Monday, January 02, 2012

Underbelly - San Diego {Dining Review}

I'm not very knowledgeable about ramen (or, let's face it, Japanese cuisine in general) but I am curious - so I was excited to try Underbelly, the new ramen-centric eatery in Little Italy recently opened by the folks behind Neighborhood and Craft & Commerce.  It replaced the late Red Velvet wine bar at the corner of Kettner and Fir - on the west side of the same block as Bencotto and Influx.

The first thing you need to know about Underbelly, especially if you're planning to go at night, is that it's cold.  Every surface in the restaurant is metal or glass, and the windows are kept wide open, even in the winter.  It was sprinkling on the night we were there, and our table was actually one of the windows - so that half of our party was indoors and half was out on the sidewalk. They're also a little aggressive about their "rules."  When I first walked in, the bartender/cashier/hostess/server barked at me that I needed to order before sitting down.  I had to fend her off  by explaining that my husband was already at the bar and we were meeting a larger party.  The room is small and seating is limited, so I guess it makes sense that they would like for people to place their orders, eat and get out relatively quickly - but it wasn't a very welcoming approach.
We ordered almost every starter on the menu to try as much as possible.  The "boiled peanuts" arrived first and we were afraid they didn't bode well for the rest of the meal.  Soggy and strangely flavored, they were a definite miss.  The "Ahi Tataki" was nice enough, sauced with a ponzu dressing and served over assorted bean sprouts - but I can't say it was any better than any other seared ahi I've been served in the past twenty years.
These rest of the starters followed in a similar vein - inoffensive, but nothing extra.  The descriptions on the menu seemed to make them sound more interesting than they were.  The little Kurobuta Sausages were ok - not too greasy - maybe they could have been hotter.  The "house made kim chi" underneath seemed perfunctory.  I didn't even remember it was there until I looked at the menu again just now.    I liked the "Ginger Beef Brisket Mushu" all right - the sweet shredded beef wrapped in mushu pancakes tasted something like Japanese barbecue.
By far the best of the bunch were the Shrimp Gyoza.  They had a nice crispy/tender exterior, good flavor inside, and the pea shoots on top were fantastic.  I'm not sure why there are whole pickled garlic gloves on the plate - I'm pretty sure nobody ate them.
underbelly ramen
The ramen options are a bit complicated.  They offer several different set combinations, and you have the option to add just all of the toppings they offer - plus a few more -  to any bowl.  We tried three combinations and shared them:   the Underbelly, the Belly of the Beast, and Charred Kim Chi.  The Underbelly was garnished with pork belly, bacon and the same sausage we'd had as a starter.  The "Belly of the Beast" was topped with a brisket, and oxtail dumpling and short rib meat, and the Charred Kim Chi included shishito peppers, rainbow carrots and napa cabbage.  I thought the Underbelly and Belly of the Beast were pretty tasty, but I didn't much enjoy the Kim Chi.  I was expecting it to have some kim chi "funk" but roasted carrots were pretty much all I could taste in that bowl.  Others enjoyed it more than I did.  There were eggs in all three bowls and they were well cooked - runny and soft in the center.

You may have heard that Underbelly refuses to provide spoons to diners.  This is ridiculous for four reasons that I can think of and possibly more.  One, you know your customers will want to use spoons to eat soup, simple as that.  Two, it is impossible to scoop up the elements and taste the dish properly using chopsticks. You want to pick up a little bit of meat, a little bit of egg, and maybe some scallions and take a bite with a little broth?   Sorry, that's just not possible.  Third, eating a soft egg with chopsticks is a pain.  And fourth, the bowls are huge, and having to pick up a huge basin to drink the broth is messy and inconvenient.  Underbelly has responded to this criticism by saying they wanted it to be "authentic."  Get real.  It's obviously not "authentic" in a thousand other ways.  This is just another gimmick, like the "no ketchup" rule at Neighborhood, intended to get people talking.

They do have a great tap craft beer selection though (one diner in our party pronounced it the best thing they offer), and I did enjoy the meat based ramen bowls.  I probably wouldn't make the cross-town trek for it again, but if I lived in the neighborhood, I could definitely see myself trucking over there (with a spoon in my purse) to tuck into a bowl of the Belly of the Beast or the Underbelly at the bar.  If you skip the starters you could easily get out of there for around $25. per person all inclusive, which is no mean feat in that part of town these days.

By the way, this thing about not being knowledgeable about ramen is something I plan to change this year - starting with a trip to Convoy this afternoon for some groceries to try David Chang's recipes in the ramen issue of Lucky Peach. I'll let you know how it goes!

p.p.s:  If you are also not as knowledgeable about ramen as you would like to be, there's a great primer here.

750 W Fir St (at Kettner)
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 269-4626
Menu here.


  1. Thanks for the review! I've been thinking about trying it for the scene, not the ramen. For that, sounds like I might stick with the ramen I love at Mitsuwa.

  2. Great review, Alice. It's inline with what I've heard. If I still worked down there or was eating wheat I would have tried it by now.

    I love Lucky Peach. Good luck with the learning.

  3. You should try Yakyudori Ramen on Convoy. BTW, were you at Farmhouse Cafe on Friday ?

  4. Thanks guys - yes Honkman, I was there on Friday - for a girls night with some friends. We had a great meal!

  5. And yes, I want to try Yakyudori soon.

  6. Happy New Year Alice. Having now been there twice, I find it to be "hipster ramen". Like Honkman says, perhaps trying out more traditional ramen first might be a good idea instead of diving straight into David Chang's own brand of hipster ramen.

  7. Japanese cuisine is one of my favorite cuisines. Tasty, healthy, and so easy to prepare at home.


  8. Yakudori = Shio
    Mitsuwa = Shoyu

    I liked Izakaya Masa's Tonkatsu ramen the first time I had it, but I've heard mixed reviews since then. I'll have to get back there to try it again. Like I need an excuse to eat there...

    Not a big fan of Tajima, but everyone else seems to love them.

    There was, once upon a time, a place called Noodle House Otomoyon (sp?) on Convoy that was my most favoritest place ever.. I swear the day they closed I shed more than one tear.

    Anyway, I'm always more than happy to help with ramen tasting/adventures if you need an extra hand (mouth)

  9. Alice, I agreed with most points on your assessment of Underbelly. The rules of seating are somewhat traditional to the little ramen booths you'll find in Japan where if you arrive and there's no seating then too bad for you. And no sitting until you order.

    You're spot on about it being about the only thing traditional about the place. Even ramen spots in Japan will offer patrons spoons. I thought the food was meh. Underbelly is underimpressive.

  10. Alice, you've got to try Izakaya Masa in Mission Hills and get their pork broth (hakata) ramen - to die for!!