Encompassing eight culinary traditions, many of which are represented right here in Nebraska, Chinese cuisine carries a rich and varied history. For many immigrants, though, it means flavors of home. As Mason Zheng from New Gold Mountain shared, “It’s home cooking…everyday flavors…salty fish, black bean sauce…what my parents cook.”
Omaha has a long history of excellent Chinese restaurants, dating back to the early 1900s when Gin Chin opened the Mandarin Café at 1409 Douglas after attending the 1896 Trans-Mississippi Exposition here in Omaha. The most famous of the early Chinese establishments, King Fong Cafe, served southern Chinese and old-school Chinese American dishes in an exquisite space formerly occupied by Café Beautiful.
Early to midcentury restaurants included the King Yuen Café on North 24th Street and the Kuo’s Great Wall at 72nd and Farnam. As the century wore on, more recent waves of Chinese immigrants to Omaha brought more authentic and varied Chinese cuisine, from the Shandong specialties served at Yue Cong’s Blue & Fly Asian Kitchen to the traditional dim sum offerings at the Zheng’s New Gold Mountain.
Early Chinese cooks quickly realized their hometown dishes were unappealing to staid early American palates, so they got creative, inventing Chop Suey, Chow Mein, and Egg Foo Young to better sate their customers. Many of these dishes became staples at Chinese restaurants throughout the country, but most have been supplanted by modern Chinese American dishes such as Peanut Butter Chicken, Kung Pao Beef, and Crab Rangoon.
What makes a dish traditional vs. Americanized? Cong explained, “Lower spice levels, familiar proteins and cooking methods.” To slowly guide his diners toward traditional dishes, he replaces one ingredient at a time until they enjoy and appreciate it as much as he does.
A common characteristic of any immigrant is work ethic, and those who came here and opened restaurants are no exception. George Liao of Wave Bistro immigrated from Taiwan, an island off the east coast of China, in the late 1980s, initially working in Lincoln Chinese eateries and eventually earning an Associates degree in Restaurant Management from the local community college. Later, he attained a Masters degree in Hotel, Food, and Beverage Management from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, married, and started a family.
Desiring to raise their kids in the Midwest, Liao and his wife Connie returned to Nebraska and started Tokyo Kitchen, all while dreaming of opening an upscale Asian Cuisine eatery. That dream became a reality in 2007 when the couple opened Wave Bistro — they haven’t had time to look back since.
Cong moved to Omaha in 2007 at age 21, first working with his father at Hunan Garden before joining the National Guard as a mechanic. This decision enabled him to travel and taste different foods around the United States, and he found himself lamenting the fact that Omaha diners had limited access to the wide variety of dishes from his homeland he readily found in bigger cities. After returning to China and learning from a master chef, he and his wife Yi returned to Omaha to open Blue & Fly Asian Kitchen in September of 2015.
Blue & Fly is a labor of love for the Cong family, bringing their precious history and love of Chinese cuisine to Omaha diners. The food served is primarily from the Shandong province, with Szechuan influences and a variety of fusion dishes.
Zheng’s parents, who own the New Gold Mountain restaurant in Aksarben, came to the United States in the 1980s, moving to Omaha toward the end of the century. Zheng describes the dishes as “authentic Hong Kong style Cantonese as normal everyday Chinese food, but not as spicy as Szechuan or Hunan.”
The specialty at New Gold Mountain is Dim Sum, a style of dining in China typically consumed midday. The smaller bites and dishes allow diners to explore different flavors and textures. Vietnamese Spring Rolls, Steamed Buns, and Dumplings are all excellent options when ordering from the Dim Sum menu. Dumpling doughs vary according to what’s inside, using different flour types to achieve the desired thickness.
Wave Bistro’s Liao prefers to fuse traditional Asian dishes with European techniques and flavors. A lifelong learner, Liao owns 500 cookbooks, is a trained pastry chef, and has completed the Certified Executive Chef level in the American Culinary Federation. The menu at Wave includes a spectacular Japanese-style souffle cheesecake, and occasionally Liao finds time to cook traditional Chinese pastries. Liao develops all recipes in-house, coming in on his day off to test and practice, constantly striving to learn more and hone his cooking skills.
Hailing from Taiwan, Liao is well-versed in preparing seafood, but it can be challenging to get very fresh fish in the landlocked Omaha. He finds the flavor profiles of ginger, basil, star anise, and Szechuan peppercorn marry beautifully with both seafood and meat.
Broadening palates is on the mind of all chefs, and many Chinese cooks do feature “introductory” dishes on their menus. However, once they earn a diner’s trust, they feel comfortable presenting traditional dishes close to their own hearts. When cooking, Cong tries to re-create traditional recipes as best he can; if they are unable to source the proper ingredients or seasonings, they adapt and often create something totally original.
Some of Cong’s favorite ingredients are cumin, present in Blue & Fly’s unctuous, crispy lamb and vegetable dish, spicy mala sauce (a unique combination of tingly and spicy), and Szechuan peppercorn. This ingredient shines in the popular Fish in Chile Oil, which arrives at the table bubbling and aromatic, large enough to share and teeming with pleasantly zingy Szechuan peppercorns and perfectly tender fish.
The best feeling a chef has is when diners love their food. When asked what he’s most proud of, Cong mused, “The customer’s response. Nothing is better than customers giving me a thumbs up. That’s the best reward I’m going to have here.”