I wasn’t sure what to expect when the owner of Ugly Duck Ramen announced last year that he was transitioning his wildly successful series of pop-up ramen dinners in the hip Blackstone District to a bricks-and-mortar restaurant in Midtown Crossing.
It turns out that chef and ramen mastermind A.J. Swanda didn’t really know what to expect either.
He started Ugly Duck Ramen as a fun experiment, serving his own brand of ramen combining classic Japanese broth and noodle technique with toppings like fried chicken and bacon, lettuce and tomato. “We wanted to have a fun experience, and it was something new to do a few times and see where it took us,” he said.
Almost overnight, it seemed, Ugly Duck patrons waited in a line stretched out the door of Blackstone’s Nite Owl every week, clamoring for a bowl of Swanda’s ramen or one of his pork belly pancakes.
“I never expected that this could actually be a thing, that we could do a restaurant,” Swanda said.
If Omahans have proved one thing to Swanda and his now Ugly Duck business partner, restaurateur Charlie Yin, it’s that they’re hungry for ramen. Really hungry for it.
During two recent visits to the new Ugly Duck, which took over the former Pana 88 spot about two months ago, it became clear that Swanda’s vision has grown beyond just broth and noodles. Of course, there’s still a healthy selection of ramen, but the new Ugly Duck is perhaps at its most exciting when it’s got nothing to do with soup.
Like most diners, though, that’s where we started, with a harvest chicken ramen bowl and the Uncle Chuck, a classic shoyu broth with pork belly.
Swanda revisits his pop-up’s fried chicken moment with the chicken bowl, and it comes with a whole chicken thigh braised and crispy, pickled raisins, roasted beets, mustard greens and a soft-cooked egg. That piece of chicken, tender and flavorful, was great, though I found using chopsticks to pick up the chicken from the super hot bowl made it challenging to eat without making a mess of my sweater. Once I got going, though, the savory meat paired wonderfully with the vinegary raisins, bright beets and hearty greens.
Swanda said he’s reconsidering serving the thigh whole, and the dish is still a work in progress. The restaurant’s menu changes regularly.
The Uncle Chuck’s tender pork belly paired perfectly with a nicely executed soft-cooked egg. Both bowls use Sun Noodles, the country’s major ramen noodle supplier, which creates more than 100 varieties of ramen noodles. Swanda said eventually he’d like to make the noodles in-house.
The biggest issue I took with both ramen bowls was that the broth, one of the key factors in any ramen, lacked complexity. And in the case of the Uncle Chuck, the bowl had a too-greasy finish for my friend.
Swanda said the fatty pork belly and a drizzle of burnt garlic oil added to the bowl might have combined to cause the issue.
Beyond those bowls, we found little to dislike.
The creamy edamame is like a spicy, savory, bright green version of a chunky hummus dip made with edamame pods, sesame seeds, wasabi peas and a drizzle of nutty sesame oil. The bowl comes with spicy puffed shards of airy rice crackers for dipping. Not only does it taste great, it also looks super cool.
The “bingwich” is Swanda’s own take on a crispy sandwich made with fried bing, which is a wheat flour-based Chinese bread that has a crispy, flaky finish. He fills the pancake with sweet-spicy braised brisket and crispy sweet onions. It’s a touch challenging to eat, but great once you get a good grip.
Inside, Ugly Duck looks much like the old Pana 88, with a mostly white, modern but somewhat antiseptic look. The new spot is warmed up some, though, with a wood bar in the back and a tall wall covered in a pattern of scales in red, gray and white.
The restaurant has a surprisingly large wine list — almost every dish on the menu comes with a suggested wine or beer pairing, a nice touch — and there’s lots of artsy Japanese beers that will be new to almost all diners. Yin and Swanda worked together to create a craft bar, and the drinks are fun; there’s one that’s a take on the coconut and lime flavors of tom kha gai soup. We tried two trendy amaro-focused cocktails, and both were balanced and tasty.
Those not wanting to drink alcohol can choose from a short list of bottomless cups of house-selected teas; I loved the milky oolong, brewed strong and flavorful.
It’s at the dinner hour with an expanded menu mostly focused on non-ramen dishes that Ugly Duck really hits its groove.
Take the tough-to-tackle-but-worth-the-work salmon collar, a cut of fish that comes from along the clavicle, right behind the gills, and runs through the especially rich, meaty fish belly. It’s a staple in Asia, but Americans are just starting to discover it. If you’re handy with a pair of chopsticks, you’ll dig out some especially tender, fatty, buttery bites of salmon, which are great combined with the fried shallots and tangy parsley leaf salad dressed with lemon juice and sesame oil that’s served alongside.
Ugly Duck’s version of a scotch egg — a soft-cooked egg inside a layer of sausage with a breaded exterior — comes spiked with kimchi thanks to the sausage, which is combined with the tangy fermented side dish. It comes atop a nicely dressed bowl of spicy arugula.
Delectable yellowtail sashimi, just-thick-enough pieces of raw fish, comes served with super crispy puffed rice bits, purple radish, cucumber and a vinaigrette made with lemon, lime and orange.
And maybe my favorite of those small plates: the silky smooth tofu, Swanda’s vegan take on the classic mapo tofu dish. Here, he loses the pork in favor of pickled peppers, shallots, cilantro, a house mapo sauce and candied peanuts over cold, super spicy blocks of tender tofu. Get adventurous. Try it.
The kitchen is not joking when it named the “super spicy pork ramen,” and my dining partner was sweating just a few bites in. Heat from that bright red broth, spiked with house-made hot sauce, continued to build from there. Its broth had the best, thinnest texture of the three we tried, and here, the pork belly literally had the texture of warm butter.
I really liked the duck fried rice, with its crisped bites of charred rice, tangy Fuji apple nuggets, tender sauteed water spinach, a soft-centered fried egg and tender, juicy duck confit.
Swanda opened his restaurant already carrying a strong following and a creative reputation. I’ll admit, I had expectations.
He’s shaped a fun idea into a full-fledged menu with some particularly creative, flavorful moments. It’s the right blend of approachable and adventurous. Swanda’s food at Ugly Duck continues the trend of taking Omaha diners to places — and flavors — they haven’t yet experienced.
Address: 3201 Farnam St.
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.
Hits: an appetizer of blocks of silky smooth tofu topped with a sweet-spicy combination of pickled peppers, shallots, cilantro, a house mapo sauce and candied peanuts; and a savory, rich and crispy fried rice made with big pieces of shredded duck.
Misses: The broth in a bowl of classic pork ramen lacked complexity, and a salmon collar appetizer, while delicious, will likely be too much work for most diners to tackle.
Drinks: wine, beer and a selection of house-made cocktails
Prices: Ramen sits around $12; in the evening, big plates are around the same, save for a $45 short rib for two.
Other things to know: The dining room is relatively quiet. The owners have added late-night service, including pork buns and ramen, until midnight on the weekends.