The hottest ticket right now in Omaha dining is at a restaurant that doesn’t exist, at least in the brick-and-mortar sense.
On a recent Sunday night, 100 diners packed in shifts into Archetype Coffee, which, for one night only, had been transformed into Ugly Duck Ramen.
Those diners each paid $20 for the chance to slurp down a few beers from the nearby Scriptown Brewery alongside a bowl of spicy pork tonkotsu or roasted sesame ramen.
Ugly Duck Ramen has now had three of its pop-up ramen nights — two at Archetype and one at Nite Owl, both in the Blackstone District near 40th and Farnam Streets. All three have sold out within a matter of days.
Omahans are hot for ramen, especially because there are very few spots in town where they can find it. That’s about to change.
The Japanese noodle soup dish will be the focus of more Ugly Duck pop-ups. The people behind last fall’s wildly popular Ramen Noodle Fest, which took place in Benson and sold out in what felt like minutes, are planning a second event for later this year. (The bowl that won the Ramen Fest contest went on the menu at Pana 88, in Midtown Crossing.)
Chef Jose Dionicio, who already serves ramen on Sunday morning at his Benson restaurant, Taita, has plans to open the city’s first all-ramen restaurant this fall. Ika Ramen and Izakaya will be in Benson, near 63rd and Maple Streets.
A.J. Swanda, who is also sous chef at the Boiler Room Restaurant, and Kate Anderson, the Boiler Room’s former pastry chef, have wanted to serve ramen to Omahans for a long time. Both are regulars at Archetype Coffee and asked the shop’s owner, Isaiah Sheese, what he thought.
The coffee shop is closed on Sunday, and so is Mula, which has a kitchen next door to use. Ugly Duck Ramen had its first pop-up in March, and 50 tickets sold in little more than a week. Swanda and Anderson doubled the amount of seats for the next two events and those sold out just as quickly.
Swanda served a traditional Shio ramen that first evening. The broth is clear and pale and is made with salt and any combination of chicken, vegetables, fish and seaweed. He served it with slow roasted pork belly; noodles; a soft marinated egg; menma, which are braised bamboo shoots used for topping ramen; and green onion.
The second evening focused on tonkotsu, or pork bone ramen that Swanda served with baby radish. Tender chunks of pork topped my bowl; the broth itself had a creamy, salty depth. Smoky bits of tofu topped the vegetarian version, alongside crisp bits of seaweed.
The third evening, Swanda got playful, topping bowls of Chicken Shoyu ramen with fried chicken thigh, mustard greens and pickled red onion.
At each event, Anderson makes pastries, often doughnuts, for dessert. The evening we attended, she made a savory green tea doughnut hole and a ginger doughnut. She’s also made one with seasonal rhubarb.
Ugly Duck isn’t doing much to get the word out, aside from social networking. Anderson said diners are doing that work for them.
They’ve continued to schedule pop-ups, though: On June 28, Ugly Duck will serve a five-course dinner at V. Mertz that will include sake pairings for $65 a diner. And shortly after that event, Swanda will begin a longer-term collaboration on Sundays at Nite Owl.
“It can be a little hard for some people” to get used to ramen, Swanda said. “This is a cooking style that’s never been practiced in Omaha in an environment that’s never been practiced in Omaha.”
Nonetheless, he said many of the diners who attended that first evening in March have attended all three Ugly Duck events.
Swanda learned a lot of what he knows about making ramen from Dionicio, at Taita, where he worked for a short time.
Dionicio started serving ramen just a few months after Taita opened in 2012 at 61st and Maple. The restaurant began serving it late on Friday nights, and though it was popular, he stopped when the long days became too much. More recently, the restaurant brought the ramen back on Sunday mornings, and slowly built up a new following.
The kitchen starts serving around 11 a.m. and often runs out of soup before the 2 p.m. closing time. “It’s been crazy,” he said.
Until the new shop opens, possibly in September, Taita will continue to serve ramen; he’s sure diners will continue to buy the restaurant out each week.
Eventually, Swanda and Anderson hope to turn Ugly Duck into a brick-and-mortar restaurant; after the first pop-up, investors already were approaching them. But they want to wait until the timing is right, they said.
They still have lots of ideas for new pop-ups, including multi-course, fine dining-focused experiences and tasting menus. The pop-ups have been profitable for the business partners.
Meanwhile, diners will likely continue to clamor for a hot bowl of noodles.
“The way I see it, ramen is a whole meal. It’s a homestyle meal,” Swanda said. “Most people, when they try it, they instantly are hooked.”
But there’s a learning curve for many diners who associate ramen with the rectangles of freeze-dried noodles with salty, flavored powder packets. Swanda said when he described his idea for ramen pop-ups to some diners, they assumed he’d be cooking with those packets.
“It’s not the 10-cent noodles. But when people learn it’s rich and delicious and meaty and heavy, they are intrigued by it.”
Dionicio said he’s traveled to other cities, most notably New York, where diners are willing to wait two or three hours for a bowl of the best ramen.
“It’s not that popular here yet,” he said. “But it will get there.”