Dec. 12 2011 08:49 PM

Little Italy's new noodle and beer bar

underbellysandiego
Photo by Amy T. Granite

With an open mind and growling stomach, I cozied up next to the 27 brass taps that gleam like jewels at Underbelly (750 West Fir St.), Little Italy's pioneering ramen joint that neatly seats 52 in just 1,100 square feet. With a design unlike the wine bar that used to be there, the space—engineered by the urban-social-club connoisseurs behind Neighborhood, Noble Experiment and Craft & Commerce—is designed to put noodle-slurping craft-beer lovers face-to-face from lunchtime to late-night, thanks to folding glass windows that serve as indoor-outdoor communal tables.

On a Sunday afternoon, seats were plenty and my order was up in less than 10 minutes; however, at night, prepare to wait as the alluring glow of the lit-from-beneath, U-shaped bar beckons with steaming bowls of soup and frosty brews.

The Underbelly Ramen ($10) comes with traditional char-su pork belly, chunks of applewood smoked bacon and Kurobuta pork sausage link. Floating in a bowl of rich broth made from pig parts, chewy ramen noodles come with familiar stuff like crunchy bean sprouts, sesame seeds, green onion and nori, plus a soy-sauce-soaked, soft-boiled egg whose yolk runs throughout.

Diners can build their own ramen with either pork-based or vegan-friendly broths, choosing from a list of add-ons that include, among other things, broiled unagi ($4), bacon-wrapped mushrooms, shisito peppers and beef brisket (each $3).

Hitachino Nest White Ale—a  menu mainstay brewed in Japan that blends sake distilling techniques and Belgian-beer inspired flavors—is the namesake ramen's match. Its fruity and spicy characteristics accentuate the soup with a similar effect that applesauce has on pork chops, or mint jelly with lamb.

Every component in the seemingly bottomless bowl kicks ass; the smoky sausage snaps like all good dogs should, the addition of sake-braised oxtail dumplings ($2) burst with beefy flavor, and the star of the show—alkaline noodles—are bouncy, toothsome and as good as any I've slurped on Convoy Street.

Yes, the price is slightly higher, but there's no feedlot meat here, and funky fish cakes aren't missed, either. Another purposefully missing element is a spoon—but what some might consider an act of soup-Nazism is in fact a blessing and reason to dive in face first. 


Amy blogs at saysgranite.com and you can follow her on Twitter @saysgranite.

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