Touring Chicago One Bite at a Time - Day 2: UrbanBelly
Tucked between two laundry mats in the upper part of Chicago sits UrbanBelly, Chef William Kim and his wife’s Asian focused restaurant. Entering the restaurant is evokes a sense of entering another world. The outside is adorned with a red canvas that shields diners from their urban surroundings. Inside, however, communal tables and seats line the walls, and a feeling of welcoming beckons you towards the back of the restaurant to place your order. Though new to the Chicago restaurant scene, UrbanBelly has garnered much praise for its creative flavor combinations in dumping, rice, and noodle form. Not ones to turn down food in favor of our general health, my Dad and I entered looking to get a FULL taste of what Chef Kim had to offer.
One of the only knocks I have against Urbanbelly is its lack of pacing. Granted, we did order a lot of food (and were told so by the woman who took our order), but we didn’t expect it to arrive all at once. Perhaps it was just my ignorant assuming – and we all know what assuming does – but I expected to be served our dumplings first, followed by our rice, and finishing with our noodles and sides. Instead, we were bombarded with food all at once. As I will recount, all of the food was delicious, but I became overwhelmed and some of it got cold as it sat there.
Main complaint aside, I’ll begin with the two orders of dumplings: Asian Squash, bacon, and mandarin orange dumplings ($7); and Duck and foie gras dumpling ($9). Normally, they only serve the foie dumplings on Wednesday (we were there on a Thursday), but they had some left over, and we decided to jump on the opportunity. Overall, both my Dad and I enjoyed the Asian squash dumplings more. For one, the squash dumplings were steamed, whereas the foie dumplings were fried. Don’t get me wrong, the foie dumplings were unctuous and flavorful, but they were extremely rich, and as these dumplings sat there (see: food bombardment), they became cold and lost some of their flavor. However, the inside was ridiculously smooth and had the characteristically smoky duck flavor. On the other hand, the Asian Squash dumplings were outstanding. First, these dumplings were much lighter and burst with more flavor profiles. Where the foie dumplings contained a single, heavy note of the liver, the feather-light dumpling wrapper of its counterpart exploded with the flavor of the squash with the bacon and mandarin orange playing the sweet-savory chorus in the background. The only thing missing from these dumplings was a texture contrast. The bacon could have been crispier, but maybe something like pistachios or other nuts would have worked well. Nonetheless, this dish was one of my favorites of the meal.
After attacking the dumplings, my Dad and I dug into our rice dishes. I ordered the Phat Rice ($9) – a combination of all of their rice dishes – and my Dad ordered the Short Rib and Scallion Rice ($8). After reflecting on our meal, my Dad and I both concluded that we could have done with only one rice dish…but it would have been hard to share. The Phat Rice, as expected, had a multitude of flavors. In one bite we got a tender piece of Korean short rib and crispy pea shoots only to follow it with another bite of sweet pineapple and thai basil. Though somewhat on the greasy side, I found the rice to be very well fried, as it still remained fluffy yet retained its Korean-spiced fried goodness. The short rib and scallion rice was much more focused than the Phat rice, but that played well to its strength: The short ribs. Tender, fatty, and only a tad spicy, the short ribs and scallions were a great combination that left us scraping the bottom of the bowl.
Our brain told us to stop, but our stomachs, as they are wont to do, wanted more. And more they got. Our noodle dishes consisted of my Dad’s Soba Noodles with bay scallops, oyster mushrooms, and thai basil broth ($12), and my Urban Belly Ramen with pork belly, shiitake and pho broth ($13). First, the sheer size of these bowls is intimidating. Didn’t I hear something about not eating anything the size of my head? Oh well. After letting the soup cool for a while (it came out literally steaming hot), I first tasted the broth. How to describe the taste of pho? If you’ve had it, you know what I’m talking about. Pho tastes like pho. And by that I mean delicious, multilayered, and soothing. I’m not sure if Chef Kim uses MSG, but there is something in his pho broth that just makes you coming back for more. When it first touched my tongue, I could taste the full body of the stock (beef?). This richness coated my entire mouth the way a good piece of chocolate does. However, I was awakened from my comfort by little kicks of spice. Perhaps that’s what I liked best about this dish – the kicks. It wasn’t necessarily spicy the way a hot pepper is, but there were little pricks here and there of ambrosial ingredients that finally found their way through the broth. The pork belly itself was both rich and plentiful, and paired very well with the earthiness of the shiitake mushrooms. The ramen noodles were tender and soaked up the pho broth as the flavors began to mingle. My Dad really enjoyed his Soba Noodle dish. I only got a few bites in, but the broth had a delicious seafood note that was highlighted by occasional Thai basil herbaciousness. Personally, I enjoyed the Soba Noodles over my Ramen Noodles. I found they had more texture, and when eaten with the scallops and mushrooms, held their form amidst otherwise soft-textured ingredients. Between the two, it really depends on what you like. The Ramen has a full beefy pho flavor with a little kick, while the Soba has a great seafood taste. As for our side, we ordered the Chinese Egglplant with Thai Basil ($5). To our surprise, this was served cold. It had a very distinct soy and sesame flavor, which took center stage over the eggplant, but this was a pretty good side, and it was nice to have something that wasn’t tongue burning hot. Next time, I would like to try their seasonal kim chi, but our stomachs were begging for mercy at this point. Like all meals at Urbanbelly, ours ended with a ginger candy that was like a Korean ginger Tootsie Roll that was a sweet end to our meal.
Being from South Western Milwaukee, and living there my entire life, I’ve never been introduced to this type of cuisine. However, now that I have, I yearn to come back for more! The mixture of spice, sweet, and savory (and probably some umami, too) in the Korean flavors took my palate on a memorable ride. A great, albeit rather expensive, lunch only a little hindered by the strange serving pace.
Another great write up, pastry634. My only comment is on the pacing. This is typical of Asian noodle houses, which is essentially a fast food joint. It is semi-self-serve and coursing the meal for customers is unheard of. I have eaten there where the noodles even came first before the dumplings. That said, in the spirit of wanting to taste as much food as possible, you could order another round after one round if finished. They might not like you doing that when the place is packed, but i have done that when it is less crowded.