Mention ramen, and the comparison to cheap packages of the staple college dorm food seems obligatory. Though powder-flavored instant ramen is a poor attempt at the real thing, it’s more likely that your first run-in with a proper bowl of this hot, steamy comfort food was sometime over the last decade, if at all.
And yet today in Omaha, real ramen, with its aromatic broth and fresh ingredients, is available at a handful of dedicated spots, with more on the way. A day for Jose Dionicio, chef and owner at Ika Ramen and Izakaya, begins and ends with the broth, which he says came about through years of trial and error. “In our case, ramen is not about rehydrating noodles,” Dionicio points out. “There’s a lot of time, effort, and tears going into making this. It’s a whole meal, something fulfilling. Soul filling, actually.”
Housed in what Dionicio calls “a little shack” at 63rd and Maple streets, Ika Ramen and Izakaya is the punctuation mark at the end of any night out in Benson. Slurping up your tonkotsu (rich pork broth) while other tables do the same, it’s evident this is a neighborhood eatery. No tablecloths, no pretension, no frills.
In addition to the main types of broths (chicken, pork, and vegetable) and a handful of appetizers, Dionicio and company serve up a few daily specials—a little spicy seafood with kimchi here, a few crispy chicken skins there—and that’s it.
Chef A.J. Swanda’s menu at Ugly Duck Ramen is even more finite: there’s just one type of ramen available every week, along with a robust vegetarian version, complemented by a small selection of appetizers and sides, and pastry chef Kate Anderson’s inventive doughnut holes (called dodos), which rotate flavors weekly. Haven’t heard of Ugly Duck? It doesn’t actually have its own location—yet. While Swanda would like to open a brick-and-mortar location in the future, his main locale over the past year was borrowed space at the popular bar-and-pub-grub spot Nite Owl, his ramen usually sold out within a few hours. Swanda plans to hold popup events in the near future as he works toward owning a storefront.
Of course, it’s not just soup that Omahans are after. Outside the nearby Scriptown Brewing Co., diners can indulge in their nut butter cravings with Peanut Butter Johnny’s. As a food truck offering about a half dozen sandwiches on the menu—from the Tin Can (almond butter, fig jam, goat cheese, honey and bacon) to your basic peanut butter and grape jelly—owner John Jelinek reports that business has been great.
If a slightly more refined experience sounds appealing, down in the Old Market chef Paul Kulik has made a menu at Le Bouillon designed around the best processes of European cookery, in particular the Basque region of France. Diners with a hankering for cassoulet, rillettes, fresh oysters, and the like regularly fill the place.
But while Kulik would rather serve his interpretation of these classics than fiddle with by-the-book authenticity, he acknowledges that this level of specialization requires a higher degree of thought and determination than at a more generic restaurant—and he’s had experience in both settings. “The notion that Omaha wasn’t ‘ready’ for something was a very pervasive sentiment for a long time, and that’s something that had to be shattered,” Kulik asserts. “Omaha would never just be ‘ready’ for something. You have to present it in a persuasive manner. You have to make good things in an affordable way, in a pleasant setting. You have to win people over one at a time.”Omaha didn’t move from choice-of-vegetable-and-potato places to a hotbed of chef-driven adventures overnight. Dionicio explains the time was finally right last year to present his noodle-centric menu, but that earlier would have been premature. At his other spot, the Peruvian-inspired seafood restaurant Taita, he first introduced bowls of ramen as late-night fodder for service industry folk in 2012, and later on Sundays as a brunch item. Week by week and bowl by bowl, ramen gained ground among food enthusiasts, hungover hipsters, and everyone in between.
But as Brian O’Malley, chef instructor at the Metropolitan Community College Institute for Culinary Arts sees it, this development has historically run slower, citing the decades it took for Omaha to warm up to something like sushi. “For all of my childhood there were zero places to get sushi, and then in high school there was one, in the early 2000s there were two, and then eight, and now I lost count.” O’Malley credits quicker access to information with expediting the whole process—the world getting “smaller” through the Internet and diners having the option of doing their homework on certain types of cuisine.
And still, as a whole, we pander to nothing, especially not fleeting trends. “With new foods and new ideas, we’re open, but we’re slow to open,” O’Malley explains. “But once that embrace occurs—once we love something—we love it for real. That is a proud thing about being an Omaha diner.”
Collaboration Feeds Success
As the number and breadth of dining options in Omaha continues to expand year over year, the discussion runs deeper than just the sheer number and types of offerings. Generally speaking, Omaha’s leading chefs of today want everyone else to do well.
This sentiment runs deeper than one might expect. O’Malley describes it as a collaborative tension, one that spurs both innovation and craftsmanship. In this way, the creative culture borrows from that of Omaha’s music and art scenes; the sharing of ideas tends to benefit the final product in tangible and intangible ways. There’s also the stripped-down truth about a good, old-fashioned work ethic. Says O’Malley: “We have this super-heightened respect for hard work. Everyone is willing to support you when you bust your ass.”
Careful not to subscribe to rampant boostering that can foul up a creative scene, Omaha chefs have gotten really good at working together. Kulik asserts it has to do with the friendships cultivated over the past decades, often in slavishly small hot kitchens. Collaborative events help, too: everything from Emerging Terrain’s 2010 Harvest Dinner—a five-course meal prepared by 10 area chefs using ingredients from 40 local farms serving 500 diners—to regularly occurring pairing dinners and chef swaps. It’s common to see name-studded menus advertising the provenance of a particular ingredient: French Bulldog sausage, for example, or Culprit Cafe & Bakery bread.
For the Love of the Game
Omaha’s contemporary restaurants are remarkably more genuine than most. Where there’s a great dish, an approachable chef isn’t far behind. In a national climate that pushes franchised fast-casual concepts that don’t let you forget that you are dining inside of a concept, it is refreshing to feel connected to the people making your food and the story they’re trying to tell. Growth is done with caution, and for the most part, no one goes into this field to become rich. It’s much more heartfelt than profit; they’re intent on sharing a special something.
For Bryce Coulton of The French Bulldog, it’s using food as a way to experience something elsewhere, whether that’s your grandma’s smoked braunschweiger or a Thai summer sausage that takes you to the shores of Bangkok. For Maides, it’s growing up around kitchens, and watching his grandmother gather fresh vegetables from the garden to cook with.
At the core of this sincerity is a yearning for the uncomplicated, and the possibility for perfection. When Kulik and his crew make a menu, they first sit down and decide what it is they’re most excited about. Once they have that, the process turns to how they transfer that excitement to the dishes at hand. “If you want to get good at what you do,” advises Kulik, “you have to narrow your focus on the philosophy of the place.” These days, with menus that have mostly gotten over a rough case of identity crisis and executed in a positive environment for the right reasons, Omaha’s kitchens are headed in the right direction.