3000 Upas Street, North Park
Take a look at the noodle landscape surrounding San Diego’s urban core these days, and you’ll find a dozen dedicated ramen bars. But when Consortium Holdings opened Underbelly in Little Italy five years ago, most of the city’s ramen was found in Kearny Mesa.
Underbelly quickly became a regular stop of mine. Open late and conveniently located on the way home from the gym, its ten-dollar signature Underbelly bowl of ramen stacked with soft boiled egg, pork belly, bacon, and kurabata sausage quickly evolved from habit to craving, and soon the whole staff knew me by name.
But it wasn’t just the variety of meats, affordability, and ghost chili pepper paste that kept bringing me back. It was the rich, creamy white tonkotsu with hints of ginger, garlic, and sesame flowing through hours’-steeped pork bone marrow broth. While some in town joked often about the soup car’s very Consortium-like refusal to provide spoons, I just grabbed the bowl by both hands and drank it in.
It’s only after Underbelly added a second, larger location in North Park in 2014 that it started to change. I was initially excited by menu additions including a miso-based broth served with corn and chicken toppings, but the fried, bone-in chicken didn’t do it for me, and the miso couldn’t compete with its tonkotsu.
Then a year or so back, Underbelly brought in a new excutive chef, and the kurabata sausage disappeared from the Underbelly bowl in favor of adobo pulled pork. I embraced the change at first, but with the new topping, the broth also changed. It became less creamy white and more beige, acquiring a thinner body and a saltier earthier taste.
In the meantime, names such as Tajima, Yamadaya, and RakiRaki were moving into the downtown/uptown area, giving me plenty of other ramen choices. I didn’t give up on Underbelly entirely, but its top spot in my ramen-hungry heart gave way to other tonoktsu broths and chashu pork.
Last month Underbelly unveiled a new menu, brought about by another new executive chef. I was excited to revisit, hoping to recapture some of that old magic. I discovered the Underbelly ramen nixed the bacon. But when I learned a new chicken ramen featured a boneless chicken confit served with corn and bamboo shoots in a tonkotsu broth, I had high hopes.
I was disappointed. Though I’m a massive fan of sesame, the new broth had enough to give it a nutty flavor, slightly pasty texture, and a dull brown cloudiness, rather than white. Red chili paste added spice but compounded the separation of fat from the broth as a whole, further detracting from what was once a beautifully creamy texture. On the plus side, the pulled chicken confit was tender and juicy, its saltiness balanced nicely by the sweetness of the crisp corn. I added an optional veggie topping — carrots and broccoli — which didn’t make it better, but did at least balance the meal nutritionally.
In most things I’m not averse to change, but I wish the Underbelly of 2017 was more like the Underbelly of 2012. Perhaps its evolving ramen is meant to keep up with a local population more attuned to ramen life, but I can’t help but think that if that Underbelly had debuted with its current menu, I wouldn’t even be having this conversation.