Kewpie, spread on top of the ramen nachos, is a rice vinegar mayo.
“The whole ramen thing again?” says my friend Annie. We’re on the phone.
“No. This is like the original, and IMHO the best,” I say. “Come on down! Sun’s got two fists to go!”
750 W. Fir Street #101, San Diego
Up to now, I’ve been looking all over for a decent Happy Hour here in Little Italy. I mean, yes, there’s no shortage. And plenty of solid streetside eating shelters, too. Makes India Street look full and busy. I stop off around Cedar to say hello to Mr. Pecoraro, who’s sitting on the porch of his house, as he usually does this time of day. He has lived here ever since he started his house-painting business decades ago. Today, woah! There’s a gold Bentley parked outside. I have to wonder if it’s his. I’m about to ask, when one of his sons comes up with something to sign.
Cassandra, keeps the party going.
So I hustle on up India. I look down Fir towards the sparkling blue bay. Hmm. Cafe Gratitude, the LA vegan chain. It’s right there on Kettner. Have to take a look.
Its windows are filled with self affirmations for us to mutter. “I am cozy. I am rejuvenated. I am bright eyed. I am immortal. I am luscious. I am awakening.”
Ayee! How much forced positivity can a guy take?
Luckily, it’s right opposite the place I was talking to Annie about. Underbelly. One of my faves, even though I haven’t been in maybe three years. Think this was one of the earliest eateries this brilliant guy, Arsalun Tafazoli, started. Now? He’s hard to keep up with. Think (and take a deep breath) Neighborhood, Noble Experiment, Craft and Commerce, Polite Provisions, Soda and Swine, Raised By Wolves, on and on. Guy’s got the touch.
Annie says she’ll be here “soon.” I don’t wait, because the sign says Happy Hour is 3 pm to 5 pm. Don’t want to miss it. Of course, even if I did, I see the normal prices are totally reasonable. Nothing over $12, and lots around the $4-$6 mark. How do they do that, with the rents up here so legendary?
UB Street Dog. Excellent Kurubota sausage, and bacon wrapper helps. Deal at $2.50!
“Reasonably authentic,” says the menu, talking about its food. That is so cool. I head down the slightly awkward ramp to where the counter jackknifes around the entrance.
“What’s it going to be, my good man?” It’s this perky gal, Cassandra.
“What do you have for Happy Hour?”
“Well, we have half-off San Diego beers, so we’re talking three, four dollars a pint.”
“Oh yes. Not the full ramen, but we have like ramen nachos for $6, our street dog for $2.50, boiled edamame $2, and kimchi wings for a buck each. At least for the next half hour.”
Heck, can’t argue with that. Plus, even non-Happy Hour prices are great. The “No Name” ramen bowl promises “thiccck” & rich chicken broth, duck confit, chard, leeks, bok choy, pickled ginger, yuzu paste, plus soft-boiled egg, green onions, and mayu (black garlic) oil, for $12. The Underbelly Ramen is built around tonkotsu (slow-cooked pork bones) broth (which was born in southern Japan, just about on the same latitude as San Diego). Or Chashu belly (braised for a long time), plus smoked bacon and adobo pulled pork. Costs $12. A “herbivore” version costs $10.
Somewhere in there, kimchi wings.
Under “small plates,” I’m also looking at the shrimp gyoza (gyoza is wonton wrappers stuffed with pork, cabbage, and onion). Costs $6. And among the baos (stuffed buns), the tempura eggplant ($7) looks like fun.
But no. I decide to stick with happy hour. Beer first, natch. I like that they list them under light/crispy/sweet, malty/dark, and hoppy/bitter. And all are San Diego brews. I go for “The Butcher” by Societe, an imperial stout, usually $8, but $4 HH. Then, eats-wise, have to start off with two of those buck-apiece kimchi wings, and then mainly the ramen nachos. Original idea. It’s supposed to be crispy noodle “chips” under pulled pork, with green onions, kewpie (mayonnaise made with rice vinegar), soy glaze, pickled red fresno peppers, and furikake (a condiment made from dried fish, sesame seeds and seaweed). Six dollars. And heck, why not? I get a UB Street Dog. It’s only $2.50. Made of bacon-wrapped kurubota (“black pig”) sausage, in a steamed bun with umami mustard, scallions, and sautéed onions. Wow. All those items for a Hamilton? Deal. (Okay, $10.50, plus $4 for the beer.)
I pay up first — that’s the system here — grab a number, and head for the inside-outside counter stools on Kettner. Butcher stout’s in a smaller glass. Turns out it’s almost 10% alcohol. And a little sweet, just like the food. Love it. For starters, those wings really are crispy. They mix the kimchi vinegariness with the creamy mayo and crunchy garlic. It’s a mess, but you’ve just got to use your fingers and chomp into the whole snake pit of carrots, onions and, somewhere in there, the actual wings. The street dog is also hard not to love. Beautifully peppery, tempered by the steamed bun.
But really, the big act is the ramen nachos. The “chips” are a hotbed of the mostly crunchy noodles, and with those bright red fresno peppers on top, they’re an irresistible frame for the pulled pork. Don’t dilly-dally on the ramen noodle chips, though. They can get tough if they dry out.
Just before 5 o’clock, I rush up and get a Hopmata Burning Beard West Coast IPA ($4). But what about Annie? Ayee! I do a rush scan of the menu. Decide on a chicken katsu salad for her. Lots of roasted cashews, curry tahini dressing. She’s into salads. $10. It’s not included in happy hour, but I don’t hesitate.
Guess that’s just the kind of guy I am. Does Annie appreciate this?
- The Place: Underbelly, 750 W Fir Street, at Kettner, 619-269-4626 (also at 3000 Upas Street, on 30th, North Park, 619-487-9909)
- Hours: 11:30am-10:30pm (drinks till 11pm), daily
- Happy Hour Prices: Ramen nachos, $6; UB Street Dog, $2.50; boiled edamame, $2; kimchi wings, $1 each
- Regular Prices: “No Name” ramen bowl, $12; The Underbelly Ramen (in tonkotsu pork bones broth, with chashu belly, smoked bacon, pulled pork), $12; “herbivore” version, $10; shrimp gyoza, $6; tempura eggplant baos, $7
- Buses: 83, 280, 290
- Nearest Bus Stops: India and Cedar (83 northbound); Kettner and Grape (83 southbound; Pacific Highway and Grape (280, 290)