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Underbelly’s neon noodle showcase

San Diego’s original ramen sensation brings ‘em back with bright lights

It's not Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, but a corner of Little Italy.
It's not Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, but a corner of Little Italy.

However much I might like a restaurant these days, it’s tough to achieve regular customer status with a food writing gig that always has me on the lookout for new and different. But when Underbelly first opened in Little Italy ten years back, I was a regular, willing to line up and cram myself into the downtown area’s first dedicated ramen joint on a near weekly basis.

That is, at first.

Place

Underbelly

750 W. Fir Street #101, San Diego

While I continued to show up for slurpable noodles and a decadent tonkotsu pork bone broth — augmented with the bite of the house ghost chili paste — it wasn’t long before I transitioned to regular take-out customer. Mainly out of self-preservation.

Despite limited elbow room in a corner property fashioned around a large, island bar, the place practically reveled in the hard edges of industrial architecture. The cramped layout meant that, to get in or out, people constantly had to squeeze past each other while dodging a gauntlet of sharp metal corners. At some point, a spiral staircase, installed just inside the entrance, proved so perilous that management had to put up a cautionary sign, warning customers to avoid injury. I learned quickly that I am far too clutzy to do so.

A bowl of tonkotsu ramen (take-out), with short rib and oxtail dumplings

A decade on, dozens of ramen bars have opened across the county, and we’ve seen that confined dining is a feature, not a bug. Which has made take-out noodles much more commonplace these past couple years. It’s almost as though I was ahead of the times.

Though cool weather has definitely put me in a pork broth kind of mood of late, deciding to revisit this original Underbelly location had everything to do with a recent remodel. Yes, that staircase is still there — better buffered now, and leading to a small, second level dining area, above the bar. And so are the clever, space-saving windows that open flat to become glass tabletops.

Customers dine in red and blue light as a line forms outside.

Mostly what has changed is that the entire place is now covered in neon lights. Looking like something straight out of Tokyo’s famed Shinjuku nightlife district, the new-look Underbelly has transformed this corner of Little Italy into a bright blue and red attraction.

These days, close quarters bring greater concerns than whether one might bang an elbow (or forehead) on hard furniture. But don’t tell the long line of customers I found lined up and waiting for a place in Underbelly’s new light bulb of a bar. Masked, unmasked, old, young — all convened like a collective omicron F-U. Maybe they know something I don’t.

A pork belly bento box with cucumber salad, kimchi, and beef gyoza

For my part, it was back to take-out, just like the old days. Except for one key improvement: the restaurant’s original neon sign, a large white arrow, now points to a makeshift take-out window that opens to the sidewalk. I didn’t have to test my booster or risk any body parts to pick up my old favorite, belly of the beast ramen, with its toppings of braised short rib and oxtail dumplings ($14).

And to complete its more takeout-friendly makeover, the stylish ramen spot now offers bento boxes, including a vegan option led by tempura eggplant. Even the pork belly bento leans on kimchi and Underbelly’s terrific cucumber salad to go with beef gyoza and rice ($12).

Everything may not taste exactly the same as it did back in 2011, but if there’s one thing that can make a take-out experience more enjoyable, it’s a light show.

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It's not Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, but a corner of Little Italy.
It's not Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, but a corner of Little Italy.

However much I might like a restaurant these days, it’s tough to achieve regular customer status with a food writing gig that always has me on the lookout for new and different. But when Underbelly first opened in Little Italy ten years back, I was a regular, willing to line up and cram myself into the downtown area’s first dedicated ramen joint on a near weekly basis.

That is, at first.

Place

Underbelly

750 W. Fir Street #101, San Diego

While I continued to show up for slurpable noodles and a decadent tonkotsu pork bone broth — augmented with the bite of the house ghost chili paste — it wasn’t long before I transitioned to regular take-out customer. Mainly out of self-preservation.

Despite limited elbow room in a corner property fashioned around a large, island bar, the place practically reveled in the hard edges of industrial architecture. The cramped layout meant that, to get in or out, people constantly had to squeeze past each other while dodging a gauntlet of sharp metal corners. At some point, a spiral staircase, installed just inside the entrance, proved so perilous that management had to put up a cautionary sign, warning customers to avoid injury. I learned quickly that I am far too clutzy to do so.

A bowl of tonkotsu ramen (take-out), with short rib and oxtail dumplings

A decade on, dozens of ramen bars have opened across the county, and we’ve seen that confined dining is a feature, not a bug. Which has made take-out noodles much more commonplace these past couple years. It’s almost as though I was ahead of the times.

Though cool weather has definitely put me in a pork broth kind of mood of late, deciding to revisit this original Underbelly location had everything to do with a recent remodel. Yes, that staircase is still there — better buffered now, and leading to a small, second level dining area, above the bar. And so are the clever, space-saving windows that open flat to become glass tabletops.

Customers dine in red and blue light as a line forms outside.

Mostly what has changed is that the entire place is now covered in neon lights. Looking like something straight out of Tokyo’s famed Shinjuku nightlife district, the new-look Underbelly has transformed this corner of Little Italy into a bright blue and red attraction.

These days, close quarters bring greater concerns than whether one might bang an elbow (or forehead) on hard furniture. But don’t tell the long line of customers I found lined up and waiting for a place in Underbelly’s new light bulb of a bar. Masked, unmasked, old, young — all convened like a collective omicron F-U. Maybe they know something I don’t.

A pork belly bento box with cucumber salad, kimchi, and beef gyoza

For my part, it was back to take-out, just like the old days. Except for one key improvement: the restaurant’s original neon sign, a large white arrow, now points to a makeshift take-out window that opens to the sidewalk. I didn’t have to test my booster or risk any body parts to pick up my old favorite, belly of the beast ramen, with its toppings of braised short rib and oxtail dumplings ($14).

And to complete its more takeout-friendly makeover, the stylish ramen spot now offers bento boxes, including a vegan option led by tempura eggplant. Even the pork belly bento leans on kimchi and Underbelly’s terrific cucumber salad to go with beef gyoza and rice ($12).

Everything may not taste exactly the same as it did back in 2011, but if there’s one thing that can make a take-out experience more enjoyable, it’s a light show.

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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