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