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.”
Visit ikaramenandizakaya.com for more information.
This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine.