Last night I ate amazing food again. I do it on the reg (how annoy is the shortening of already easy to pronounce words? I suppose it would sound silly if I said I eat well on the regular, I eat good food regularly. There. On the reg is more fun, carries more humor, coolness. I like English. I eat damn good food on a regular basis! Boom. ). But seriously, I like food, a lot, and meals have always been the highlight of my day, the key to unlocking a good memory (my Mom or a friend will say “what were you/I/they wearing?” how the hell do I know? Was there food? Did I eat it? Did I enjoy it? Then maybe I’ll recollect whatever bullshit we’re conjuring up.), and the barometer for how well I’m living, have little to do with money and much to do with nourishment, feeling full inside and out. Eating well is a key to living a quality life and throughout my travels and personal quests to find more, how I eat has evolved tremendously. You leave home and you eat like shit for a while until you figure out a groove. Unfortunately, middle America and small town, USA are sincerely lacking in culinary exploration, healthy options and independently owned restaurants. Finding that spot in your area will be the exception, not the rule, and by all means eat at that special place until your heart is content and belly is warm, but I must urge you to branch out from Chili’s and the countless half-assed chain restaurants and do the necessary research or drive the required miles to find it. And if you live in or around Chicago, you must scrape the black frozen gunk off your car, shovel the snow out from behind your tires, gun it backward so you don’t get stuck and then gun it forward so you gain momentum and race out of your suburb and into the urb (short for urban: see ‘reg’ discussion above) for some Urban Belly.
I walked 6 blocks and took the 77 Belmont bus to California avenue, got off and walked a few blocks south of Elston to the tiny parking lot where Urban Belly rests, wafting savory, East Asian fragrance into the crisp Chicago air. When you do not have a car or loads of money to take cabs everywhere, certain restaurants can be a chore. I recommend you share a cab with friends, score a ride with someone you trust, and/or suck it up, pay the $2.25 and make the trek to whatever this neighborhood is. It’s beyond worth the effort getting there. It’s near previously reviewed favorites, Hot Doug’s and Kuma’s. Urban Belly’s interior is clean, modern while also feeling rustic, dimly lit, with long wood tables for you to share your meal with groups of people you love and people you’ll soon come to like. Eating is most definitely a community experience and similar to my other favorite place with a similar set up, Crisp, you’ll find yourself engaging and negotiating with folks sharing a similar appetite as you finagle your way into a seat, atop the beautiful wood-carved, short stools surrounding each rectangular table. You order at the front, take a number and then hopefully find your seats.
Their menu is broken down into Dumplings, Rice, Noodles and Sides, with 4-5 tantalizing items in each bunch. During my first trip, we ordered a side of kimchee, made seasonally so the spices and textures vary depending on the time of year, but the quality is always top notch, the spice just right and the flavor out of this world. There was none left once our entrees came, which takes a surprisingly short amount of time. I’m a whore for Udon, a thick, girthy noodle resembling some beautiful combination of a spaghetti noodle and partially characteristics of a dumpling you might find in the south, accompanied by chicken. They’re almost as thick as my pinkie, which is fairly alienesque but thick enough that you can imagine. They soak up flavor, are smooth and long with the ideal consistency and texture. Both times I ordered a noodle dish that included Udon and I do not regret it. Last night I had the #11: Udon, Shrimp, Coriander and Sweet Chili Lime Broth. It also comes with excellent oyster mushrooms (easily removed for you crazies who don’t like them) and these must-be-experienced-to-be-fully-understood bread dumpling balls, soup’s answer to the salad’s crouton. They round out the bowl of goodness perfectly. My partner in consumption ordered the #10: Soba Noodles, Bay Scallops, Oyster Mushrooms and Thai Basil Broth. The Soba is brown, thinner, with a nice hearty texture also ideal for soaking up flavor. The broth is so beautiful, dark hues with green residue floating to the top, providing such a unique and memorable flavor, you just want to drink it.
I saved half and literally ate the other 4 hours later before I went to bed. I craved it again that quickly. These are dishes we all love; noodles, rice, dumplings, but set up on such a creative building block and executed with flair, truly taken to the next level. You’ll love it and although the menu and ingredient list is short, the end result tastes so extraordinary, decadent even, that a casual dining experience just catapults to a special occasion because of the unbelievable escapade happening in your mouth. I read about Urban Belly in an airplane magazine once. It spoke of head chef, Bill Kim and what an impeccable product and experience he’s giving Chicagoans, and how he’s showcasing this cuisine in a new light. It is worth the trek and worth the cost (the portions are pretty generous, but noodle dishes run from $11-13, rice and dumpling $7-9 and sides a reasonable $4-6). I could eat there weekly and would if I was close and had unlimited funds. Instead I prefer to make it a treat, earn my keep and get amped for another satisfying adventure sampling Chicago fare. You gotta come to this city.
You should also be aware of owner and chef, Bill Kim’s other Chicago eatery, Belly Shack, located on 1918 N. Western Ave and showcasing an awesome Latin/Asian fusion. I had an amazing Asian meatball sandwich with rice noodles, bean sprouts and mint in a warm pita. Man, I need to go back there pronto, satisfy the craving before I go crazy. Both Urban Belly and Belly Shack are open for lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, closed Mondays, coincidentally the day I’m always craving it. They’re conveniently B.Y.O.B. and are very vegetarian friendly. I’d give each a whirl when you have a mo (short for moment, see ‘urb’ above).
A lesson I’m learning is it’s not always fruitful for me to be the person who eats the most in one sitting. It never occurred to me that I was doing that, I wasn’t engaging in some sort of competition or urging myself to finish every meal or eat more feverishly than everyone else, but I certainly let my eyes fool my stomach and let my unconsciousness fool the rest of me. I now eat much more consciously, whether it be in which establishments I choose to support, the food I choose to purchase and bring home, or how I enjoy the meal itself. I’m living much more present, not in a rush to finish my food for fear it’ll be the last time I eat and therefore I must eat before someone else takes it away, and certainly not shoving hordes of ingredients down my gullet in such a way that I barely recall the meal. I want to savor it, enjoy it, masticate, swirly it around my mouth to fully experience every flavor and then wash it down with some water to give my esophagus and digestive system a break, a little thank you from it’s host. Our bodies are machines. We must treat them as such. Challenge it, but only so far. Honoring the food you’re eating will make overall dining more enjoyable for you and easier on your body.
Eat quality. Chew adequately. Swallow carefully. Rinse. Repeat. Enjoy.