Fire tables and an open patio.
3000 Upas Street, San Diego
It took awhile, but Underbelly, the ramen branch of Consortium Holdings' local restaurant empire, finally opened its long-anticipated second location at the North Parker. Its finishing of the corner space at 30th and Upas completes the ambitious urban infill that's been serving La Perla tacos, Influx coffee and Modern Times beer for months now.
And it's the space more than anything that's won me over.
I've long been a regular patron of the original Little Italy location, lured back time and gain by the richness of their tonkotsu broth. Admittedly, I've often opted for takeout, as it's pretty cramped in there, and the restaurant's order-before-you-enter policy hasn't ever helped that. Neither did the late addition of a spiral staircase beside the door that, for awhile, appeared ready to crack some eye sockets with its sharp metal corners.
Chicken liver, heirloom tomato and pork belly yakitori, plus miso ramen. Underbelly.
The new place has resolved this problem by turning the restaurant inside out. You still order at the front, but in the new space, when you turn left you're greeted with a traditional indoor ramen bar. Turn right, and there's a huge, exposed dining area, open to the street with plenty of seating and a lengthy beer bar (you order beer separately now, which is fine if you're not the kind of dude bartenders like to ignore for kicks).
That dining patio's a trip. In most such spaces, the most remarkable detail might be the fire feature, shooting a wall of flame along the center of a couple outdoor tables. Here, though, it may actually be the ceiling, which extends so high into the façade of the building, it may as well not be there — except as cover. I can only guess that, when the weather turns, and a little rain creeps into North Park, sitting at a fire table watching the rain fall a few feet in from of you will make a pretty terrific environment for enjoying a hot bowl of tonkotsu or mushroom-based ramen.
I was eager to check out this unique space, but even more so to check the new menu items. With a larger kitchen space, the new Underbelly has taken to offering yakitori (after 5 p.m.) and a third, miso-flavored broth to their ramen repertoire.
So I ordered the new Miso Ramen, a $9 bowl including pickled garlic, corn, chicken and boiled egg. There was some confusion when I asked whether an egg would be included, so I wound up with two.
I also went in for some yakitori, opting for each of the following items grilled on a wood skewer: pork belly, heirloom tomatoes and chicken liver. I'll have to save chicken hearts for another time, as after nearly twenty-five years eating yakitori I still haven't got the nerve.
The miso broth was fairly tasty. Its saltiness cut nicely against the sweetness of the corn. The chicken turned out to be tipless fried chicken wings – tasty but not exactly easy to eat with noodles, so wound up being something I'd eat with my hands in between bites of ramen.
A gluten-free friend sitting across from me relished the gluten-free noodles in his Underbelly Bowl, which features the restaurant's tonkotsu pork broth along with char-siu belly, thick chunks of bacon and a kurabata sausage. I found myself envious. Yes, I had to try the new miso offering, but it just can't compare to Underbelly's original lineup.
As for the yakitori, it'll do. It's a simple dish and they definitely don't get it wrong. The liver was particularly pungent and great for sharing. The heirloom cherry tomatoes would've tasted great without the small amount of melted cheese, and the pork belly would have impressed me more if I didn't know how great it tastes in the ramen, or prepared sous vide in their steamed buns.
There's no question the newly built Underbelly is an upgrade, just whether the new menu items will compete with their tried and true dishes. It doesn't really matter, the place can still count itself North Park's best new eatery.