Huh. Row of guys’ butts bulging out onto the sidewalk, right where Fir crosses Kettner. This has to be the first place I’ve seen where people actually sit up to a bar on the street, drinking and eating. Very cool.
750 W. Fir Street #101, Little Italy
And for me, the main reason it’s so cool is this is Sunday night, ten o’clock. Where else are you gonna find a place open for meals? Especially here on Kettner, Little Italy’s off-Broadway, second-string street.
Which is why I’m staring at these guys chowing down at the li’l place wedged into the downslope corner of a newish, black, corporate-style building.
Turns out this is the original Underbelly, the ramen place, and, seeing how people are still waiting in line in the dark, they’re not closing anytime soon.
Ian Anderson wrote a really great breakdown of Underbelly, their North Park outfit. What he doesn’t know about pork belly and egg noodles ain’t worth knowing. Personally, my best pork-belly noodles yet were at Yamadaya, down at Fourth and Broadway.
But, I cross over and join the line that shuffles into a narrow entrance beside a spiral staircase, and then on to the bar.
“Yes, open till midnight, seven days,” says the guy manning the order book.
Now I need to make a simple decision: a beef underbelly or a pork underbelly in the soup. I mean, we’re talking Japanese comfort food here. Slab of meat in a miso soup with some egg noodles swirling? What could be more basic? Except now, a mystique has grown around ramen and noodles.
So, I’m checking the menu. “Belly of the Beast” has to be the beef ramen. Has, natch, the soft-boiled egg, with oxtail dumplings, smoked brisket, and hoisin-glazed short rib. Twelve bucks. This option’s mighty attractive. The dumplings, the short rib glazed with sweetish hoisin sauce.
Except, really want pork. That’s what I thought ramen was all about. And the pork carries the company name: “Underbelly Ramen.” It has the egg, chashu belly (turns out that means a sort of soy-sauce-marinated braised slab of meat), applewood-smoked bacon, and adobo pulled pork. Also $12.
They have a couple of vegetable ramens: one with mushrooms and asparagus, the other with blackened cauliflower, broccoli, and fried brussels sprouts. Each costs $10. Or, keep it really simple and for nine bucks just go for the tonkotsu broth ramen. Only $9, and you still get the boiled egg.
But, d’agh, I go for the pork. Chashu belly. And while I’m about it, a beer. They have lots of good craft stuff. I get the Modern Times Black House oatmeal coffee stout ($7).
I’m going to take my Black House up to one of the outside seats on the Fir Street side, but one of the crew stops me. “We only have a license for drinks on the Kettner side,” he says.
“Whuh? We can drink on Kettner, but not on Fir?”
He shakes his head. “ABC rules,” is all he’ll say.
I sit up to the Kettner counter. “Ramen?” says this customer to his buddies. “It got me through college. Whenever I was low on cash, I’d get a pack of Maruchan instant ramen noodle soup and a couple of small cans of tuna, heat, mix, and get my full dose of carbs and protein. Three or four bucks. Now ramen’s the cool thing. Who knew? Noodles!”
Cook comes up from the kitchen balancing a tray of ramen bowls. He lowers it in front of me. “Can you take the first one?” he says. Seems kinda funny he doesn’t set it in front of me himself.
“I need you to take it,” he says. “Most people slurp the broth direct from the bowl. So we keep our fingers off of the rims.”
Huh. Takes a moment, but now I get it, that’s an idea I like. He hands out napkins and chopsticks and scoots around a kinda cruet loaded with soy sauce, ghost pepper paste, sesame oil, and dried peppers. The whole broth glints with brilliant green seaweed and chopped scallions floating in the middle, bean sprouts, sesame seeds, that shredded adobo pulled pork, fatty pieces of the braised chashu belly, egg noodles somewhere underneath, and of course, the soup itself. Oh, and the boiled egg bobbing white like a beluga whale, slowly cooking in the broth.
I read somewhere that the soup should have the color of milk and the consistency of melted butter. This sure has the creamy consistency, and seems rich from the first slurp.
Tonkotsu means “pork bones” in Japanese. That’s basically what the broth is made from. (Don’t confuse it with tonkatsu, which is a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet.) The whole soupy idea has Chinese roots, but it seems this ramen dish isn’t that ancient: it only started as cheap food for laborers at fish markets in Yokohama around 1910.
Mine, with the shredded pork, the bacon, and the big fatty chunks of pork belly, is gut-stretch filling. Taste-wise, pours of sesame oil make it sexier and splots of the togarashi “ghost pepper” paste (which is tears-in-your-eyes hot if you taste it straight) really kick it up. But the part I enjoy most is just that danged slurping of the broth. The thick lip, the silky liquids getting more umami by the bowl-tip...dang, but it’s good. And actually, with this, there’s no need to buy a drink.
So what’s not to love? Japanese comfort food at this industrial-chic scene, being able to swagger up to a counter right on the street is already something. Getting fed until midnight, seven days a week? Priceless.
750 W. Fir Street #101, Little Italy
Hours: 11:30 a.m.—12 a.m. daily
Prices: Shrimp gyoza, $5 for five; teriyaki chicken salad with pomegranate, $8; beef brisket bun, $7; tempura eggplant bun, $6; pulled-pork bun, $7; Underbelly ramen, $12; Belly of the Beast ramen, $12; Seedy Side ramen (with blackened cauliflower, fried brussels sprouts), $10; onkotsu ramen (no meat), $8
Nearest Bus Stops: India at Cedar (northbound); Kettner at Grape (southbound)
Trolley: Green Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: County Center/Little Italy