There's a school of thought that says if you're out at 3 a.m. in search of food, you're doing something wrong.
That was the logic of one highly suspicious woman who stormed into the Donut Stop near 13th and William Streets in the middle of the night a few years ago. The place, then open all night, was packed with young people, and to her way of thinking, it couldn't be for donuts.
She turned to owner Hal Rodgers and leveled an accusation disguised as a question.
“What do you do here?”
There's another school of thought suggesting that the opposite is true: Being out at such a time is actually indicative of a life being lived.
For a brief spell last week, I lived that life — a 34-year-old retired night owl with a single, unhealthy question gnawing at him: What's out there to eat in the middle of the night?
By experiment's end, I'd had a beer bottle thrown in my general direction and entertained a persistent case of heartburn. I'd eaten burritos and donuts and somehow smelled a little like cigarettes, even though I'd been nowhere that permitted smoking. I'd overheard drunken conversations complex in their stupidity and met a couple whose affinity for a particular late-night spot bordered on the evangelical.
Welcome to the world of the fourth meal.
For me, things started and ended at Alvarado's at 27th Street and West Broadway in Council Bluffs, a relatively slow fast-food restaurant offering big servings of Mexican food 24 hours a day — and in the process of changing its name to Juventino's.
I'd been to Alvarado's once before for lunch. Not much was different when I returned months later after midnight. A massive menu greets you just inside the door, advertising various versions of tacos, tortas, nachos, tostadas, enchiladas and, most of all, burritos.
Alvarado's offers 18 burrito options, ranging in price from $3.69 to $4.75. There are a half dozen breakfast burritos alone.
On a midweek, midnight excursion, I ordered the Adobada burrito, which comes loaded with pork marinated in a red chile sauce, drizzled with guacamole and pico de gallo and wrapped in a grilled tortilla. It was easily the greasiest thing I'd eaten in months, and maybe the best drunk food I'd ever eaten sober. Had I been “half in the bag,” as my neighbor likes to say, it might have registered as something approaching holy.
The food is a pleasant distraction from Alvarado's dining room. There are a couple of booths on opposite ends of the room with tables and chairs scattered in between and a television tethered to the wall with a pair of cords heading in opposite directions. Red curtains are faded and wall paint is chipped.
Just outside the kitchen sits a table with an ice bath on top of it. Inside the ice bath is a row of condiment trays containing different types of salsa.
At the Donut Stop a few miles west, where owners Hal and Marlene Rodgers have been keeping odd hours for almost a quarter century, the atmosphere is far more noteworthy. After staying open through the night for years, they amended their schedule about a year ago to 8 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday nights and 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. Friday nights. The shop is closed Saturday and Sunday.
Hal said the decision had less to do with business than with their desire not to work all night long anymore. It also reflects the bare-bones philosophy behind his long-term plan.
For years, the Donut Stop has been a haven for students, both in high school and college, looking for something to do and somewhere to go. It's a cheap date — donut prices range from 40 cents to a buck — with a decor teeming with kitschy delights (a prominently placed poster celebrates “The Wonderful World of Cats” with an illustrated periodic table of feline breeds).
Midweek at 1 a.m., the dining room was almost half full. Two groups of seven students each sat side by side, one engaged in a battle of Jenga and the other in conversation.
“The kids are nice,” Marlene said of their clientele. “Really great kids. They come from all over.”
The same could be said for late-night diners in general.
Around 3 a.m. on a recent weekend night I drove westbound through half of Omaha, from downtown to 90th Street. Along the way I passed more than a half dozen operating drive-thrus, most of them with lines at least three cars deep.
The late-night food business was relatively bustling, if also repetitive. Taco Bell, Burger King, Taco Bell, Burger King, Taco Bell, Burger King, an Amigo's-Winchell's hybrid, and finally Abelardo's, one of three locations in Omaha with 24-hour drive-thrus. Across the street, a Village Inn, one of 14 locations in the metro area, entertained what looked to be at least a couple of dozen diners.
It wasn't such a mystery why people were out in the middle of the night. They were leaving the bars or just getting off work. They were insomniacs or teenagers with excess energy and loosely defined curfews.
The following Friday, I returned to Alvarado's in Council Bluffs shortly after 1:30 a.m. for a thoroughly unnecessary meal. This time I ordered the Arizona burrito. Loaded with diced steak and potato, it was delicious. As I inhaled it, two guys at the next table slurred their way through a conversation about how they needed to party again soon.
A little after 2 a.m., both the dining room and the drive-thru started to pick up. Inside, three Creighton University students surveyed the cashier about the best option on the menu in terms of price-per-square-inch-of-food. Behind them, an older man in a black Harley Davidson T-shirt waited patiently to order. A few people behind him were Greg and Sarah Rediger, both 28, whose enthusiasm for Alvarado's was downright infectious.
I'm not sure I've ever liked anything as much as the Redigers like this restaurant.
“It's a godsend,” Greg said.
“I think everyone we know comes here on a semi-regular basis,” Sarah added.
The Redigers visit at least once a week. Morning, afternoon, evening — they eat at Alvarado's at all times of day, but it's against the late-night competition that the restaurant really shines.
“It's definitely better than McDonald's or Taco Bell,” Sarah said.
Outside, a line of cars inched its way along Alvarado's not-particularly-fast drive-thru. It was 2:30 a.m., and a drunk passenger was loudly narrating his every thought to the misfortune of any and all passersby. Across the way, two guys and a girl were getting into their car and traded words with the narrator.
Twenty feet to my right, a bottle smashed in front of a trash bin. I took this as a sign. Time to go home.