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Issara, 11.20

Bun noodles are among the menu items at Issara Modern Asian Cuisine in southwest Lincoln.

Surely, food is the last thing you want to read about on the day after Thanksgiving.

You're immobilized by mashed potatoes. Stuffing has stretched your stomach. And the culinary future looks bleak, with Tupperware containing the least-choice cuts of dried-or-drying turkey stacked high in your refrigerator.

But you'll need to eat again sometime, and Lincoln's "international" dining options provide a break from gravy-slathered, European-American delights.

Four Journal Star features writers — freelance food critic Jeff Korbelik, entertainment writer L. Kent Wolgamott, former dining reviewer Cindy Lange-Kubick and Ground Zero editor Zach Pluhacek — cobbled together this list of the city's 15 top restaurants that serve Asian, African and South/Central American cuisine.

For those interested in methodology, we each nominated our favorite places, with the top overall picks appearing on all or almost all of our lists, then negotiated as best we could on the final rankings.

And, as always, don't just take our word for it. Tell us your thoughts by commenting on Facebook.com/GZLincoln or on Twitter @GZLincoln.

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The Oven

The Oven isn't just Lincoln's best international restaurant, it's also one of the best restaurants in Nebraska.

1. The Oven

The Oven, simply, is one of Nebraska’s premiere restaurants.

In the Haymarket since 1988 and east Lincoln since 2007, the popular Indian restaurant excels on all levels: menu (food and wine), atmosphere and service. I even recommend it to those who aren't sure about Indian food, because I used to be one of those people. I tell newbies to order the chicken or fish tikka, a mild dish that offers a tasty introduction to food prepared in a tandoor oven.

Ngawang Rinchen owns both Oven locations. He came to the United States in 1979 and worked as a chef in an Indian restaurant in New York City. In 1988, he became the head chef for The Oven — the first restaurant in the "new" Haymarket district — and later took it over.

The menu is a nice mix of lamb, chicken, seafood and vegetarian entrees. The Oven consistently ranks as one the best places for vegetarians in town. Most dinner entrees are served with rice and choice of soup or salad. I highly recommend The Oven's mulligatawny, a traditional Indian soup of pureed lentils, flavored with spices and garnished with rice and fresh coriander. I like to squeeze lemon into mine.

Several years ago Rinchen upped the Oven’s game, amassing a wine collection that is one of the best statewide (check out his cellar at the Haymarket location). So impressive, Wine Spectator annually recognizes the Indian restaurant for its collection.

Details: 201 N. Eighth St. and 4101 Pioneer Woods Drive, 402-475-6118 and 402-488-0650, theoven-lincoln.com

— Jeff Korbelik

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Stur 22

Stur 22 offers Caribbean and West African fare.

2. Stur 22 Caribbean and African Kitchen

Potentially the best restaurant to open in Lincoln in the past two years, Stur 22 offers a unique dining experience with a menu that is small but fantastic.

Stur's vibrantly spiced, slow-cooked meats literally dissolve in your mouth (I'm a big fan of the coconut curry oxtail), and the meals come in perfect portions — something to consider after a hearty Thanksgiving dinner. The ability to mix and match rices and sides gives the menu added variety.

Don't be nervous if you've never tried African or Caribbean food. It's remarkably approachable at Stur, and the staff is always ready with recommendations. 

And don't scoff at the drinks, which alone are worth a visit, even if you don't typically like fruity mixtures. These cocktails manage to boast big flavor without the overwhelming sugariness you might expect.

Details: 2110 Winthrop Road, 402-805-4579, stur22lounge.com

— Zach Pluhacek

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Pho Nguyenn

Pho Nguyenn seems to be Lincoln's favorite spot for Vietnamese noodle soup.

3. Pho Nguyenn

Lincoln has its fair share of Vietnamese restaurants, but there seems to be just one where most diners go for pho — that’s Pho Nguyenn on North 27th Street. Family-owned since 2002, the strip-mall restaurant draws folks from all over town for the steaming hot, noodle soup.

Served with sides of fresh, basil, bean sprouts, jalapeno peppers, pho is available in three different sizes and in different combinations. Personally, I like the one with all the meats, including tripe, which tends to turn off most folks. But I love it. My journalism friends, Joe (Duggan) and Eric (Gregory), like to doctor theirs with chili paste and hot sauce, while I prefer to sweeten mine with a hoisin sauce. However you like it, the noodle soup is a perfect treat on a cold winter day.

Details: 611 N. 27th St., Suite 5, 402-477-2058

— Jeff Korbelik

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Blue Orchid

Blue Orchid, 129 N. 10th Street in the Grand Manse building, has long been a trendy option serving Thai food.

4. Blue Orchid

This downtown Thai restaurant has it all — ambiance, authenticity and dishes diners can count on to deliver a consistent taste time after time. Open for lunch and dinner, Blue Orchid’s menu is versatile and flavorful with plenty of options for both meat-eaters and vegetarians.

The panang curry and the Pad See-Ew can’t be topped — and the yellow curry is a delight with its big chunks of carrots and the staff’s willingness to sub in other veggies. Leave room for Tom Kha soup or an appetizer. The chicken (or tofu) satay will have you licking out the bowl of dipping sauce.

Did we say Blue Orchid had it all? That was a lie. Parking can be an issue, so circle the block or find yourself a parking garage.

Details: 129 N. 10th St., 402-742-7250

— Cindy Lange-Kubick

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El Chaparro

El Chaparro packs a wide-ranging menu into its tiny location on South 13th Street.

5. El Chaparro

In a city increasingly filled with Mexican restaurants, El Chaparro stands out for what it isn’t. It’s not an upscale fusion of Mexican and fine-dining fare. And it’s sure not fast food. Rather, it’s an unassuming spot that reminds me of places that used to be found all over Austin, Texas, but are rapidly disappearing due to gentrification.

There’s nothing all that unusual about the El Chaparro menu: It’s a standard lineup of burritos, enchiladas, tacos, tamales, tortas, quesadillas and plenty of steak, pork and shrimp dishes. But they’re all served quickly and never less than good. The carne asada, in particular, earns raves.

Perhaps the most telling observation I can bring from El Chaparro comes from multiple visits, where members of my group were the only English-only-speaking diners. That’s always a great sign.

Details: 900 S. 13th St., 402-435-7112, facebook.com/pages/El-Chaparro/220762741317114

— L. Kent Wolgamott

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Mr. Hui's No. 2

Mr. Hui's opened its second location in 2014.

6. Mr. Hui's

A while back, I joined a group at Mr. Hui’s for a post-art-opening meal. With at least a dozen dishes on the table, we got a wide-ranging sampling of the Chinese restaurant’s offerings — and this reaction from dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers: "This is better Chinese than we can get in New York.”

That may be something of an overstatement. But it’s evidence of the quality and authenticity of Mr. Hui’s food. There’s some American Chinese favorites on the menu, e.g. sweet & sour chicken and General Tso’s chicken. But it’s mostly real-deal fare, including more exotic dishes like sizzling frog legs and spicy intestines (pork) in hot pot. There’s also a full line of milk teas.

Favorites include a seafood clay pot, Taiwanese pan-fried noodles, Hui’s Crazy Spicy Chicken (lots of jalapeno in that one), salted crispy chicken and salted crispy frog legs, fish filet in bean sauce and Taiwanese-style braised pork.

Details: 3255 Cornhusker Highway, Suite 86, 402-465-0007, mrhuislincoln.com; 4131 Pioneer Woods Dr., 402-486-0111, mrhuis2lincoln.com

— L. Kent Wolgamott

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Vung Tau

Spring rolls and Bun Dac Biet Vermicelli with grilled pork, fried shrimp and egg rolls are among the favorites at Vung Tau Restaurant.

7. Vung Tau

Yes, our top 10 list includes two Vietnamese restaurants within a few blocks of each other. Lincoln's offerings are that good.

Vung Tau distinguishes itself with its savory broth, grilled pork entrees and succulent chicken, which provide an entry point to this kind of food for folks who prefer to avoid red meat. (Go for the standard beef pho this winter, and come back in the summer for chicken and egg roll vermicelli.)

If you haven't been to Vung Tau in years, and were turned off by the drab interior, it's worth trying again. A fairly recent remodel opened up the dining room and added some nice decorative flourishes.

Details: 2708 Y St., 402-438-9959

— Zach Pluhacek

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Blue Sushi

A platter of assorted nigiri, sashimi and specialty maki shown with a pair of samari saketinis is available at Blue Sushi Sake Grill.

8. Blue Sushi Sake Grill

The very fact that an Omaha-based sushi chain is preparing to open its 13th location in its eighth state is an indication that Blue has plenty of fans. 

But that's also no surprise: Blue's menu is well-executed from top to bottom, packed with variety, and friendly to diners of all culinary stripes, restrictions and inclinations. Its Lincoln location, which opened in the Haymarket four years ago, boasts a laid-back yet contemporary vibe that makes it a great place for a date or night out with friends before a show at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

A word of advice: Go for happy hour, one of the best in town.

Details: 808 R St., 402-805-4232, bluesushisakegrill.com

— Zach Pluhacek

9. Issara

If you've somehow eaten through the menu at Blue Orchid, or want something slightly different, check out its sister restaurant, Issara.

Issara's menu includes an impressive array of flavors from other Asian cuisines, while keeping one foot in its distinctly Thai origins. The royal duck curry is one of my favorite dishes anywhere in Lincoln. (Be warned: It's spicy.) Other menu items, including the Thai rolls and Asian delight, will be familiar to Blue Orchid lovers.

Here's another place with a bar as boast-worthy as its kitchen. Issara's cocktails are often inspired. And the restaurant as a whole manages to feel more formal than its downtown counterpart, despite Blue Orchid's inherit advantage with its location in the Grand Manse.

Details: 1701 Pine Lake Road, No. 7, 402-261-5594, issaracuisine.com

— Zach Pluhacek

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Dining out Habibi kabob and shwarma

Chicken tikka at Habibi Kabob and Shawarma.

10. Habibi

Since opening in the summer of 2017 in north Lincoln at 82nd and Holdrege streets, Habibi quickly has become the go-to place for Middle Eastern food. That’s because its menu is extensive, ranging from chicken and beef kabobs to vegetarian falafel to the ever-popular gyros.

Well-seasoned and plentiful are the best way to describe Habibi’s meats. My wife and I remarked on the flavor of the beef and chicken shawarma as well as the beef kabob we tried on recent visits. We also enjoyed the falafel — breaded and deep-fried ground chickpeas. The falafel breading was light and not overbearing. And the tzatziki sauce served with each dish proved to be some of the best we’ve tried.

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Details: 8222 Holdrege St., Suite 10, 402-475-0066

— Jeff Korbelik

11. Asmara Restaurant

You want authentic, you got it at this North 27th Street eatery that brings food from the Horn of Africa to Lincoln.

Asmara, once called Ajora Falls, has a relatively small menu of beef, lamb and chicken home-style stews along with plenty of vegetables, including a mixed plate with all the restaurant’s offerings. The dishes are all served on injera, the slightly risen, spongy flatbread that’s Ethiopia’s national dish. To eat it, tear off a bit of bread — traditionally with the right hand — then pick up some stew and chow down. There are no utensils provided or needed.

The delicious stews are seasoned at various levels with spices that can be reminiscent of Indian and echo those of Caribbean and Cajun fare, which were influenced by African cooking. A word of warning: when Asmara says a dish is spicy, they’re not joking.

Details: 313 N. 27th St., 402-904-4556, facebook.com/Ajora.Falls.Lincoln

— L. Kent Wolgamott

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Lan House

Lanzhou beef noodles soup features hand-pulled noodles, beef broth and sliced beef at Lan House.

12. Lan House

Lan House is the only authentic Lanzhou noodle shop in the Midwest. That means it hand-pulls the noodles used in its delicious, primarily beef-infused soups. Get the spicy version, which is the true way it is served in the northwest Chinese city of Lanzhou.

But that’s only the beginning for this very authentic downtown Chinese eatery. There’s no sweet and sour anything here. Rather it’s got made-to-order potstickers — the best in town, eat 'em while they’re hot — a selection of entrees ranging from lamb ribs to kung pao chicken, and all sorts of fried rice and chow mein.

There are also weekly specials and constant additions to the menu, the most recent of which include flipped beef flat buns, iron-grilled beef ribs and Silk Road bok-choy. I’ve never been disappointed by anything I’ve ordered in the year and a half that Lan House has been open. That’s the highest compliment for any restaurant.

Details: 1226 P St., Suite 102, 531-500-2994, facebook.com/lanhouselincoln

— L. Kent Wolgamott

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Copal

Apple Habanero salsa and fresh tortilla chips with signature cocktails Copal Margarita, Princess Donaji and Cucumber Jalapeno are served at Copal.

13. Copal Progressive Mexican Cuisine

Grandma wants to eat someplace nice. Your husband wants a glass of wine. And you want tacos. Where do you dine? Here's your answer.

Copal goes out of its way to avoid being labeled a "typical" Mexican restaurant, but still serves up approachable dishes. The food feels elevated, but rooted in familiar staples of enchiladas and fajitas.

The dining room has a similar effect: Copal feels more contemporary than other local Mexican restaurants, but casual enough that it's hard for anyone to feel out of place. 

Details: 4747 Pioneers Blvd., 402-486-0488, copallnk.com

— Zach Pluhacek

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Blessing Thai Restaurant

Red curry at Blessing Thai Restaurant.

14. Blessings Thai

More Thai, this one out north in a strip mall where parking is plentiful.

The interior of the small restaurant is functional, but not fancy with matching tables in the center, booths along one wall and a TV on another -- a portrait of Jesus and his flock on a third.

The staff is friendly and attentive and the food is delicious with standard Thai dishes as well as options you might not find elsewhere, such as fried gourd and Thai fried rice with mango and egg, chili and shallots.

If you’re new to the cuisine, order the pad Thai. Every pad Thai has its own signature and Blessings has to be among the best, plenty of peanuts and just the right balance of sweet and hot.

Details: 4451 N. 26th St., 402-742-9996, blessingthairestaurant.com

— Cindy Lange-Kubick

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Banhwich

Banhwich Cafe is a popular Vietnamese/Asian Fusion place in north Lincoln offering 17 styles of sandwiches.

15. Banhwich Cafe

Order at the counter and be ready for a messy Vietnamese banh mi sandwich at your table in this popular lunch and dinner stop in the heart of Lincoln.

Banhwiches come with the standard toppings — cucumbers, pickled daikon, jalapeno, cilantro and carrots and a variety of options for sauce and proteins all served on a crusty French-style bread that can be washed down with any number of Bubble tea options.

Do not leave the restaurant without a Vietnamese waffle for dessert. We cannot stress this enough. Ask for a dusting of powdered sugar. Share with a friend or not. Chewy, delicious in every way and green. (Do not ask why. Or do, and let us know.)

Details: 940 N. 26th St., 402-261-4655, banhwichcafe.com

— Cindy Lange-Kubick

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Assistant city editor

Zach Pluhacek is an assistant city editor.

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