Tag Archives: cuisine

Jose Dionicio’s Year of Change

November 4, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

The chef responsible for some of Benson’s hippest eateries had a tumultuous year in 2017.

Taita closed (February); Ika Ramen and Izakaya relocated to the former site of Taita a few blocks east on Maple Street; Taqueria Chingon took the place of Ika (July); in the fall, the relocated Ika debuted a basement sake bar (called “Kaitei,” which translates to “under the sea” in Japanese).

Jose Dionicio’s decision to close Taita after five years was not easy. “We were doing really well down the street [at Ika]; Taita was doing alright, but we thought it would be a good business move to take the ramen shop to Taita’s bigger and more central location,” Dionicio says.

Fans of Taita’s unique fusion of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine—which the chef calls “Nikkei”—will be happy to learn Dionicio is considering reopening Taita at another location. “It’s still in the early stages, but some people are interested,” he says.

The opening of Chingon took inspiration from Dionicio’s girlfriend, originally from Mexico. “We wanted to bring authentic-style Mexican tacos to Benson,” he says, explaining they were motivated by regular trips south of the border to visit family with their son.

Dionicio’s odyssey to becoming an Omaha restaurateur has spanned nearly 20 years and three states. It all started with his long journey from Lima, Peru.

It’s about 4,000 miles from Lima to Omaha. “My father was the first member of my family to come to the United States 30 years ago. I was only 5 when he left. When I turned 19, I decided to follow him,” Dionicio says.

With a population close to 10 million, life in Lima is a bit faster than Omaha. “Lima is a really big place,” Dionico says. “I was used to the lifestyle. It’s so fast. Honestly, my plan was to never stay in Omaha, but I just kept coming back.”

In 2004, after a year in Charlotte, North Carolina, Dionicio moved back to Omaha to care for his daughter. But it was during his time spent in Charlotte, exposed to the abundance of sushi joints, that he rekindled his love of Japanese cuisine, a throwback to the Nikkei cuisine of his homeland.

“Based on the immigration of Japanese citizens during World War II in Peru, [Japanese traditions] have a strong influence on the culture of Peru. The dishes that they made are very much a fusion of Peruvian and Japanese, not necessarily Japanese or Peruvian. It’s a really good marriage,” he says, adding that the word “Nikkei” refers to someone of Japanese descent who is born in a different country.

“I knew that when I moved back to Omaha, I wanted to work for a Japanese restaurant,” he says. “I ended up getting a job with Kona Grill, and that’s where I met my mentor, Ichi Takei.”

With more than 50 years experience in Japanese cuisine, Takei helped Dionicio learn the business. “I made a lot of really great connections at Kona. Ichi taught me everything I know about sushi,” Dionicio says of the chef who worked with him in Omaha for less than two years. “Then I worked at Kona as the executive sushi chef and things were great. One day, out of the blue, Ichi calls me from Cape Cod. He wanted me to come up and work for him.” So, in 2008, Dionicio headed to Massachusetts to reunite with his mentor and friend.

Life on the East Coast was great. Dionicio was able to work with the freshest ingredients–sea-food caught the same day. “I loved the vibes up there,” he says. However, the off-season proved challenging. “This was seasonal work,” he says. “So when the tourists left, things got pretty slow. I needed something more secure to support my family. So I moved back to Omaha.”

Dionicio’s final trek back to the heartland would turn out to be his introduction into the Omaha food scene spotlight. It was his experiences as a member of Paul Kulik’s opening staff at The Boiler Room and working alongside Jared Clarke at the now-defunct Blue Agave where Dionicio received the most support.

“I’ll always be grateful to Paul and Jared for what they taught me,” he says. “We were never content with what we were creating. We were always pushing the limits with our food. Paul and Jared always motivated me to be the best chef I can be.”

And when it came time for Dionicio to be chef of his own restaurant, fate couldn’t have played a better hand. “I just happened to be driving through Benson, and I noticed a ‘for lease’ sign on what used to be the Today Café [the future home of Taita, now Ika]. It was pretty rough inside.”

The story of Ika’s first venue—now Chingon’s space—came from a similar chance passing. “Two blocks from Taita, we saw an empty spot next to a barbershop.” So, he dropped into the barbershop to inquire, managed to contact the owner of the empty business space, and soon had another major renovation project underway.

When Dionicio needed them most, all his friends and kitchen connections stepped up to lend a helping hand in getting his new ventures off the ground.

“I just really want everybody to know how much they mean to me, and how grateful I am to them for the support. Barbara [Schlott, an early supporter of Taita], Paul, Jared, my friends, and family—they’ve all helped me reach my goals.”

Jose Dionicio and his son

Visit ikaramenandizakaya.com for more information.

This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Berebere Delicious

February 3, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Our Chef Profile takes a bit of a detour this issue. Sarah Wengert, one of the newest talents to join our team of professional writers, is something of a foodie herself, so Omaha Magazine challenged her take a walk on the wild side to stretch her cooking chops. — Editor

I adore ethnic grocery stores. It’s a bit of an obsession for me, a gal who enjoys cooking and who yearns to travel the world, but often must settle for some good ol’ Omaha adventuring. When I cruise the aisles of my favorite ethnic groceries I’m transported to faraway lands, and my resulting homecooking is elevated to awesome. I’m an encyclopedia for Omaha’s best salsa and healthiest jalapenos (Jacobo’s), best naan (Indian Grocery), and best sauces and uncommon produce (Asian Market), but while I love Ethiopian food—and Toto’s “Africa” is one of my favorite songs—I haven’t spent as much time in Omaha’s African groceries as I have its Asian, Indian, and 
Mexican ones.

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That all changed when I visited Omaha’s East Africa Grocery Store, where friendly owner Ahmed Mohammed challenged me to make a popular Ethiopian chicken stew called Doro Wat. He and wife Fatuma Tessema run the grocery and adjoining restaurant. Tessema stews and simmers the cuisine to perfection daily. When it’s gone, the restaurant simply closes for the day.

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Mohammed explains the recipe as he walks me through the store, which smells of spice and incense, and is packed with seasonings, lentils, flours, and other provisions. His instructions, based upon his wife’s cooking, are loose and approximate. Holding out cupped hands, he instructs me to fry “about this much” shallots while then adding one cupped hand of berebere.

“You’ll think it looks like it’s going to be too hot; it’s so much,” says Mohammed of berebere, perhaps the most iconic of Ethiopian spices. “But when you fry it with the shallots and chicken it almost disappears. It is just right.”

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Their berebere, which Mohammed says is a combination of 12 spices, including chili, fenugreek, fennel, and paprika, is imported from Ethiopia. His mother brings spices and other Ethiopian victuals when visiting from Africa. Tessema makes the other essential ingredient, clarified butter or niter kibbeh, adding “lots of spices.” It’s similar to ghee, where the butter is boiled and the 
residue skimmed.

Tomatoes, chicken, ginger, and garlic join the shallots, butter, and berbere to round out the recipe. Most Doro Wat also includes hard-boiled egg, but Mohammed doesn’t mention this in his instructions.

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Injera, spongy, sour bread made with teff flour, doubles as a utensil in the forkless world of Ethiopian cuisine. Mohammed tells me home-making of injera will be tricky as it takes a special, seasoned grill. His store sells pre-made injera, which I opted to purchase.

With Mohammed’s assurances, I was out the door and soon donning my apron at home. The recipe comes together effortlessly and makes my whole house smell amazing. My taste-tester, Pete, gives it very high marks, and I have to agree. It was a deliciously savory meal and an exotic, eye-opening culinary adventure.

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East Africa Grocery Doro Wat
Makes 4 small-ish servings

  • 1½ Tbsps vegetable, corn or canola oil
  • 1¾ cups minced shallots (about 7 large shallots)
  • ¼ cup berebere 
(can be adjusted to your spice preference)
  • 5 plum tomatoes, peeled and pureed 
(shortcut: puree about 8 ounces diced tomatoes with 4 ounces tomato paste)
  • 4 chicken thighs or drumsticks (I used boneless thighs)
  • 1 Tbsp fresh minced ginger
  • 1 Tbsp fresh minced garlic
  • About 2 Tbsps niter kibbeh 
(spiced butter)
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled, whole 
(optional)
  • Water, add a Tbsp or two if needed 
(optional)
  • Injera for serving 
(Remember, no forks allowed!)
  1.  Heat oil over medium-low heat in a large saucepan or skillet.
  2. Add diced shallots and fry until they turn golden brown, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add berebere, stir and cook for about 2 minutes more before adding the tomato puree.
  4. Cook about 5 minutes, adding a little water if desired.
  5. Add chicken to sauce and simmer covered until cooked through, stirring occasionally and turning chicken along the way. Make sure the chicken touches the bottom of the pan while cooking. Feel free to add a little more water at this stage if needed.
  6. When chicken is cooked, add garlic and ginger, stir and cook for 2 minutes, then add niter kibbeh, re-stir and cook for another few minutes.
  7. If you want to add hard-boiled eggs, put them in (whole and peeled) at this point and coat with sauce. Serve over injera with extra injera on the side.

The Perfect Cuisine for El Día de los Muertos

August 29, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

El Día de los Muertos is right around the corner, and what better way to celebrate the Day of the Dead than with food? Keep an eye out for sugar skulls as you sample some of the best Mexican cuisine in Omaha along 24th Street.

La Michoacana (24th and E)

José Gaytan, owner of the small café La Michoacana, is hard-pressed to choose just one favorite from his menu but finally narrows it down. “For me,” he says, “the nachos are wonderful. The pico de gallo on them is made fresh every day.” As are all the meats. But if you’re looking for La Michoacana’s standout contribution to the South Omaha Mexican cuisine scene, skip the hot bar and go straight to the frozen cabinet by the cash register. A sign requests in Spanish that patrons allow an employee to open it. Ask for a mango paleta, or popsicle. It costs $1 and is made with milk, fruit, and not much else. The texture is smooth rather than icy, and the taste is creamy and not as shockingly sweet as frozen treats you’ll find elsewhere. It also melts with surprising speed the instant you step into sunlight, so plan on eating it quickly. No wonder they don’t want you standing over the freezer with the lid open.

Popsicles from La Michoacana.

Popsicles from La Michoacana.

Dos de Oros (24th and G)

“¿Cambio para el veinte?” One of the regulars at the Dos de Oros food truck taps another customer on the shoulder to remind him to get his change. There’s always a small crowd milling around the truck, patrons chatting as they wait in line or wait to order, so you’ll have plenty of time to study the menu on the whiteboard. If you’re okay with a bit of heat, try the chorizo burrito, a flavor you won’t find at a fast-food joint. Ladle some salsa verde over your plate, and grab a Mexican Coke from the cooler in the front of the truck. A bottle opener specifically for the sugar-cane soda swings in the breeze. These burritos are about half the size of the monsters at Chipotle or Qdoba, but for $3 and a great spicy flavor, who’s complaining?

El Ranchito (24th and H)

As tiny as its name suggests, El Ranchito keeps only a few picnic-cloth-covered tables in its café. Its menu has some standard lunch prices of $8 or $9 an entrée, but you can make a cheaper meal out of the tacos at $1.35 or the zopes (also known as sope) for $1.75. These soft, corn flour (or masa) tortillas are fried and then served open-faced with savory meat, lettuce, onions, and tomatoes. If you’re feeling brave, order the lengua zope. The seared beef tongue is tender, salty, and smoky. But consider ordering it for carryout—the telenovelas on that small TV in the corner can get loud.

Beef-tongue zope at El Ranchito is tender and smoky.

Beef-tongue zope at El Ranchito is tender and smoky.

Jacobo’s Grocery (24th and L)

The queue by the deli counter at the back of Jacobo’s Grocery is long but steadily moving. Kerry Hoiberg waits patiently for two quarts of what she calls the best salsa in town. She drives down regularly from the Field Club neighborhood to stock up on the grocery store’s salsa and homemade chips. “I like supporting local, but at a farmers market, a pint would cost about $5,” she says. “Here, it’s made fresh every day, and a quart is $3.25.” She also buys a small cup of hot sauce for 40 cents, saying she’ll mix it in later to spice up the mild pico de gallo.

The deli also serves an array of hot lunches, such as empanadas and chimichangas, but it just might be the pastry case at the end that will capture your attention. Order something at random, and you’ll be fine. The guayaba pastry, for example, costs 70 cents, is unbelievably flaky, and filled with guava jelly. You’ll make a mess eating it, but you won’t care.

There are plenty of hot lunch options at Jacobo's Grocery on 24th Street.

There are plenty of hot lunch options at Jacobo’s Grocery on 24th Street.

El Rinconcito (23rd and N)

El Rinconcito translates roughly into “the little out-of-the-way corner,” and it certainly is off the beaten path. However, it’s worth leaving South Omaha’s main drag of 24th Street for a place that serves breakfast all day. For around $9, you can have two huevos estrellados (fried eggs), a few strips of tocino (bacon), a caramelized plantain, refried beans, cheese, and three tortillas served in a tablewarmer. A little extra gets you coffee.

Most of these places don’t take credit or check, so no matter where you intend to observe el Día de los Muertos, come properly prepared with cash. That and an empty stomach are all you need to enjoy the flavors of South Omaha.

Restaurant Review: Stokes West

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There are a couple of restaurants in the Omaha area that I consider my “go-to” places when I need to make a quick decision of where to take friends or family. These are places that have great food and drinks, reasonable prices, and good service. They’re places that I can go to several times a month (without tiring of them) and always have a consistently good experience. Stokes is one of the restaurants on my very short go-to list.

Stokes opened their first location in Omaha in 1998 at 114th and Dodge. After a successful first decade, they opened a second location in the Old Market at 12th and Howard. In November 2012, Stokes moved their West Omaha location to 137th and Dodge—the location formerly occupied by Blue Agave and, before that, Ted’s Montana Grill. I recently visited their new location, and it looks fantastic! The restaurant features Stokes’ trademark copper tabletops and Southwestern art. There are also plenty of ornate wood booths and a large bar, which make this a very comfortable and fun atmosphere.20130508_bs_4689_web

The food at Stokes is beyond reproach. Executive Chef John Ursick has all but perfected the style of Southwestern/Tex-Mex cuisine. On a recent visit, my dining partner and I had some of my favorites, starting off with the Black Bean and Sweet Corn Taquitos ($7.95). This scrumptious plate of fried, rolled corn taquitos with corn, black beans, and Cotija cheese are served with two great salsas. Next, we tried the Queso Fundido ($8.95). If you’re a fan of queso, it doesn’t get any better than this! Stokes’ recipe features beans, jack cheese, caramelized onions, chorizo sausage, and ancho chile sauce served bubbling-hot with warm tortillas.

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Executive Chef John Ursick.

For an entree, I had my favorite, Sharon’s Chicken Enchiladas ($14.95). These are not your traditional chicken enchiladas and instead feature shredded chicken breast topped with a white sauce, a poblano pesto, and a mountain of melted jack cheese. Trust me, even if you don’t like enchiladas, you will like these. My partner ordered the Twisted Garlic Shrimp Pasta ($14.95), which I have also had many times myself. This delicious radiatore pasta dish is made with a tasty Southwestern sauce, fresh tomatoes, avocados, and garlic.20130508_bs_4649_web

The excellent bar at Stokes is another reason I keep coming back. They have some incredible margaritas, as well as an excellent wine list and some very imaginative cocktails. They also have some well-regarded beers available…Not to mention that they have great happy-hour specials and, on Tuesdays, their entire wine list is half-price. Between the great food, beautiful new location, excellent bar, and friendly service, it’s pretty much a no-brainer dining spot and will remain one of my favorite go-to places for years to come.

Cheers!

Stokes West
13615 California St.
402-498-0804
restaurantsinc.net/stokes

RATING (5 Stars Possible)

Food & Beverage: ****
Service: ***
Ambiance: ****
Price: Great Value
Overall: ****

Cantina Laredo

November 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Cantina Laredo

Looking for a warm atmosphere during the cold winter months to get away with your girlfriends for some drinks and mouthwatering food? Look no further than Cantina Laredo in Midtown Crossing!

This Mexican restaurant boasts a relaxed dining area with a cozy fireplace, upscale bar scene, outdoor patio, private dining room (no room fees!), and seven flat-screen TVs. As for the fare, Cantina Laredo creates beautiful plates of Mexican gourmet made with traditional techniques. Anyone familiar with traditional Mexican cuisine will be taken back to a past vacation along the Mexican coast or countryside. The authentic experience is also made complete with a wide variety of imported tequilas and Mexican beers.

Margarita special, Her'Rita

Margarita special, Her’Rita

Try the chips and top-shelf Guacamole appetizer (made fresh tableside) with a Casa ‘Rita (house margarita), which is a premier blend of Giro Silver Tequila by Sauza, Cointreau, and fresh-squeezed lemon and lime juices. Or indulge in the most popular entrée, the Enchiladas Veracruz—chicken enchiladas filled with spinach and Monterey jack cheese topped with tomatillo sauce, marinated vegetables, and queso fresco. And, of course, you can’t forget about the rich Mexican Brownie sizzled in Mexican Brandy Butter with your choice of vanilla or cinnamon ice cream for dessert!

If you’re just meeting up for drinks, however, and feel like mixing it up, ask for the Her ‘Rita, which was carefully created to celebrate women making a difference in Omaha! The authentic Mexican cocktail combines a premier blend of Giro Silver Tequila by Sauza, Triple Sec and fresh-squeezed pomegranate, lemon and lime juices to create a delicious anomaly of flavors to please any woman’s palate.

Cantina Laredo featured entree, Enchiladas Veracruz

Cantina Laredo featured entree, Enchiladas Veracruz

Every Thursday from 4pm to close, Cantina Laredo hosts a Ladies’ Night with half-off house margaritas and wine by the glass for every woman who walks in the door. And Happy Hour runs from 4-7pm on weekdays with large house margaritas for just $5!

Cantina Laredo
120 S. 31st Ave., Ste 5107
402-345-6000
cantinalaredo.com

Restaurant Review: El Basha Mediterranean Grill

October 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Mediterranean Coast and the Islands of the Mediterranean Sea are by all reports some of the most beautiful places in the world. I have never really had the opportunity to visit this part of the world, but it’s something that’s high up on my bucket list. For now, I will have to make do with reading, looking at pictures, and eating the incredible cuisine from this area. The latter I can do right here in Omaha at El Basha Mediterranean Grill.

On the end of a modest strip mall on the corner of South 75th and Pacific streets is where you will find some of the best Mediterranean food in the area. The small restaurant is not the most attractive place in the world, but they have done a nice job with the space they have to work with. The tables are draped with white tableclothes, then topped with glass, and the chairs are comfortable and sturdy with leather backs. The patio is particularly lovely with many beautiful flowering plants and several attractive tables.

The service at El Basha is semi self-service, meaning you go up to the counter to order your food and beverage and then they bring it to your table. The system worked flawlessly, and the food comes out of the kitchen quite quickly. The young lady who took our order and brought us our food was very nice, and she was also able to answer several questions about the menu. Unfortunately, they do not have a license to sell spirits; on the positive side, they do allow you to bring your own wine and do not charge a corkage fee. It’s also quite fortunate that a gourmet deli and liquor store, Spirit World, is located in the same strip mall. Specialty wines and beers are just a few steps away.

The food at El Basha is the best part of the experience. On a recent visit, my dining partner and I tried the Meza Plate ($9.99) for an appetizer. This dish is a sampling of their most popular appetizers, including the best Hummus in Omaha, Baba Guanuje, Falafels, Taboule Salad, and a basket of fresh pita bread. All these tasted incredible and had the desired effect of really whetting our appetite.

Next, for entrees I had the El Basha Special Platter ($12.99) and my dining partner had the Chicken Shawarma Wrap ($6.99). The Special Platter is a mixed plate that includes Shish Kabob, Shish Tawok, Grilled Kafta with three sauces, and grilled vegetables, all served over Middle Eastern-style rice. This sampling was attractively presented and delicious. The unique flavors, spices, and aromas that come from this trio of Lebanese-style dishes are something that you will need to experience for yourself to fully appreciate.

As if that was not enough, this dish also came with a choice of soup or salad. I chose the soup and was blown away by one of the best Lentil Curry soups I have ever tried. The fresh-roasted coriander seed and lemon squeeze really set it off. My dining partner’s wrap was filled with the same chicken as I had with the Shish Tawok, which is essentially a curried, grilled chicken skewer. The wrap was also loaded with fresh tomatoes, onion, and a yogurt-based garlic sauce, which resulted in a very tasty wrap. It was served with a vinaigrette-style cold potato salad that was also very good and like nothing I have ever had before. Even though we didn’t need it, we finished our dinner off with some of their incredible Baklava ($3) for dessert.

Overall, I really enjoyed my experience at El Basha and plan to go back and eat my way through the rest of the menu, all the while pretending that I’m traveling in the countries around the Mediterranean Sea. If you’re like me and enjoy eating foods from exotic locations almost as much as going there in person, then you will just love El Basha.

Cheers!

El Basha Mediterranean Grill
7503 Pacific St.
402-934-6266
elbashagrill.com

RATING (5 Stars Possible)

Food & Beverage: ***
Service: **
Ambiance: **
Price: Inexpensive
Overall: **1/2