Say that fast five times! I recently had the pleasure of grabbing lunch with one of my favorite people, Candice. And as always, I had a great time as she told me about her recent travels. Of course, eventually the conversation got around to food. During that conversation Candice asked me if I'd been to Underbelly yet. Underbelly? When she explained that it was basically a ramen bar that opened in Little Italy a few bells went off. I'd heard that the owners of Craft and Commerce were opening up a ramen bar in Little Italy, but had not heard that it had opened. A part of me wasn't really excited or thrilled as I had visions of what "hipster ramen" would look like dancing through my head....which is patently wrong. I think we sometimes suffer from reverse discrimination when it comes to food, thinking that non-Asians are not capable of pulling off Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese dishes. And then we go home and make our lasagne, risotto, or BBQ claiming it to be darned good, the match of anything a good cook anywhere would create. I do have problems when something is dumbed down for the sake of revenue, the product is bad, or when something lacks soul and is not true to the dish it is named after. Sliced processed turkey in a baguette is not a banh mi, even if it is in fresh baked bread. There is a place that does that....it's called Subway, ok? Enough....time to put away the soapbox. what really caught my attention was when Candice told me of something called the "Belly of the Beast".......and I really couldn't get that out of my mind.
So, of course I just had to check the place out. The shop seats maybe 30-35 people and is located on the corner of West Fir and Kettner.
The restaurant has a very slick design. The glass windows open and fold over to become counter tops for the restaurant.
There was a line when I arrived at opening, I don't think I've stood in line for lunch since my visit to Hot Dougs.
Often times, great form has functional pitfalls. If you happen to sit on the street side of the counter be careful as the counter will tilt if you lean on it....like what happened to the poor guy sitting a couple of feet from me who almost fell off his seat as the counter tilted....he did save the glass of flowers and his dignity though. I'm hoping that the folks here will find a way to secure those dual purpose panes of glass before someone has a few too many local craft brews and upends an entire counter of hot ramen on customers.
The drill here, at least for lunch is much like Santouka, you stand in line, look over the menu, order at the bar, and end up with a metal numeric placard to identify you. The menu is focused, not a mishmash of mixed parts which I like. The topiary of Chairman Mao is not focused and I'm wondering what part it really plays in the theme of the restaurant. I thought it kind of bizarre....
This uber al fresco theme is a mixed plate as well. It's going to be great eating here during the fall and early spring when the weather is still cool and crisp enough. It was kind of breezy where I was sitting, and though I enjoyed it, the folks sitting facing Kettner quickly retreated. I hope the place has some plans for when it rains....
OK, enough about all that stuff, how was the ramen. I got the Belly of the Beast ($13) with the additional of Pork Belly Chashu ($3).....$16, or about three usual lunches for ramen. It's served in a large white bowl, but only comes up about 3/5 way up the bowl. In other words, this place ain't for the Santouka price and portion haters.
First things first, for me the broth was super oily, even beyond that bowl of Kotteri broth I had a Daikokuya years ago that seemed to wrap around my tongue and not let go. This one is for those who think they can drink straight nuoc beo (beef tallow), as it is indeed rich. If you think regular tonkotsu broth is over the top, this is on another planet. In spite of how rich it was, the broth was pretty mellow and really seemed low on the sodium scale. The noodles would be fine for many, but was a bit overcooked for my taste. I'm glad I ordered the pork belly chashu, in my opinion it was much better flavored than the two beef cuts....I couldn't taste any smoke on the smoked beef brisket(though it was super tender), nor could I make out any savory beany sweetness from the hoisin glazed short rib. The pork belly was cooked well, not falling to pieces, but still velvety enough to melt in my mouth. Oxtail dumplings sound like a great idea, but just like when I tried kalua pork won tons (these were pretty much won tons), lack of a contrasting texture made these kinda mushy.
The boiled egg was excellent, the yolk a golden orb that called to me. It could have been more aggressively soaked in a stronger flavored sauce, but perhaps not, as I could make out the wonderful flavor of the yolk as a ate it.
In the end that broth did me in as I couldn't bring myself to finish it. I'm thinking that perhaps having the kimchi version might do better as perhaps a bit of acidity or pungency might help cut the oil in the soup.
In the end, I appreciated the effort. Even though they are kind of off target for me (remember, I'm more hip-replacement than hip), I don't think they're doing anything that resembles something from the "springroll of the month club". Perhaps time will tell, heck, I didn't enjoy Santouka when they first opened, they needed to iron out a couple of things to bring it up to snuff. So maybe in a couple months.....if I can find a seat.....
750 W. Fir St
San Diego, CA 92101