Omaha’s Korean Connection
Jun 07, 2017 02:56PM
By Michele Fan
Korean restaurants in Omaha have strong ties to the military community.
While many Offutt Air Force Base staffers developed penchants for Korean cuisine during Air Force deployments to South Korea, there are also many military spouses who relocated to Omaha from Korea. Some of these spouses have opened local restaurants.
The Korean Grill is a prime example. Its owner, Henim Stimson, used to operate a restaurant in Seoul. Her husband, Air Force veteran Scott Stimson, now helps her in the kitchen at 1408 Harlan Drive in Bellevue.
They often serve couples with similar U.S. military and Korean backgrounds.
While eating dinner recently at the Korean Grill, Cody Scott (an active-duty Air Force veteran) and his wife, Gi (who is originally from Tongyeong, South Korea), share their suggestions for finding authentic Korean food in the greater Omaha metro.
Cody grew up in Tennessee, and he studied Korean in California. The couple met after Cody relocated to Omaha. “We met at Maru Sushi and Korean Grill. Gi was working there as a waitress,” Cody says. They married in 2013 and reside in Bellevue.
The Scotts listed the Korean Grill as their favorite in Omaha. The restaurant’s lunch combo meals and to-go boxes attract a lot of military personnel and many Chinese students from nearby Bellevue University.
Eating Like a Korean
Korean meals are typically served with a variety of “banchan" (side dishes) in small portions. All banchan is communal. Featuring a wide range of seasonal vegetables, roots, tofu, or small seafood, banchan can be fermented, pickled, lightly seasoned, or braised in sauce. Kimchi, fermented napa cabbage, is the most common type of banchan.
While many associate Korean food with Korean barbecue—thinly sliced meat dishes (both marinated and unmarinated) and vegetables cooked on a built-in table grill or a portable grill—rice, noodles, soup, and stew remain staples of Korean cuisine.
One of the most iconic offerings in Korean cuisine, “budae-jjigae” (army stew), is a spicy soup with Spam meat, hot dogs (or other scraps of meat), tofu, instant noodles, mixed vegetables, and sometimes a piece of Kraft cheese.
The Scotts order budae-jjigae and several of their other favorites while speaking with Omaha Magazine. The stew comes in a huge portion, best suited for two to share.
“Army stew" is an invention of South Koreans after the Korean War. As food shortages persisted, locals scrambled up surplus processed meats from the U.S. military and cooked them in a spicy soup with kimchi. Its standard ingredient—Spam meat—is beloved in South Korea. During Lunar New Year, the pork product is often packaged in a fancy box and given away as a gift.
“Gimbap" (Korean sushi) is another of the Scotts’ favorites. Gi explains the dish is akin to Korean takeout food; they would eat it on the go or at picnics. Unlike its Japanese cousin, the rice in gimbap is not seasoned with vinegar but salt and sesame oil. It does not require dipping in soy sauce or wasabi. To prevent leftover gimbap from drying out overnight, Gi suggests leaving the sushi rolls on the counter instead of in the refrigerator.
"Japchae" (a sweet potato starch noodle stir-fry) is another beloved Korean dish. Although usually served as a side dish, japchae can also be a stand-alone dish eaten with rice.
Korean Restaurants Around Town
First-timers to Korean food should take a quick crash course at Korean Grill. You will find a selection of assorted dishes displayed in a food-warmer cabinet; the owner readily offers honest advice and a generous portion to guarantee a good dining experience.
Cody recommends ordering “galbitang”—a clear soup with beef short ribs—and “doenjang-jjigae”—a spicy (if made traditionally), fermented soybean paste stew. Korean Grill offers three other famous dishes—“sundae,” a Korean-style blood sausage; “kkori gomtang,” an oxtail soup; and “jokbal,” a steamed pig feet dish. Those items are “hidden from the menu,” so diners must order in advance for such delicacies.
Gi’s top three picks for Korean eateries are Korean Grill, Korea King, and Maru. Rather than ordering soup, her go-to dishes usually contain some seafood, such as octopus.
Korea King offers communal family-style Korean food. The chef there used to work at Maru. “Their ‘ojingeo-bokkeum’ [spicy stir-fried squid], ‘kkori gomtang’ [oxtail soup] and ‘chicken bulgogi’ [bulgogi is a grilled meat dish] are good,” Gi says. “Maru, on the other hand, serves personal-size dishes. I like their chicken bulgogi, ‘jjamppong' [Korean spicy seafood noodle soup], and ‘jajangmyeon’ [Korean black bean sauce noodles].”
“Go to Korean Grill for soup; go to Korean House Restaurant for grilled meat,” Cody advises. Korean House Restaurant is located right outside of Offutt Air Force Base and is known for its great prices. Cody recommends its grilled beef. You can also find Korean street food “tteok-bokki” (spicy Korean rice cake stir-fry) there. The restaurant is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and between 5 and 8 p.m.
Suji’s Korean Grill has recently reinvented its entire menu and introduced Korean built-in table grills to the Aksarben area. Cody says he has not been to the restaurant since its updates, but he used to enjoy the “Chipotle-style” Korean food Suji’s offered.
The 2.0 version of Suji’s is booming with business. On any given weeknight, a steady stream of diners awaits to feast on its $35-per-person endless Korean barbecue, which begins with a platter of high-quality fresh meats, including rib-eye, chicken breast, pork belly, flank steak, pork jowl, and brisket; complemented with a steamed egg dish, banchan, and bowls of rice. A picture of the meal on social media will guarantee meat envy.
In Ralston, you will find authentic Korean food at Korea Garden. Its banchan is all house-made and tastes delicious. Although the Scotts had not tried Korea Garden at the time of our interview, I highly recommend an order of the “nakji bokkeum” (stir-fried baby octopus) at Korea Garden.Local Korean Eats
Korean Grill 1408 Harlan Drive Bellevue, NE 68005 402-933-5150
Korean House Restaurant 2413 Lincoln Road Bellevue, NE 68005 402-291-3900
Korea King 4719 S. 96th St. Omaha, NE 68127 402-593-6568
Korea Garden Restaurant 5352 S. 72nd St. Ralston, NE 6812 402-505-4089
Maru Korean & Sushi Restaurant 5032 S. 108th St. Omaha, NE 68137 402-593-0717
Suji’s Korean Grill 1303 S. 72nd St., No. 101 Omaha, NE 68124 402-884-7500
This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.