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Ryan Puls, Chef/Owner
72993 S Road
Holdrege, NE 68949
Hours: Tuesday thru Friday - 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Saturday - 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Sunday - 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The Speakeasy isn’t a speakeasy, but it’s a fun place to pretend
by Pam Soreide, Betty Sayers and Phil Soreide
Taking out of town guests to the Speakeasy is fun. First you have to get them in mind that you’re taking them to a kind of a secret place that only people who are truly in the know are aware of. Then maybe you can get a little Ragtime going on the stereo and casually turn the conversation to, say, Al Capone or Elliot Ness as you leave town.
As you turn off the main highway and travel for several miles through darkened fields with nary a streetlight to guide your way, you can feel visitors getting fidgety in the back seat… “Are you sure this is the way?” “Is there really a restaurant out here?” When you slow to turn, the yard light is the only indication of life; there’s no neon sign, but the numerous cars in the parking lot confirm there is something going on here. As you approach the entrance, shoes crunching ominously on the gravel drive, you almost expect to knock and be recognized through a peephole before being granted entry!
But no. Open the door and you are greeted with warmth and light and the aromas of well-prepared meals. The Speakeasy isn’t a real speakeasy but it’s a fun destination for many in south central Nebraska.
A new chef in the kitchen
The Speakeasy has long been a destination restaurant for groups and parties as it has a private room as well as a secondary seating area often devoted to larger groups. We are shown to a table and drink orders are taken. The Speakeasy seems to have improved its wine list under new owner Ryan Puls, but we have chosen to bring a special bottle which they are happy to serve to us for a corking fee. The Speakeasy is venerable, but it’s a nice restaurant, with white linen table cloths and cutlery with a substantial heft.
The Speakeasy’s creators, Terry and Teresa Puls, are in the process of retiring and recently turned over their restaurant business to their son Ryan. Ryan has years of experience under his belt, beginning at his family’s food businesses since he was old enough to bus tables.
Ryan left Nebraska for a number of years to explore the wide world, spending time working in audio engineering in Seattle. Ultimately, he tired of sitting in front of a computer all day and the challenges and dramas inherent to a chef’s lifestyle beckoned him.
While in Seattle, he worked as a closing chef, and then opened a kitchen at a friend’s bar. He also did an internship at Rovers in Seattle, working with celebrity chef Thierry Rautureau, aka the “Chef in the Hat.” Those were long days: 40 hours a week at his regular job, plus 11 a.m. to midnight on top. He told us he spent an average of 5-½ hours per day on the prep station, working with premium ingredients such as live lobster and crab. During this internship, he also learned to cure bacon, a skill he continues to refine.
In the end, the notion of owning a restaurant with a reputation like the Speakeasy, as well as the desire to give his daughter the experience of growing up with the freedoms and opportunities of a small town called him home.
Ryan understands the dynamics of the restaurant industry well enough that he is reluctant to change the menu too much for fear of disappointing longtime regulars.
“My dad is a master with meat and long ago developed a reputation for preparing and serving superb steaks,” Ryan said. “We continue to age our meat and cut our own steaks.” He told us he plans to use specials, appetizers and sauces as opportunities to express his creativity in the kitchen. He is working hard with the staff to help them understand and promote his creations. It is a challenge for anyone to run both the kitchen and the front of the house in a busy restaurant, but Ryan is eager to talk about his plans, which include a gourmet night once a quarter or so…a fixed price five course meal with wine pairings. He’s also now posting daily specials on Facebook and Twitter.
Ryan offered to cook us an order of his own home-cured bacon as an off-menu appetizer. Thick, salty with a touch of sweetness, smoky…a new level of bacon deliciousness! So, my question was “can we buy this by the pound?” Ryan just smiled and said for now we would have to come and have him cook it for us.
We also tried his Pork Wings appetizer, another Ryan Puls creation. Pork shanks baked long and slow, basted with a spicy buffalo wing sauce and accompanied by the Speakeasy trademark blue cheese dressing come together to make a melt-in-your mouth appetizer. The sauce was nicely balanced between salty, sweet, spicy and smoky flavors. Ryan tells us that a special brand of pickled peppers bottled in Seattle adds the zip and depth of flavor to the sauce. Delicious.
For entrees, we chose a New York strip steak with a demi-glace sauce; the stuffed trout with a side of truly exceptional hash browns; the Orange roughy dressed in a delicately flavored citrus beurre blanc; the top sirloin and the filet mignon. We recommend the orange roughy and lemon/caper sauce for a light and wonderfully flavorful main course; the steaks were cooked to absolute perfection as we have come to expect from the Speakeasy.
As we drove home through dark fields, we chatted about our meal. One of our guests, who has worked in fine dining service in Colorado for over ten years, and considers herself something of a food snob, commented that the steak had flavor as good as any she had ever tasted and was impeccably prepared.
Ah, we are lucky to live in the heartland.