Three soups from Underbelly, Zensei Sushi, and Masa
Noodles are hot. The neo-ramen trend—arguably spearheaded in 2004 by NYC super-chef David Chang at Momofuku—has finally hit San Diego. The non-Asian creatives behind Craft & Commerce opened Little Italy’s Underbelly, while ex-Stingaree chef Antonio Friscia christened Gaijin in the Gaslamp. At once exotic, comfort-foodish, budget, nostalgic, simple—soup is a bowl full of gastro-buzzwords. Near Downtown, here are three to slurp:
TRY: UnderBelly Ramen at UnderBelly
WHERE: 750 W. Fir St., Little Italy
These guys are the Eminems of the Asian noodle scene. Run by a pair of “white doofuses”—Arsalun Tafazoli and Nate Stanton, the same duo behind Craft & Commerce—outsiders might be tempted to red-flag them for Hello Kitty poseuring. But Tafazoli studied in China for two years, hopping to Tokyo for ramen fixes. To research the project, he flew back several times and researched the ramen masters (Jun-Ichi Shimazaki, Yamagashi-San and Ivan Orkin). They then flew out ramen consultants to taste-test their creations. Their eponymous ramen is a pork broth that’s thick, almost creamy as you get to the bottom, with ample salt and magnesium balls (key to good ramen). The real treat here is the two thick, broth-marinated cuts of applewood-smoked bacon.
TRY: Chicken Udon at Zensei Sushi
Hot food at a sushi joint? Blasphemy! Unless it’s this gem with the plumpest, most perfectly cooked noodles in town. They’re not just wide loads like pappardelle; they’re three-dimensionally fat. Hearty helpings of chicken, green onions and cabbage make it a filling one-bowl meal. The topcoat of chili powder provides some spicy Asianness without incapacitating your palate. And the chicken stock is what Campbell’s would taste like if it adopted new concepts called “real food” and “flavor."
TRY: Beef Soba at Izakaya Masa
Tucked in the corner of a Mission Hills strip mall you’ll find this tiny restaurant—so authentic it seems boated in from Tokyo. Masa is great for udon and ramen, but it’s the soba that really shines. The buckwheat noodles are thinner, darker, and a bit more earthy. Think 12-grain loaf instead of Wonderbread. Thin-sliced beef complements the lightly salty soy broth, topped with shaved carrot and scallions