Chefs Paul Urban and Jessica Joyce didn't set out to open downtown Omaha's hippest lunchtime outpost for upscale street food.
But they have.
Block 16 — until recently, it went by its old name, New York Chicken and Gyros — has daily rotating specials that embrace high-end ingredients such as braised pork belly, short ribs, oxtail and foie gras. Those one-day-only dishes sit next to more typical street-food items: gyros and phillys — for both meat-eaters and vegans — hamburgers, hot dogs and salty French fries.
During two recent visits to the restaurant, I found lunches that were always satisfying, always rich with flavor and, above all, always wildly creative.
Joyce and Urban both come from fine-dining backgrounds: Until recently, Joyce also worked at the Twisted Cork Bistro in west Omaha, and Urban was the sous chef at the Omaha Country Club.
When they bought Block 16, on Nov. 1, 2010, they meant to transform it into a high-end gastro pub that would serve upscale food and beer. But the restaurant they took over specialized in quick street food.
As they started reworking the menu, they started to really like the existing fare.
"It was so different," Urban said. "And it was also really fun."
They started making things from scratch, and their friends in the Omaha food industry got hooked on the menu.
"We had a vision for the restaurant, in terms of both atmosphere and food, when we bought it," Joyce said. "And it's still coming."
People are catching on. During both of my visits (and all the other times I've eaten there), the lunch hour is busy. Downtown professionals take up a lot of the tables, but neighborhood fixtures come in and out, too. The crowd is really diverse.
The restaurant has a rotating slate of daily specials, and on the first visit, that's what my dining partner had.
A pair of pork belly sliders came with a tiny pile of pickled carrots, cucumber, radish and spicy lemongrass-cilantro mayo on a tiny sweet roll.
The two squares of rich pork were beautifully cooked, with a crisp exterior and a juicy interior: The meat melted in her mouth, she said. Cucumbers and carrots, cut thin and lightly pickled, added crunch, though she said she'd have preferred more vinegar flavor.
Her only real complaint was the mayo, which didn't have the lemongrass bite she'd hoped for.
Urban said it can be hard to balance the boldness of the confit pork, which is cooked in rendered fat until it becomes tender, with other ingredients.
On my first visit, I tried one of the vegan specialties, the only one I hadn't had before, the vegan schnitzel. Block 16 also serves a vegan Philly sandwich, a vegan gyro and a rotating monthly vegan special.
Portions at Block 16 are satisfyingly large. The tall schnitzel sandwich and a big pile of fries came in a paper basket, along with a tiny plastic container of the addictive, house-made orange "fry sauce."
The meatless schnitzel had a great texture. The breaded exterior was crunchy and flavorful, and the inside was chunky instead of completely smooth, something I like in meatless "meat." It came topped with some expected stuff ( lettuce and mayo) and some less expected (tangy, tart dill pickle slices, pickled reddish onions and salty capers.)
Urban told me they make the vegan schnitzel with a mixture of soy, lentils, beans, oats, onions, mushrooms, tomato, vegan worcestershire sauce and seasonings. It's double-breaded, which makes it super crispy and holds the inside together.
"I wanted to get away from trying to make it taste more like meat," Urban said, "and instead make it into its own thing."
And though the sandwich did remind me vaguely of a traditional breaded pork tenderloin, it was rich with its own flavors.
Block 16's French fries are especially good: coated heartily with sea salt and pepper and prepared partially skin-on. But the fry sauce is truly where it's at. I devoured the stuff during both visits: it's orange and spicy and just good. It's one of the restaurant's most popular and oft-requested condiments.
"People ask to buy it in a big bottle," Urban said, chuckling. "Some people ask for the cheese sauce, which it is not. We call it 'ghetto sauce.'"
He wouldn't reveal all the ingredients, but the sauce includes sriracha, ketchup, mustard, aioli, soy sauce and "three or four other spices."
I'd go back for this sauce alone. It's that good.
Block 16's decor is pretty basic — a handful of tables, fewer than 30 seats and a chalkboard menu — but it's about to get a makeover.
Joyce and Urban bought a two-part, 200-year-old antique wood bar and plan to install it as the new counter. They're working with local artist Sean Ward to create new tables, and they're thinking about creating bar and banquette seating down the sides of the restaurant.
It's been tough to find the time to make changes, Joyce said. They spend their mornings and afternoons at Block 16, had been working nights at other restaurants and now use evenings to run errands, then return to Block 16 late at night to cook and clean for the next morning.
They talk to each other about daily specials and menu changes when they're at the dog park with their pets. Joyce and Urban are life partners as well as business partners.
On a second visit, another friend and I ate off the regular menu: I had the hamburger, and he polished off two traditional gyros.
I liked the burger — the patty had rich, savory flavor. It came a bit heavy on sauce for my taste, and the patty got a bit lost in swaths of ketchup, mustard and mayo, along with lettuce, pickles, tomato and onion.
But once I peeled away some of the bread and the toppings, I polished off the burger, coated in light swiss cheese with just a bit of leftover sauce.
Urban told me the burger is a blend of chuck and ribeye, which explained the great flavor, moist finish and great texture. I'd order it again, but just with ketchup.
My friend said Block 16's gyros are one of his favorites in Omaha: simple and satisfying. He said they're a bit small for his appetite, so he orders two. I liked the gyro because it held together. The pita shell was nicely warmed and the toppings were perfectly balanced: each bite included a bit of nicely seasoned, partially crisp meat, a bit of white tzatziki saice and a chunk of tomato.
The gyro meat at Block 16 is a blend of lamb and beef, and Urban prides himself on the restaurant's gyros.
"I've eaten so many of them," he said. "At one point, it seemed like I was sweating gyros."
I interviewed Joyce and Urban early one morning before the restaurant opened, and it also happened to be the first day they launched the February meatless special: Vegan empanadas.
I left the interview with my lunch in hand and, rewarmed a touch a couple hours later, it didn't disappoint: The crisp, salty fried exterior hugged a chunky, deeply flavorful inside that again impressed with texture. (Inside the empanada: chickpeas, soy, lentils, tomato, caramelized onion, potatoes, oats and spices.)
It was the perfect exclamation point on what Block 16 does so well: Joyce and Urban take pride in creating good food. They love what they do. They keep it simple, quick and tasty. And it works.