Tag Archives: Jose Dionicio

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. 

Ready for Omaha

April 29, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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.”

Yoahi-Ya

Yoahi-Ya

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.

Brother Sebastian's Steak House

Brother Sebastian’s Steak House

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.

Dolce

Dolce

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.”

The Grey Plume

The Grey Plume

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.

Salt 88

Salt 88

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.

Plank Seafood Provisions

Plank Seafood Provisions

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.

Mula Tacos

Mula Tacos