A guy still can't get a soupspoon at Underbelly. Not at the original Little Italy location and not at the new one in North Park (3000 Upas St.). I briefly pondered the consequences of smuggling in a spoon. Would it be ripped from my hand? Would a team of lanky, bearded, bespectacled hipsters haul me away?
That question unanswered, I returned to my Belly of the Beast ramen, a more enjoyable contemplation. My soft-boiled egg needed tending. A spoon to cut the egg would have been nice, but a chopstick did the trick (albeit second best), allowing the yolk to mingle with the rich porky broth. It was a dish of many highlights: that yolk, and the hoisin-glazed short rib, to name two. But the oxtail dumpling was the star for me.
I've said before that Consortium Holdings—Underbelly's owner—creates beautiful spaces with great atmosphere, but, culinarily, too often it comes up short. Paul Basile's design is once again spectacular, taking the indoor-outdoor connection of the original location and adding a warmer, more organic feeling. At Underbelly, though, the food is equal to the design.
While it may be tempting to think of the place as a ramen house, and it no doubt riffs on that theme, Underbelly is not exactly that. Rather, it's a Japanese ramen-ya seen through a San Diego lens. Yes, it serves ramen and gyoza and beer. But the ramen dishes are highly non-traditional (though there are tonkotsu and miso options), there's a wider variety of appetizer-like dishes and the craft-beer program is top-notch, making the most of our superlative local beer scene.
The best of the appetizers are the buns, Underbelly's take on high-end steamed bao (pioneered by Momofuku's David Chang). The sous vide pork-belly bun was simple, sinful and delicious: two Chinese steamed buns sitting, taco-like, on the plate, stuffed with a particularly luscious rendition of the porkiest version of pork, pickled cucumbers and microgreens. A brisket bun brought this legendarily tough cut to a tenderness I did not know brisket had in it. I could've cut it with a spoon (if any were allowed in the place).
Another great appetizer at Underbelly is the sunomonu salad of octopus, pickled cucumbers, seaweed and two dramatic spears of sesame-seed-encrusted gobo root. It's a beautiful, colorful dish combining the pickled cucumber of a traditional sunomonu, chukka-style seaweed and today's "it" sea beast. Curiously, I was offered a fork.
But Underbelly's food is all about the ramen. With the exception of the charred kimchi version—an out-of-balance dish with wonderful elements that fail to play nicely together—they are all good. The best is the one bearing the restaurant's name: the Underbelly ramen. Char-siu (Chinese barbecued) pork belly, applewood smoked bacon and Kurobuta sausage (a Japanese sausage made from an heirloom breed) combine to headline a dish featuring the same sexy soft-boiled egg, intense pork broth and perfectly cooked alkaline noodles. Garnishes of seaweed, chopped green onion and minced ginger tie it together. It's a symphony in the key of pork.
In fact, it was so good, I forgot to miss my soupspoon.