Kristina Lee was craving a burger. But not just a normal burger. Something special.
What did she have available? There was bulgogi marinade in the fridge; why not let some ground beef sit in that overnight? She also had pickled cucumbers, along with some gochujang; wouldn’t that pair nicely with mayo? And what food item isn’t enhanced by an over easy egg? And thus, one of Omaha’s hottest food items was born: the Spicy Bulgogi Burger.
The burger’s origin story neatly mirrors that of Nice Rollz, Lee’s Asian fusion pop-up. What started as just an idea, a band-aid to get her through the economic rigors of the COVID-19 pandemic, has matured into a full-fledged concept operating out of Archetype Coffee in Little Bohemia that isn’t afraid to stretch the limits of Korean cuisine and try new ideas.
Breakfast egg rolls? Gochujang sloppy joes? Bulgogi street tacos? They’re all fair game at Nice Rollz, where you can never guess what fusion dish Lee will come up with next. “You might see something more familiar. You might see something that you’ve never tried before,” Lee said. “I’m just kind of all over the place with it. It kind of just is me. I like to try new things.”
Lee’s parents owned a restaurant in Hastings, NE, that she practically grew up in. After seeing the hardships of that lifestyle firsthand, Lee wanted nothing to do with the restaurant industry until about five years ago. Her creativity and love of food drew her back in, and after interacting with several great chefs while working events at Dandelion Pop-Up, she fully caught the cooking bug. At the beginning of 2020, she was researching options to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Then the pandemic hit.
Her restaurant dreams weren’t the only thing put on hold. So too was her career in hair and makeup, as the events she typically attended all over the country were cancelled. “I just had a little freak-out moment. What am I going to do?” Lee said.
Slowly, a plan began to materialize. She often made egg rolls for her friends during get-togethers; they’d sometimes share as many as 50 a night. Perhaps that was a viable option. If she cooked egg rolls at home and sold them, that might be enough to get her through until her event schedule repopulated. She set a goal of 100 a week.
By the end of her second week of operation, she was selling 150 a day. Her whole house smelled like egg rolls. Lee needed a better solution. It was then that her friend, photographer Josh Foo, introduced her to Isaiah Sheese, the owner of Archetype. He wasn’t using Archetype’s kitchen space and offered it to Lee. The rest is history.
“It’s been pretty amazing,” Sheese said. “I never really anticipated being part coffee shop, part Korean street food restaurant. One day it smells like coffee, another day it smells like kimchi. It’s been super fun for me to see how her community has aligned with our community. It’s weirdly been a seamless transition.”
What started as just premade egg rolls quickly expanded into an ever-growing menu of gochujang bagels, egg and cheese biscuit sandwiches, and gyeran-ppang (Korean egg bread). Lee has also used the kitchen to source pop-up events at Nite Owl and Beercade, as well as the now famous monthly burger offering, which customers sign up for online.
Lee’s experiences have made her a bit of a “pop-up pro.” It’s not an easy task; Lee describes her emotions during her first pop-up as “wanting to cry and be excited and then cry a little again.” But now that she has so much pop-up experience, not to mention the empowering support of Sheese and Archetype, Lee believes it’s important to help others host pop-up events, including Little Ve’s Latin Vegan Cuisine and local cooks Ryan Cooper and Bryce Coulton.
“It’s so important for us to all work together and be great together,” Lee said. “We’re all in this to make people happy and bring each other together with some tasty food.” Behind Lee’s creative dishes is a desire to introduce Omaha diners to Korean cuisine in a way that’s familiar to them. When presented in a taco or burger, new flavors become much more approachable.
“I think that’s the segue to traditional Korean cooking,” Lee said. “If you’ve never had Korean cooking or don’t know those flavors, you probably won’t like it when you go to a traditional Korean restaurant because you don’t know what to taste. But if you put it in burger form and taco form and give people familiar elements, it’s going to be like, ‘That’s different, but it’s still familiar to me. This is good.’ Then they’re going to be more open to trying different things.”
That notion is best exemplified by an older couple who comes in each weekend to get Korean egg bread, complete with a side of spicy sauce. A cuisine that was previously completely foreign to them is now part of their routine. “It’s just super humbling when someone is like, ‘This is so great. I’ve never tasted anything like it,’” Lee said. “It pumps you up and makes you want to do more and do better and introduce new foods to people. This is food that I grew up on and makes me happy. If I can introduce my personal comfort to someone else and they enjoy it just as much, that just makes me happy. I think that’s the goal for any chef or cook. You hope they enjoy it, and if they further want to know your story, that’s even more special.”
Nice Rollz has become such a success that in October, Lee announced it would be permanently operating out of Archetype. While the scale of the partnership is still developing, both Lee and Sheese are excited about the collaboration. The fortune of Nice Rollz’s rapid ascension isn’t lost on Lee. In a time when so many restaurants are struggling to stay afloat, she’s well aware of how rare her success is. And she’s worked for every ounce of it. She routinely puts in 100-hour weeks, mirroring the rigorous work ethic her parents showed her.
“She’s just unrelenting as far as her standards and her work ethic,” Sheese said. “She’s super driven and creative, and you don’t find many people that have all those pieces at once. She’s one of the few that does.” That work ethic, combined with a loyal fan base and the support of Archetype, helped Nice Rollz rise to unforeseeable heights.
“I could cry thinking about how grateful I am of everyone who supports Nice Rollz,” Lee said. “I can’t believe what it’s become in these few short months, and I’m excited to see where it goes from here. Have I had my hard days? Absolutely. But the end goal of it all trumps all that. It’s been wild, but I’m here for it, and I’m super committed to it.”