Tag Archives: Japanese

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. 

World traveler, historic preserver

July 9, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in July/August 2015 Sixty-Plus.

Susan Bray has never been one to shy away from attention. She built her life around standing out.

As a blonde, long-haired “hippie chick” in the 1970s, Bray stood out in some Asian and Middle-Eastern countries that had never welcomed a white woman traveling solo.

Her adventures started after she left Nebraska and moved to Honolulu to live with her brother after college. A few years later, Bray married a physicist. They eventually relocated to Guam—“the hottest place on God’s green earth,” according to Bray. And she would know.

The travel bug bit hard soon after the couple divorced. She’s visited more than 50 countries in her 70 years of life. Most of her 50 countries came in a span of five years during three different trips.

She saw the cage in Titian where she believes Amelia Earhart was held captive by the Japanese until her death. She was goosed by a camel in Afghanistan. And she was horned in the rear by a water buffalo in Nepal.

Bray most recalls the kindness of the people in Nepal. It’s her favorite country. While there, she rented a motorcycle and headed toward Mount Everest—at least, until it broke down. She says, “It wasn’t a Harley, I’ll tell you.” But even out in the remote rice paddies, she quickly found help.

She went to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It is the second most beautiful work of architecture she’s ever seen. The most stunning edifice Bray saw was the Golden Pagoda in Burma (now Myanmar). “It was like eight to 10 stories high, and it had a spiral staircase like the Guggenheim.” In an excited whisper, she then adds, “It was all plated gold. Just startling when you see it.”

Traveling cost a lot. She came home to her mother in Omaha in 1976 with about 45 cents to her name. Thankfully, pay phones only cost a dime at the time.

Subconsciously, Bray may have been studying art and architecture all over the world because she knew that’s where her heart was. Her passion led her to city planning in Omaha, which evolved into
historic preservation.

Soon she grew restless and weary of Midwestern winters. Bray bought a house in Hawaii and lived there until her mother became ill. To be closer to her, she moved to La Jolla, Calif.

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Quickly getting involved in historic preservation once again, “I ended up being in charge of the restoration of downtown San Diego,” Bray says. “I did an area called the Gaslamp Quarter. It was all old buildings I did…96 of them.”

In her living room is a newspaper clipping from the San Diego Tribune, the headline of which reads, “Gunslinger of the Gaslamp: Susan Bray is the guardian of downtown’s historical integrity—like her or not.”

She looks at the photo in the clipping and says, “The guys working on this building gave me a pink construction hat. So cute.”

Reflecting on Gaslamp, Bray says, “That’s my biggest contribution. I changed the footprint of a city. And that’s forever.”

Bray thinks a lot about legacies because she’s been diagnosed with a rare degenerative brain disease similar to Lou Gehrig’s called Orthostatic Hypotension. It’s terminal. This news came after she already survived lymphoma and breast cancer.

Her doctor in California recommended that she live near her burial site. So, six years ago, she threw all her photos, a small red chair, and a blue stool in her car to come back to Omaha.

Although she always appreciated the sense of community here, she felt sad to find so many of her good friends had already passed away or moved. She’s grateful for the new friends she has made and some friends from Westide High School she’s reconnected with.

Bray does not know the meaning of the term stranger. “I dialed the wrong number the other night in San Diego, and I ended up talking to a 79-year-old woman for an hour,” she says.

Even sales calls get a taste of her gusto. “My daily joy is making people laugh,” she says. “I think that’s why God put me on this earth.”

So even though Bray has to “fill a bathtub to feel at home” so far from the ocean, she’s made a home again in Omaha. Inside her apartment, Bray’s parakeet, Big Boy, sings in the background. Combine that with the vintage blond art deco floors—“I would only ever live in a historic property”—it could almost be a tropical getaway.

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Crafty Cocktails

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

House of Loom owners Brent Crampton and Ethan Bondelid finally took the plunge and dove headfirst into a new entrepreneurial endeavor, The Berry & Rye. Tucked away in the former Myth Cocktail Lounge at 1109 Howard Street, The Berry & Rye is a craft cocktail lounge with a unique objective in mind.

“I love the culture of the drink experience behind the craft. It’s a very soulful approach to imbibing,” Crampton explains. “Something I get to experience often is friends getting together to order these labor-intensive drinks that have lots of creativity and skill put into them, and enjoy good conversation in this sit-back-and-take-your-time kind of atmosphere. Then, when the drinks arrive at your table, people are so intrigued by their drinks, they become a conversation piece.”

Brent Crampton and Bondelid

Brent Crampton and Ethan Bondelid.

The craft cocktail is rooted in the classic recipes of the early 1900s. The practices were lost once the Prohibition Era hit in 1920, and people stopped caring about sculpting a superior drink with fresh juice, fresh ingredients, and high-quality spirits.

The Berry & Rye strives to provide not only a relaxed environment, but also a carefully concocted and tantalizing drink.

“In a sense, it’s like visiting a restaurant,” Bondelid says. “You wouldn’t expect to grab a menu and eat standing up. We ask that people take and enjoy a seat while being served at their table. It’s not the type of place to yell or act overly loud. It’s a comfortable, conversational bar, and this heightens everyone’s experience.”

Considering that loud behavior and drinking often go hand-in-hand, creating a more cultured craft cocktail atmosphere may seem like a lofty goal. But for Bondelid and Crampton, it’s something they’ve experienced throughout their many travels. They are bold enough to envision the potential in Omaha.

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“There is a wealth of great culinary and cocktail experiences out there,” Bondelid assures. “Omaha’s culinary culture has seen some great strides recently, and its cocktail culture is starting to grow as well. In traveling, I’ve been able to visit some of the country’s greatest cocktail venues. I’ve wanted to bring that flavor to Omaha, from the non-overcrowded, loud rooms to the incredible range that can come from balanced and creative cocktails.”

Both Bonelid and Crampton are confident in The Berry & Rye’s intriguing concept. To date, they have invested nearly $15,000 into their “ice program.” They have a massive reverse osmosis system, which provides the purest water possible for all syrups and ice machines. From commercial freezers to Japanese ice presses that create perfect spheres to order, they have taken ice very seriously.

“The thing that separates The Berry & Rye from the rest is that when you collectively consider all the aspects of our concept, such as the ice program, specialized tools, methodology, expertise, and dedicated atmosphere, we’re taking craft cocktails further than many people in Omaha have up to this point,” Bondelid explains. “Namely, we’re taking our ice program further than any other venue, and we’re the only non-restaurant craft bar that offers hosted seating, ensuring that the consistency in experience remains the same.”20130516_bs_6498_Web

Crampton is careful to point out that the seating-room-only policy isn’t a “VIP or exclusive” thing. It’s in place “solely for consistency,” he says. It takes time to craft each drink. The duo has also developed an in-house soda program; they make their own cola, tonic, and citrus syrups, but, of course, their focus is on original cocktails. Classics like gin and tonics are always an option, but they urge you to try one of 20 original recipes on their menu to truly grasp what The Berry & Rye is all about. Perhaps Lily’s Dinner Party, with Broker’s gin, wasabi, and egg whites; or Smoke Over Trinidad, with Zaya rum, sherry, and tobacco syrup made with pipe tobacco from SG Roi. (The latter is served in a corked carafe so guests can pour for themselves at their own speed.)

“When tending a bar and making drinks becomes an art form and an experience visually and flavorfully for the guests, then you know what makes it special,” Bondelid says. “When you have people that follow their passion to the farthest extent of their skills, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Berry & Rye
1105 Howard St.
402-613-1331
theberryandrye.com

Pecha Kucha

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Four nights a year, they gather in dark, hazy spaces just beyond the streetlamps.

Each participant is prepared with 20 projection slides each, showing images on a design topic of their choosing. They’ll take no more than 20 seconds to discuss each slide.

It’s called PechaKucha Night, this thing they do. It means “chit chat” in Japanese, and it’s not just happening in Omaha. It’s an evening of informal presentations that began in Tokyo in 2003 as a way for designers to concisely explain their most recent work. Now, more than 500 cities around the world host an evening of thinking and drinking for their local designers and other creative souls to share current projects.

Guests in Omaha pack places like Blue Sushi and The Slowdown to capacity in order to hear these sometimes witty, sometimes inspiring, sometimes awkward, but always highly individual presentations. Slides can be confusing, occasionally distasteful, and often beautiful.20130228_bs_8150_Web

Speakers can and do discuss the design of anything and everything, including fashion, architecture, pottery, video games, prosthetics, car overhauls, and Native American heritage. Over the past five years that Omaha has been an official PechaKucha city, 179 people have braved the intimidation of public speaking to add their voices to the quarterly event, with anywhere from eight to a dozen speakers a night.

And yes, there is some mark of pride in being an official PechaKucha city, recognized by the PechaKucha organization based in Tokyo. Omaha organizers are Tom Trenolone, founder of design alliance OMAha, Inc. (daOMA), and Brian Kelly, an assistant professor of architecture at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Trenolone had been looking for a way to get local talent to be part of a bigger, more international group. He credits Kelly with being the mastermind who’s kept PechaKucha going in Omaha.

“We were, I want to say, the 120th city to take it on,” Trenolone recalls. “We were sandwiched between Newcastle, England, and Oslo, Norway, on the site’s list.” He contacted Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham about introducing their Tokyo event to Omaha.

“The contract’s still just a handshake, really,” Trenolone says, referring to the relative informality of keeping Omaha listed on the PechaKucha website as a charter city. But Klein and Dytham were serious, he recalls, about making sure Omaha knew what PechaKucha had to include. “We had to explain why we wanted to put it on, and what we were trying to do. They wanted us to know we were overseers of the PechaKucha brand.”20130228_bs_8126_Web

There are just a few rules that the couple wanted to make certain every PechaKucha city observed: Events are held at least four times a year, and beer breaks are mandatory. Yes, Trenolone and Kelly have to make certain the event takes place somewhere with a liquor license to facilitate the goal of getting guests to move around and chat about what they’ve seen so far. “Get people to have conversation,” Trenolone says, gesturing at the people moving like restless sardines in a tin can at The Slowdown. “The density is what we want. It adds to the feel.”

As far as gaining speakers for the next round of presentations, “We solicit at the end of the night from other speakers,” Kelly says. Word of mouth is another common way to bring in new presenters. There’s rarely a theme to a PechaKucha; Trenolone and Kelly say they’re just looking for a good narrative from each speaker.

“It’s the most poorly advertised, yet best attended design event in Omaha,” Trenolone says, only bragging a little.

To hunt down the next PechaKucha, check out daOMA’s Facebook page or browse pechakucha.org/cities/omaha.