SACRAMENTO, Neb. — Drive the 4 miles down Polyline Road out of Holdrege, Nebraska, and it feels like you’re on a road to nowhere.
The lonely two lanes stretch past cornfields, past cows, past towering industrial irrigation pivots.
Then, beyond the kicked-up dust, a red-brick building emerges, alone on the roadside save for four silver grain bins.
Cursive white letters on the building read “The Speakeasy.” Pull over, past a historical marker that tells the story of Sacramento, a town that’s otherwise gone.
Crunch through the gravel parking lot toward the door, push through a dim entryway and into a small bar decorated in hunter green, wood and old Nebraska Cornhuskers photos. Order yourself a barrel-aged Manhattan. A plate of house-cured pork belly. A steak so perfectly cooked and beautifully charred that you’d wager you’re somewhere in Chicago or Omaha.
But you’re not. You’re in a ghost town. Inside a steakhouse. In the hands of chef Ryan Puls.
Ryan never thought he’d be here, either, running the business where he spent his childhood and, in his teens, vowed to escape.
“I ran away from the restaurant,” Ryan said. “I had to get out of there.”
If there was one thing he knew, he didn’t want to be a chef. He wouldn’t spend the rest of his life inside the restaurant, 35 minutes southwest of Kearney, that his dad bought in 1980. He wouldn’t continue a Sunday buffet so popular that 200 diners would line up out the front door for fried chicken, ham and all the fixings. So he graduated from high school in Holdrege and headed to Seattle.
He was studying the music business and audio production at the Art Institute of Seattle, and then got a job in the audio recording industry, stripping music off compact discs and converting it into different file types.
He’d pass by the school’s culinary institute on a regular basis, and some part of him would always wonder: What’s it like?
“I kept looking over there,” he said, smiling.
After the dot-com crash he came home and took over the Holdrege Country Club with his dad, Terry, who was still running the Speakeasy, along with another restaurant in Minden, the now-closed Red River Steakhouse. They ran the country club restaurant together for two years, until the club decided to move in a different direction.
Ryan did, too, heading west a second time, back to Seattle in 2004, but this time, with a different goal: to cook. He started at BluWater Bistro and got a stage — a chef’s internship — at the now-closed Rover’s, which he said was the city’s top French restaurant at the time.
At Rover’s, Ryan worked under chefs Tom Douglas and Thierry Rautureau, both well-known Seattle restaurateurs.
He also went to work at Twilight Exit, a dive bar with pinball and a great jukebox. His buddy ran the place and wanted to open a kitchen. So Ryan developed a menu — “it reminds me of Nite Owl in Omaha,” Ryan said — and stayed on for the next seven years, cooking gourmet hot dogs and burgers, among other high-end bar food.
“The food scene in Seattle then is nothing like what it is today,” Ryan said, “but it was growing more and more.”
Ryan soaked up that scene. He’d also married and had a daughter, and felt the pull from home. How did he get his wife, originally from upstate New York, to agree to move to a town of 5,400 in the middle of America?
“Persistence, I guess,” he chuckles.
So the Puls family moved to Nebraska in 2012, and Terry retired shortly thereafter. Ryan faced a dilemma, one bigger than his desire to cook. One bigger than taking over his dad’s restaurant. Bigger, even, than moving his family from the coast to Nebraska.
He faced the Speakeasy’s giant, old-fashioned, small-town steakhouse menu, and a staff willing to battle him every step of the way when it came to changing one darn thing.
“I wanted to revamp the whole thing,” he said. “But I was scared that I would scare a lot of people away. And the staff. They were so set in their ways for so many years.”
Ryan said his dad, always there to answer questions about running the business, has “been instrumental in helping me evolve things.”
He started with baby steps. He downsized the menu and streamlined what was left. He focused on quality ingredients instead of quantity of dishes. And he started to cook dishes that might define what the Speakeasy — his Speakeasy — could become.
“People asked where this dish or that dish went.” That was the first reaction. The second?
“People said they couldn’t read the things on the menu.”
It’s true that instead of “rice,” Ryan made “risotto.” Instead of “sauce,” “bearnaise.” Instead of barbecue, “Korean chili sauce.”
But instead of backing off, he had a realization. Farmers from Holdrege and Kearney might not know what pork belly is, or how good it tastes. But that was an easy fix. He taught his staff two simple words: “It’s bacon.” He sent those same servers around the dining room with small samples of the belly — on the appetizer menu now — to encourage people to try it. Now?
“It’s one of our biggest sellers,” he said.
That pork belly, and the knowledge of how to make it, came directly from Ryan’s time at Rover’s in Seattle. It was there he learned how to cure meats, and it was there that he fully embraced French comfort food.
French dishes including the steak haché he added to Speakeasy’s menu, made with house-ground steak with creamed spinach, blue cheese, mashed potatoes and red wine demi-glace.
There’s hand-breaded and fried mozzarella croquettes served with raw tomato sauce. New Orleans-style shrimp étouffée. Seared duck breast with a lingonberry demi-glace. Osso bucco made with braised pork shank, steamed broccolini, mashed potatoes and a red wine mushroom demi-glace. A diner can get each of these dishes for less than $20.
The steaks are what draw Shawna Hammond and her husband from their home in Alma, a half-hour from Sacramento, about twice a month for dinner. Her favorites are the prime rib and the filet.
“The quality of the food that Ryan puts out is a notch better than some of the other places around,” she said. “The staff treats you like family.”
Shawna’s favorite, filet mignon, comes with a wonderful char on the exterior — thanks to the kitchen’s old-school flat top, Ryan says — and a deep red center. Perfectly seasoned and executed, this is big-city meat, especially when you take into account the side of charred crisp Brussels sprouts. There isn’t a frozen vegetable medley in sight.
There’s Coors Light and Budweiser, but there’s also a bunch of beers from Nebraska breweries. Those barrel-aged Manhattans are another idea Ryan saw in Seattle and brought here. The cocktail list, which also includes the classic French 75 and Sazerac, is an ever-growing project.
When Ryan wants to serve a new dish, he runs a weekend special. And he’ll be the first to tell you that his ideas haven’t always worked. Fish and seafood dishes don’t usually go over well. Lentils and farro are too unfamiliar.
“Cassoulet (a hearty French stew) was a big failure,” he said. “I sold one the whole weekend. So I ate a lot of it.”
The current special — a thick, double cut pork chop — is more Speakeasy speed. It flies out the door.
It would have been easier if Ryan had just held on to that buffet and to that giant menu that made Speakeasy a success in the first place. But keeping things the same wasn’t the point, Ryan said. He set out to fly contrary to what’s often most popular.
“I just want to try and open people up to different ways of eating,” he said.
So he plays with sous vide cooking. He works locally grown mushrooms into dishes. And his next goal is getting even more locally raised food on the Speakeasy menu — a challenge mostly because of its remote location.
When Ryan first came back to the restaurant he spent all his time at the stove. Now that he’s trained staff to do things the way he likes, he’s started making more appearances in the dining room — a big change. The restaurant that he once wanted nothing to do with has, in time, become his own.
“It became personal,” he said. “And I think people really enjoy that.”