It’s interesting when a traditional food is turned on its head with an attempt to make it more “mainstream.” It’s usually by a young, hip chef wanting to bring something new to the restaurant scene. Take for instance, Underbelly, a somewhat new ramen bar in Little Italy.
It has all the signs of turning ramen into something they hope will catch fire. Big bowls of hot broth (pork or vegetarian in this case) with a variety of toppings. The concept of the restaurant is even further stressed when the bowls are brought out on a rimmed cookie sheet with the server asking you to retrieve your bowl. You see, spoons are not offered here, hence the need to retrieve your own bowl to insure that you can drink the broth straight from the bowl (also stressing that it’s sanitary — you’re the only one allowed to handle the bowl). I couldn’t help thinking that someone had to touch my bowl to place it on the cookie sheet in the first place.
Other eccentricities at Underbelly include ordering at the cashier before taking a seat at the counter. Not a biggie in my mind but if there’s a line of hungry diners behind you, it can be a little stressful to make a decision so it helps that the menu is very limited. With a choice of eight appetizers ranging from shrimp gyoza ($5) to spiced peanuts ($4) and only of five ramen dish entrees ($8-$12), there’s either something here for you or not. I witnessed several potential diners do an about-face after checking out the menu.
The entire restaurant is swanky and dimly lit with limited open seating both indoor and out. They have a large variety of beers on tap and a somewhat neat view of the bay. What it has in style they lose in taste and tradition. Mind you, my bowl— called Belly of the Beast (a pork broth topped with two divine oxtail dumplings, a poached egg and indiscernible slices of smoked brisket and short ribs) — was GOOD but missing something. Namely umami — the fifth, hard-to-define taste sensation that is neither sweet, salty, sour or bitter. Even what should have been a sure-fire hit with the pork laden Underbelly Ramen (slices of char su belly, Applewood-smoked bacon and Korobuta sausage) was overly smoky and salty, overtaking the entire dish but still one-dimensional.
Honoring traditional ramen is where Izakaya Masa steps in. Hidden in a tiny corner in Mission Hills alongside a hairdresser, insurance office and a passel of other shops is this tiny joint. The restaurant is filled with items I expect and have seen in a Japanese ramen house, like Japanese baseball schedules, Mameki Neko and other curiosities. To stress this further, the menu offers both English AND Japanese translations — a good sign in my mind.
What Underbelly lacks, Masa has in tenfold, including the much-desired, tongue-wagging umami.
Their ramen is offered in three sizes and either shoyu (soy sauce-flavored broth), hakata (pork broth) or shio (salt broth)— all with their own unique flavor profile. And they come with spoons! My choice was the shoyu. The rich, deep broth is only enhanced by the flavorable ingredients found in the bowl: sliced pork, seaweed, scallions and of course, noodles.
But ramen in the not the only dish served at Izakaya Masa. You can also get sushi (nigiri and rolls), don-buri, tempura, udon and soba. There’s something for everyone unless you don’t eat Japanese food.
Prices at Izakaya Masa don’t have the added “hipness” surcharge. Their extensive menu ranges $2.95 for edamame to $22.50 for assorted sashimi. Great deals are found here and you won’t leave feeling hungry.
I prefer the quiet tradition and flavors of Izakaya Masa (as well as a slew of other fantastic ramen places in the Convoy area). But if it’s a scene you’re looking for, you’ll pay for it in price as well as lack of taste at Underbelly.
750 W Fir St, Ste 101
San Diego, CA 92101
928 Fort Stockton Dr
San Diego, CA 92103
I’ve heard of Underbelly and the “no spoon” thing kind of throws me for a loop. I’ve been interested in trying it though (and bringing my own spoon). Izakaya Masa will have to go on my to-visit list as well!
Let me know if you’re going to Izakaya Masa and I’ll meet you there! It’s a short walk from my place and I’m always in for good Japanese food.
Oh, oh, can I join? 🙂
Great review, Darlene! I seriously want more ramen in my life and I’ve been meaning to try Izakaya Masa for a while now. I don’t live that far away, so there’s no reason not to drop by.
Hi Darlene, nice write up! I’d choose Masa’s tonkotsu over Underbelly’s too though they’re apples and oranges. Masa tries to recreate a specific tonkotsu ramen of the Hakata variety – white broth and wirery thin noodles. They get big kudos for using the correct noodles for Hakata and will even cook it for you extra al dente proper if you ask (bari kata). I would almost guarantee the umami is synthetic but it’s a comforting flavor profile that I can have over and over. Always loved their cozy atmosphere as well. I found Underbelly’s just a little too heavy handed for me, though many people seem to enjoy it.
Thanks for the comment, Dennis! Great to know about the noodle requests, I’ll keep that in mind on my next visit which I hope is really soon. Yeah, Underbelly was extremely heavy handed but I did appreciate the poached egg in their ramen.
Of course! The invitation is always open!!
Wow – Masa is just down the street – we are so going there for udon – thanks!
Absolutely! It’s our favorite place to go and no driving!
So nice to read about a hot bowl of noodles and soup in the middle of winter. Underbelly, “no spoons?” How is one supposed to eat ramen? I hope chopsticks are offered… It’s great how Masa is “tucked away.” Those are usually the best places!
Yes! Chopsticks are offered — thankfully.
From all the reviews I’ve read about Underbelly, I just haven’t developed a desire to try it. Just can’t get pass the no spoon and how much I pay for underflavored ramen. And Izakaya Masa sounds more my speed. Okay, that’s on my list now!
Some people just love Underbelly even with the price hike. But it’s getting a lot of press so hopefully these people will find another source for good ramen after being exposed to Underbelly.
I love your review because you offered a better alternative to a mediocre restaurant! This cold weather definitely has me in the mood for soup.
Thanks so much!! I’ve read a few reviews and though it would be best to play up an alternative. It’s definitely soup weather!