Chinese greens — specifically bok choi — are my new favorite vegetable.
I ate greens every chance I had when I was on vacation in Shanghai and Beijing in May. They usually were prepared simply, steamed and topped with a salty brown sauce or as part of a brothy noodle soup.
I was pleasantly surprised — elated, actually — to find them in Omaha cooked almost exactly the same at Pana 88, Midtown Crossing's new pan-Asian fast-casual spot.
The menu at Pana 88 appeals to those like me, looking for a savory pan-Asian lunch with lots of umami (the Asian “fifth taste”), but it stops before it puts off those more used to dishes at an Americanized Chinese restaurant.
The appetizers I sampled during two recent visits best illustrated that contrast.
On the first visit, I tried a scallion pancake, which looked and tasted almost identical to a snack that's everywhere on the streets of Beijing, cooked on sizzling hot griddles in stands on the sidewalk and served on its own or stuffed with a wide array of meats and sauces.
Chewy and hot and studded with flavorful green onions, the semi-transparent pancakes came cut into wedges with three dipping sauces: a very Asian thin, vinegary soy sauce; a very American lemony ranch; and a blend of the two styles, a sweet and spicy hot sauce.
On my second visit, we started with a half-dozen chicken wings. Called Pana wings, the snack is a true American classic with an Asian twist: a sweet and spicy glaze that was decidedly more foreign than barbecue.
If I had to choose one to eat again, I'd order the somewhat gooey pancakes with their pastry-like texture and subtle flavor. But I presume a lot of other diners will stick to the wings, and that's by design, said owner Charlie Yin when I talked to him later.
“I was raised eating scallion pancakes with the brown sauce,” he said. “But I also know that a lot of times, when people order those, they expect something else. The flavor really isn't in the American palate.”
The wings, by contrast, appeal to the “non-Asian food lover,” he said.
Pana 88 makes the pancakes by rolling out thin layers of dough onto a hot griddle, tossing in sauteed scallions and then folding the dough over to create layers.
The scallions, along with garlic, make it into the sauce for the Pana wings, a dish Yin said he added to the menu for the sports fan who might come in to catch a game on one of the three flat-screen televisions that line the west wall. Aside from the Asian-spiked glaze, they were just what you would expect: chicken wings.
I didn't see any sports fans during my two visits to the restaurant, and I think it's because the atmosphere doesn't really scream “sports bar” and they don't serve alcohol. Diners order at the counter and the food comes out a few minutes later — on each visit, our food came in a hodge-podge order: first one entree, then a starter, then another entree. On the second visit, our Pana wings came out last, and we each ate one because we'd already tucked into our entrees.
I didn't love the atmosphere — it felt like a futuristic cafeteria — and I also didn't love the current pop music blasting from overhead speakers. The stark interior design seemed like so many chain restaurants do these days — white chairs, white tables, a few pops of one or two colors, lots of loud, happy music. Yin told me he was aiming for that “futuristic cafeteria” vibe.
“We wanted to take the food that was very traditional and put it in an atmosphere that is up to date,” he said.
The restaurant is designed to be more casual than Hiro and Hiro 88, the other two restaurants his family runs in Omaha, and be both modern and comfortable.
In fact, Yin originally wanted to name the restaurant “Canteen 88,” canteen being the British term for “cafeteria.”
Atmosphere aside, what I liked best about the restaurant were Pana 88's two delicious soups, one ramen and one udon.
The broths on the two soups were particularly impressive, layered with flavor, complexity and depth. I guessed they were homemade and Yin confirmed it.
I added an egg to my bowl of vegetable ramen, which had a fair amount of mushrooms, the aforementioned bok choy and broccoli. The semi-hard poached egg added a nice bit of protein and the white floated throughout the soup, adding flavor to most bites.
The ramen weren't quite the texture of dried noodles but I couldn't tell if they were homemade either. Yin told me later they're not homemade but are instead frozen fresh. The same goes for the restaurant's thicker, tender udon noodles. Yin said using fresh frozen noodles helps the restaurant keep prices down.
To make the beef broth, Yin cooks a large beef bone for five or six hours, extracting the marrow of the bone and mixing that base stock with chicken stock, fish stock and oyster sauce. They steep the liquid with green and white onion and ginger to finish it.
I ordered a bowl of the seafood udon, which came with a large stick of crab without a shell and a good number of high-quality shrimp, greens, mushrooms and sprouts. The udon broth is sweeter and less savory than the thicker, darker ramen broth, but I found both pleasing in different ways. Yin told me the udon broth is flavored with daikon radish, sweet mirin and bonito flakes. Across the board, these are some top-notch ingredients. Yin said Pana 88 uses lots of the same vendors as Hiro and Hiro 88.
My dining partner on both visits tried some of the house specialties. A beef teriyaki with a side of white rice was the sole dish that hit only one note of flavor: teriyaki.
The three delicacies – beef, chicken and shrimp – was more to his liking, and after he added a shot of sriracha to the mild white sauce, he said he liked it best of the dishes served with rice.
We were both impressed, again, with the high quality of the meat: We didn't get any gristly or fatty bites in either dish like you sometimes find at lower-end Asian restaurants.
Prices at Pana 88 are reasonable – a bowl of ramen or udon runs around $7, as do most of the house specialty dishes, and appetizers sit comfortably in the $4 range, making it a comparably priced midtown lunch spot.
Yin knows his new restaurant straddles a line between diners.
“We wanted to do something new and different,” he said, “but we also want to provide food that customers find appetizing. We also want to offer quality food, but we know we're not the Boiler Room. We want to do $6 entrees.”
From what I saw – and ate – Pana 88 somehow sits comfortably between two worlds, appealing to a wide range of diners and doing it at the right price.
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