LITTLE ITALY. Arsalun Tafozoli and Nathan Stanton have a good thing going in San Diego. They create restaurants with character, unique décors, and creative menus that bring loyal followers. Craft and Commerce, Neighborhood, Polite Provisions, Soda and Swine. And Underbelly is no exception.
Curiosity, tempered with skepticism, brought me to Underbelly. People told me that it was primarily a “ramen noodle restaurant” that had some vegan options. Ramen? Really? My experience with ramen was limited to the Machuran noodles and flimsy flavor packets that we grew up eating as kids. To say that Underbelly exceeded my expectations – and redefined my understanding of ramen – would be an understatement.
Underbelly has two ramen bowls that can be made vegan: (1) the Vegetable Ramen and (2) the Spicy Kimchi Ramen. To make either of these bowls vegan, simply request vegan noodles when placing your order. (Otherwise, the default noodles are made from egg.) The broth is made from dry Porcinni mushrooms, miso paste, sesame seed paste, and vegetables. The result is a strong foundation – full of flavor – for both bowls.
My “go to” bowl is the Vegetable Ramen. The Vegetable Ramen comes with truffle oil, Shiitake mushrooms, Hon Shimeji mushrooms, Oyster mushrooms, Enoki mushrooms, and white asparagus. I pretty much love any dish that includes truffle oil, which makes everything taste richer and more decadent. So good!
The mushrooms are exceptional. If you are like me, you grew up eating bland mushrooms stocked in a blue styrofoam container, wrapped in cellophane. The mushrooms in the Vegetable Ramen could not be more different. They bring gravitas to the bowl, a centerpiece, and burst with flavor as if glazed with some buttery coating (which they are not). Even the asparagus is interesting—white asparagus has a milder taste than its green counterpart. (It’s white because it lacks chlorophyll.) Bottom line, if you are going to Underbelly for the first time, and want to try a dish you are sure to love, try the Vegetable Ramen.
The second vegan ramen option is the Charred Spicy Kimchi Ramen. It comes with napa cabbage, rainbow carrots, and Sishito peppers. I have to confess that my love affair with the Vegetable Ramen caused me to wait almost a year before trying the Kimchi Ramen. But I am so happy I finally did. The kimchi gives this bowl has a stronger taste than the Vegetable Ramen. I love the Sishito peppers. They are not spicy – in a traditional sense – but provide a smoky and mild flavor. This bowl is now in my vegan rotation.
Fun fact: Underbelly does not have spoons. Instead, patrons are encouraged to eat the best they can with chop sticks and slurp from their bowls. Loudly. Because it’s way more fun (and somewhere in the world, it’s also good manners.)
If you want to customize your ramen experience, Underbelly offers creative toppings for the bowls. The majority of these options are meat, but there is also a vegan option: the eggplant wrapped tofu. Also, if you need food in your belly before the bowl, you can’t go wrong with the edamame.
Now for the condiments. Although condiments don’t usually merit their own section, these are special. Half the fun of eating at Underbelly is playing around with different spices and oils to customize your bowl!
The first option is the chili pepper sauce that is served in a mason jar. Underbelly uses Ghost and Scorpion peppers, some of the hottest peppers in the world, to create this sauce. I would recommend adding this to a bowl in SMALL increments.
Second, there is Togarashi. Typically, Togarashi contains Chinese chile, orange peel, seaweed, ginger, poppy seeds, and sesame seeds. It is NOT spicy and adds remarkable flavor to any bowl.
Finally, customers can choose to add sesame oil to their dishes. This oil has a mild taste with toasted sesame undertones.
The restaurant sits under an apartment building. To enter, you walk through a hallway lined with succulents and stand in line to place an order. There are seats at the bar (with quality craft beers). There are also seats on the perimeter of the restaurant—both inside and outside (dog friendly!)—allowing for friends to face each other. And there are also seats on a small outdoor patio for good people watching. Perhaps most exciting is the fact that Underbelly is currently remodeling. The restaurant is creating a new, upstairs dining space. Why more space, you ask? Because the food is excellent, and the word is out.
750 W Fir St
San Diego, CA 92101