foot-long nets by commercial fishermen.
The place has had just two owners. Bill Falt, who started working here as a teenager, bought the place from founder Joe Tess in the early 1960s, and his three sons now oversee day-to-day operations. Rytych has been here since 1967, when he started out washing glasses while his mom worked as a part-time bartender. Dan Falt, one of the owner’s sons, says he and his brothers have never worked anywhere else.
“It’s a tradition, you know,” Dan says. “I was a year old when my dad bought it from Joe Tess. Dad was 13 when he went to work for him.”
For his part, Dan can’t imagine living anywhere but Omaha. “It’s home — it’s where I grew up,” he says. “There are a lot of things I could say that no one would understand. People are close to each other. They’re nice. I like the cornfields. I like the creeks. I like the pheasants.”