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Nov 18, 2011 05:55 PM


On the menu-

Appetizers in the 5-8 dollar range (peanuts are three bucks):

Togarashi Spiced Boiled Peanuts
Kurobuta Sausage with housemade kimchi
Shrimp Gyoza
Ahi Tataki
Ginger Beef Brisket Mushu
Shucked Oyster with Pickeled (sic) Watermelon, Sake Mignonette
Teriyaki Chicken Salad
Seven Radish Salad w/ Spicy Ahi Crostini

Ramen bowls from 8-13 bucks:

all topped with soft-boiled egg, bean sprouts, ginger, scallions, seaweed, sesame seed

Tonkotsu bowl- 8
Underbelly Ramen- char-su belly, applewood smoked bacon, kurobuta sausage
Belly of the Beast- Oxtail dumpling, smoked brisket, hoisin glazed shortrib

and without the egg (for all my vegan friends)

Vegetable Ramen- truffle oil, shitake, shimeji, oyster mushroom, enoki, white asparagus
Charred Spicy Kimchi Ramen- napa cabbage, rainbow carrots, shishito peppers

toppings to add: all the meats and veg, broiled unagi, kimchi octopus, and sake braised oxtail from 2-5 bucks

Had lunch here today, and gotta commend the post-hipster kimchi-taco set for taking a stab at something other than TJ dogs or re-deconstructed Cobb salads for late night grub. You walk in, and are encouraged to place your order immediately at the cash register (about $40 bucks for two bowls, and app and some beer), and furble your way through the narrow passage between back-to-back rows of 100-lb wrought steel barstools that seem designed to bruise your hips (and certainly your unmentionables), search for a seat at the bar facing in, or at the inner bar facing out, or at the outer bar facing in beneath huge open windows along this noisy part of Kettner. If you choose one of the last two options, you should be prepared to accept second-hand broth falling into your bowl from the ends of the noodles being slurped by the stranger sitting close directly across from you. Great beer list- looked like they've at least 25 on tap, but the Racer X I had was a little weird with ramen...

I know Momofuku is inspiring to this crowd in a lot of ways, but you can't really classify their stuff as ramen. Pretty much the same with Underbelly. For the real thing, you can't do better in SD than Yakitori Yakudori Ramen or Santouka. Some elements were really good: nice tonkotsu broth, decent noodles, good standard toppings. Some things were not: characterless mushroom-based broth in the veggie bowls, raw carrots in the Charred Spicy Kimchi Ramen, along with very little of the namesake kimchi, lots of direct upfront Scoville-style heat that was kinda weird in ramen, soft-boiled egg that was very soft boiled so that the whites were runny, very little broth and way too much noodle. Hopefully with a bit of time, these things will sort themselves out, although I'm guessing that some of them are quite intentional. Other things were just odd: the braised short rib trend of recent years has spilled over into this brand of fusion, and so there's a lot of beef going into the meat bowls- kinda like having brisket barbecue ending up in my soup, oxtails in my dumplings (really just wontons with a thin but nice tasting beef filling). Now that I'm looking at the menu, there was no sign of the Hoisin Glazed Short Rib in my Belly of the Beast Bowl, so no comment there. In fact, a lot of beef and not as much pork as a place called "Underbelly" let me to expect.

The gyoza were fine.

Certainly not izakaya, probably not ramen, but whatever. Good place to drink some nice beer and eat something hot past 11pm in a part of town more known for spaghetti, meatballs and bad parking. Careful of the stools on the way out.

One last thing: as Neighborhood has no ketchup, Underbelly has no spoons.

750 W Fir St (At Kettner), Little Italy

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    1. re: daantaat

      It is on the kettner side of the building that houses Bencotto. Where the defunct Red Velvet wine bar once stood.

      I give these guys a B+ for effort and trying something new.

      Food is decent and their hours are real good.

      The stools are horrible.

      The fold down windows are pure genius although on a cold day, wear a hoodie (plus it will make you look more hipster).

      Speaking of hipsters, this place is hipster bonkers. If you are not dressed as a hipster, be prepared to be the only one in the place who isn't.

      It seems like a disparity in the Price VS Value category. That is, it seems a little overpriced for what it is.

      All in all, I will probably go again, although I am not holding off trips to South America to go back.

      1. re: stevewag23

        Not sure I agree with that re: price/value. For one, they're using Duroc pork, which is pricey. For two, the Underbelly bowl gives quite a generous serving of meat, plus a whole egg vs. the more common half-egg per serving. For three, the portion overall strikes me as pretty generous, in the sense that a bowl of ramen there is quite a filling and satisfying meal, where a bowl at Yakyudori leaves room for other food alongside.

        I've been three times so far at lunch, and the hipster quotient is lower at those times.

        I like it a lot, whether or not its strictly authentic.

        1. re: Josh

          I hear what you are saying, keep in mind I am not really comparing it to anything regarding Price VS Value, just going off instinct.

          An egg, some ramen and some strips of applewood bacon seems like it should cost a little less, but maybe I am wrong.

          I do think that the price would deter me from putting the place in my regular lunch rotation.

          In all fairness, the rent there might be high. Red Velvet wine bar was charging outrageous prices for a class of red.

          1. re: stevewag23

            Well, protein is always the most expensive item in the bowl. I bowl of ramen at Yakyudori, which is not using Duroc pork, costs $8 w/ two thin slices of belly meat, and a half of an egg, and they're on Convoy St. An extra $4 for twice the meat (higher-quality meat, at that) and egg seems pretty reasonable to me.

            1. re: Josh

              Fair enough.

              You made a strong case.

        2. re: stevewag23

          "This place is hipster bonkers" love it.

      2. I rolled-in earlier today. I think a good subtitle for Underbelly would be Icebox - at least it felt like that on this cold and blustery day. For a corner location like that to keep all three glass walls fully open to the outside seemed a bit ridiculous given the weather conditions... But I think I get what they're trying to do. The order and pay first system, combined with a wrap-around counter and the Yatai (outdoor food stall) construction when the glass walls are open all pay homage to many a Ramen joint in Japan.

        I think the lack of spoons is a big miss, but even there I imagined that the principals over-read the part in the movie Tampopo where many a customer are accustomed to drinking straight out of the bowl. It all left me wondering how many of their customers would know of the presumed homage to Japan that I'm reading into all of these details.

        So my thoughts on the Ramen, specifically the Tonkotsu which is what I ordered? Not altogether bad if one didn't approach it as Ramen. For sure it'll likely please many new to Ramen. But to be honest for me it was very unbalanced and clumsy. The biggest issue was that the broth was way over-seasoned; the too-obvious flavor components drove the soup in to over-drive, which would clobber any potential of a good Dashi. So rather than depth and substance, I instead just found simple naked flavors dialed to their proverbial 11.

        The overall sense I got was that it was overly salty and simplistic, tasting too powerfully of soy and ginger. For lack of a better description it tasted very "Western" to me in approach. Compared to what it could have been it all seemed to focus more on forced and obvious flavors vs. letting the powerful Umami characteristics of the ingredients to naturally strike their own balance. Overall it all seemed to be a bit clumsy and unconfident.

        6 Replies
        1. re: cgfan

          Not surprisingly, the people who run Underbelly are not Japanese, which may explain some of the departures from Japanese-style flavors.

          1. re: cgfan

            It just occurred to me that the place loses a third of their seating when their windows are closed. Wonder how they did in the rain today. Probably better in bad weather, assuming they close the windows.

            If anyone is wondering what the obsession with these windows is, it's that when they're open, the place basically has no walls on two sides.

            I actually like the place, but there is some glaring "offness" with the ramen, and since you order right away any attempt to linger at the bar is difficult. I like Neighborhood better- more in their wheelhouse. I'm also not in to their restrictions on things like ketchup and spoons. Seems like they are trying to prove some kind of notion and instead come off a bit holier-than-thou rather than cool or culinarily principled.


            1. re: SaltyRaisins

              "It just occurred to me that the place loses a third of their seating when their windows are closed."

              The reason I like them is that they "gain" that additional seating when they are open.

              I like the "fresh air" feel of the place. I have always wondered why places in san diego don't go for that open air effect like many other places on the globe with good weather. Hopefully, others will follow.

              " I'm also not in to their restrictions on things like ketchup and spoons. Seems like they are trying to prove some kind of notion and instead come off a bit holier-than-thou rather than cool or culinarily principled."

              Don't forget Craft and Commerce refuses to serve Vodka.

              I can only come up with one possible explanation for all of this: The Hipster Mentality.

              1. re: stevewag23

                Now, it would really be something if they refused to use bowls. That would impress me.

                1. re: stevewag23

                  "Excuse me, could we trouble you for a spoon for our 8-year-old please?"

                  "Well, sorry, we have a BYOSpoon policy here at Underbelly."

                  Neighborhood - no ketchup
                  Craft and Commerce - no vodka
                  Underbelly - no spoons

                  It seems we have a meme - or a theme - developing here for this restaurant group. As Malarkey has his fabrics, this group has their "basic denial of one closely associated accouterment."

                  All Aboard! Next stop, porterhouse no steak knife!

                2. re: SaltyRaisins

                  I applaud anyone trying to do something different than the standard San Diego thing. To me, Underbelly strikes me as the kind of place one would find in a different city. It doesn't feel particularly San Diego to me.

              2. I am fine with no spoon, but do they at least give chopsticks? Or do I have to plunge my hand in to the scalding liquid to get the bits of meat?

                13 Replies
                1. re: MrKrispy

                  Yes, there are chopsticks.

                  That might be a cool concept though: no chopsticks and no bowls.

                  Maybe they could just slop the ramen on the bar and you have to eat it with your hands.

                  1. re: stevewag23

                    They should just make the top of the bar a trough and everyone could dip their heads in. $3 per plunge...

                    1. re: JRSD

                      Bobbing for ramen sounds painful.

                      Following no ketchup, no vodka, no spoon, I think the zenith of hipster restaurants would be "no food," yes?

                      1. re: The Office Goat

                        Yeah or maybe "no restaurant".

                        Just an open lot.

                        Actually that would be a great business model, give nothing and charge through the nose.

                      2. re: stevewag23

                        Actually there's an Udon shop in Japan's Sanuki region where the customer must bring their own bowl. Would love to explore that region someday; there Udon is made in individual homes that open up to paying customers, so such idiosyncrasies are part of the game.

                        1. re: cgfan

                          Yeah, in all fairness, I was told by the bartender that the no spoons thing was "how they do it in Japan".

                          Is that just in the "Sanuki region" or all of Japan?

                          1. re: stevewag23

                            Well I never came across a Ramen-ya that didn't have spoons - I do find that quite bizarre.

                            The special case of the Udon shop in Sanuki is that they're mostly run out of private homes. (Love it when zoning doesn't get in the way of good food!)

                            It might be that some of the Ramen Yatai's (outdoor food stalls) don't have spoons for reasons of cost, but I've only had Ramen at the brick and mortar's where they've always had spoons (typically the Chinese style soup spoons but on occasion the Japanese-style wooden Renge)...

                              1. re: cgfan

                                Clearly, everyone who goes in there needs to ask for a spoon! I have never known them to bow to pressure on any of these other ridiculous restrictions though, so I doubt it would work here.

                                Regardless, I do love the idea - something different for SD - and I plan on trying it for lunch next week - should be interesting!

                                1. re: Alice Q

                                  ...and ask for a warm jacket!

                                  BTW I didn't dare look around to see what the other were doing, but I did it Japanese-style - used the bowl itself as the spoon. (But then again I didn't hear anyone else slurping their noodles either... Wonder how the hipsters would take to that once everyone starts to let out a big loud "slurrrrp"?)

                         - no subtitles, but it should be self-evident...

                                  1. re: Alice Q

                                    Perhaps, we need to start the Occupy Spoons movement and everyone should just show up at Underbelly at 5 pm next Friday with their own spoon...and on Saturday at the Neighborhood with ketchup!!!! :)

                        2. Finally got down to Underbelly before leaving on a flight. Only one suggestion. My biggest pet peeve with ramen is temperature of the broth. While under normal circumstances (indoors), I probably wouldn't complain. However, on a cold and windy day with open windows, you'd better serve that bowl on the verge of bowling (at least for me). You'd better inhale that bowl unless you want your bowl luke warm half way through. And don't think about a side dish to divert your attention!

                          But gotta say, I'm stoked with this addition to the SD ramen scene. Sure its a pricier bowl. Sure you may prefer Santouka or Yakyudori. And whatever, you have to lift the bowl to slurp soup instead of using a spoon. We could do a whole lot worse. I hope we continue to get these types of places focusing on a dish and pushing that status quo of what we having available to us in our humble city.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: daimyo

                            I had that impression also, but I figured they kept the temp down since everyone would be lifting the massive bowl up to their face. Or maybe the temp just drops quickly when the bowls are carried past the jet-stream windows heh heh.

                          2. Underbelly is on my list of favorite lunch destinations. Been eating there 2+ per week for a couple months.

                            I like it.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Fake Name

                              SS doesn't require forks or spoons either!