You’ll recognize a lot of the dishes on the menu at Blue & Fly, a new Chinese spot off 72nd Street, between Pacific and Dodge. There are all the usual suspects of American Chinese cuisine, and lots of old-school Americanized Chinese, such as chop suey.
But what’s really exciting about the little restaurant that opened last September is that it has a lot of dishes you won’t recognize, dishes that you’ve likely never had before. And that’s when things get fun.
Owner Yue “Joe” Cong told me after my three visits that he decided on that menu — a mix of familiar and unfamiliar — for very specific reasons. He knew, after working for a number of years at his father’s restaurant, Hunan Garden, that he wanted to focus on what he calls “authentic” Chinese food, dishes he grew up eating in China before he moved here at age 21, and dishes he’d eaten outside of Omaha, in cities such as New York and Chicago.
But he also knew that was a risk in a city where many diners aren’t yet familiar with the food he was thinking of cooking. So he created a sort of hybrid of what people might know and what they might not, with the hope that American diners would come into his restaurant, like what they saw on the Americanized Chinese menu and perhaps try something they’d never had before.
“In Omaha, we really lack in this experience,” he said. “And I am like, ‘Hey, that’s not fair. That’s not fair to Omaha.’ We wanted to take the risk.”
It’s a risk worth taking for diners, especially because he’s hitting out of the park dishes such as mapo tofu, garlic spinach and egg and tomato.
An order of Chinese garlic spinach arrived sizzling hot, verdant and very garlicky. Spooned over white rice with a bit of its sauce, it hit the spot.
The dumplings we tried that night came floating in a flavorful broth with wilted bok choi; though the menu said the dumplings were supposed to be “hot and spicy,” ours were mild, with a pleasantly slippery texture.
We also wished for more spice in an order of kung pao chicken. Although the version we tried arrived disappointingly mild, the vegetables in the dish were crisp-tender and the chicken flavorful.
Many other dishes are ones I’ll return for.
That includes soft-cooked scrambled eggs and stewed tomato with just a hint of sweetness in Blue & Fly’s classic version of Chinese egg and tomato, a dish that might sound unusual but is the type of thing that’s hard to quit eating once you begin.
I’m already craving another hit of tingle-inducing Sichuan peppercorns, which appeared in two dishes: mapo tofu and fish cooked in chili oil. Loads of soft tofu filled the giant bowl of mapo tofu, along with bits of ground pork, peppercorns and a dark, rich sauce.
The zingy peppercorns took center stage in another big bowl, this one with fish and vegetables cooked in hot chili oil. The bowl comes with a little mesh strainer on the side, which diners use to scoop out the tender, flavorful white fish and hunks of greens from underneath the surface of the broth, which is covered with crisp, hot red chilis and peppercorns. It’s a fun dish to eat, a beautiful one to look at and my favorite of anything I sampled at the restaurant.
Head-on shrimp in the salt and pepper shrimp had a crisp, just-spicy finish. (I also like this dish ordered with fried tofu.)
And a cold chicken appetizer, called “mouth watering chicken,” was great, with tender poached meat and a spicy and vinegary Sichuan sauce. I loved its contrast in temperature on top of hot rice.
A friend suggested that I try the restaurant’s caramelized sweet potatoes, which are listed on a board of specials next to the kitchen door. Cong, who didn’t recognize me that afternoon, came out after I ordered with a small bowl of room-temperature water before he brought the dish. He showed me how to eat the super sweet, sticky potatoes: pick one up with chopsticks and dip the stretchy, sugary strings into the bowl of water, which breaks them off. Then, pop the delightfully crisp-tender, sweet savory bite into your mouth.
The sugary exterior crunches like a piece of peanut brittle, then melts away, leaving notes of spice and sweet along with the fluffy potato center. Good? Absolutely. Singular? That, too.
If you couldn’t tell, I really like Blue & Fly. I’m thrilled that Cong decided to open his restaurant closer to midtown, because until now, all my favorite Chinese spots — including Canton House and New Gold Mountain — have been west of 72nd Street. Midtowners and downtowners, along with the rest of the city, take note: There’s a food experience waiting to be had. Get there.
Blue & Fly Asian Kitchen
Address: 721 S. 72nd St.
Hours: Monday 5-10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday noon to 10 p.m.
Hits: An excellent white fish cooked in chili oil had supple texture and a zingy kick thanks to Sichuan peppercorns, and a classic mapo tofu had plenty of spicy silken tofu and minced bits of pork.
Misses: An order of Kung Pao chicken arrived disappointingly mild.
Drinks: Soft drinks, hot tea and beer
Prices: Reasonable. Most dishes are sized for sharing and between $10 and $15.