An Artful Adventure in Flavor: Ika Ramen and IzakayaJun 25, 2021 04:38PM ● By Tim Trudell
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Ika Ramen and Izakaya is a far cry from the cup of ramen heated in one's dormitory-room microwave, or the dried noodles with flavoring packets many survive on in their first apartment. Located in the heart of Benson, amid bars, galleries, boutiques, and vintage goods stores, the Asian eatery and bar rocks the palate with its take on ramen swimming in its own unique spicy broth. In Japan, an izakaya is a casual bar, where people meet, enjoy drinks, and grab a bite to eat—the perfect description for this local eatery.
The storied neighborhood is a perfect fit for the original Ika home, as its eclectic, relaxed vibe embraces the restaurant. With Beercade’s retro arcade across the street, Ika is a great date-night spot.
My wife Lisa and I enjoy strolling through Benson, taking in the neighborhood’s public art, either through the “alley” art with its colorful murals or the social justice messages displayed on storefront windows.
We’d been wanting to try Ika Ramen and Izakaya for a while. I love ramen. If I could live off of it, I would. (Unfortunately, Lisa has other ideas for sustenance.)
Splitting a couple of small plates, we each selected an item. Lisa chose a five-piece order of gyoza, while I opted for the buffalo chicken skins. The gyoza, a dumpling with pork and cabbage, lay in a shallow pool of their “magic” sauce, which provided a nice flavor. The buffalo chicken skins, tossed in their fuego sauce, offer a hot and spicy crunch. Though served on a small plate, we agreed the skins were plenty as an appetizer for two. The fuego sauce consists of chicken broth and a chili sauce similar to sriracha, said Blake Farias, the front-of-the-house manager.
Since Ika Ramen and Izakaya is a Japanese-style kitchen, everything is cooked at the same time, unlike other places in which appetizers are prepared first, Farris said. That’s why some items are referred to as small plates. He said the chicken skins rate among customers’ favorite small plate offerings, while other tasty small plates include chicken skewers and fried brussel sprouts.
“I’ve been told we have the best calamari in town,” he added.
Bowls are among the entree options, and include poke, featuring fish with vegetables or rice. Lisa chose the Poke Ceviche, which consists of salmon, cucumbers, red and green onions, avocado, cilantro, Thai chili, a citrus marinade, seaweed, and that magic sauce.
The ramen, of course, is the main star at Ika. My usual go-to is Tonkotsu, with a pork broth, shar siu (barbecue pork), ajitama (soft-boiled egg), negi (green onion), pickled ginger, and mushroom.
However, the spicy miso intrigued me, with chili oil and spicy bok choy. Swimming in chicken broth, the dish includes gochugan sausage (flavored with chili paste), onsen tamago (soft-cooked egg), and noodles. It’s definitely a spicy dish, which I loved. Fair warning though, I did find myself taking more than a few drinks of my soda during dinner.
Those who don’t care for spicy ramen dishes can choose from several mild options, such as Mary Jane (featuring barbecue chicken in chicken broth).
A third entree option on the menu is donburi, a rice bowl with meat or fish, as well as vegetables and rice.
While we didn’t order an alcoholic beverage during our visit, Ika’s bar menu offers a nice selection, from sake to rice beer, as well as plenty of mixed drinks. A favorite option is Makgeolli, a rice wine that is gaining popularity across the United States, Farris said.
With an intimate seating capacity of 36 people, Ika Ramen and Izakaya fills up quickly. On Friday and Saturday, the wait can last up to three hours, Farris said. Kaitei—Ika’s speakeasy—is located in the basement, and is an excellent spot for people to wait for a table, he said. Guests can enjoy a drink and visit with their party. The staff will come and lead them to their table, Farris said.
“The bartenders are great at creating fun drinks,” Farris said.
Since opening in 2017, the company has added Ika San Downtown in the Old Market. Lucky Tiger Izakaya opened in the Blackstone District in 2020, and the newest location, Ika San Shadow Lake in Papillion, opened in April.
While ramen is the main attraction, menus vary at each location. The Papillion location includes a large selection of sushi, and Lucky Tiger Izakaya also features sushi with the ramen and small plates.
Distinctive art at each spot helps distinguish them from each other.
While all have murals on the walls, each features a different design unique to that eatery and created by Alex Roskelley, who did the murals at Beercade and Jake’s Cigars. Each piece adds to the individuality of that location, and, if you’re art enthusiasts like we are, they entice you to visit each restaurant.
For more information on the restaurants, visit ikaramen.com.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.