Beastly Good Bao
Back home in Nippon, ramen shops are located on practically every block downtown. These spots are small, making the most out of a simple menu. You usually go alone to slurp down a bowl of noodles during your lunch break before heading back to work. And if it’s Friday night, you pair the dish with a cold glass of beer to start the weekend right. It’s simple, hearty street food that chefs can dress up or down, as they please.
Which is why the concept of Lucky Belly works so well. Ramen + downtown = perfect match.
Born in the master minds of Dusty Grable and Jesse Cruz, Lucky Belly had its slow opening in early June at the old Mini Garden location on North Hotel Street and picked up momentum to officially open three weeks ago. The place has been completely renovated with concrete floors, brick walls, wooden tables and a bar. Despite the 50-customer limit, the restaurant feels spacious–probably because of the high ceilings. And while the menu may be small, the food is big in flavor. Cruz has fun with it, giving a local, upscale twist to Asian fare that’s reminiscent of Shokudo’s fusion style, except Lucky Belly seems more focused, with a tighter menu that’s not stretched out too thin.
I ate here twice for lunch and once for dinner. Yes, the food was that good.
The first time, the restaurant staff was still scrambling, getting things together to keep up with the lunch crowd. It was a mediocre experience, and our table was unimpressed with the beet salad and the too-salty ramen. I ordered the karaage chicken sandwich ($8), which was zesty with jalapeno vegetable slaw, but a little dry.
My second visit was much better. We walked in at around 12:30pm, and we had about half an hour to pore over the menu. By the time we were seated, we knew what we wanted: the pork belly bao ($7) and a Lucky Bowl ($8) to split.
As I was ordering, a long, rectangular plate with gyoza settled down on the table nearby. The dish looked beautiful, the gyoza perfectly shaped and served with some kind of green sauce and sprouts.
“What’s that?” asked my roommate.
“The shrimp gyoza ($7).”
“Ooooh ! Let’s get that.”
While we waited, the restaurant got busier. The staff has a tough job, because customers usually have only half an hour to eat before heading back to work on time. I was impressed with the waiters’ service, and Grable himself walked to each table to introduce himself and answer questions. “When we have 150 customers, that means we have three turns,” Grable told me the next day over the phone. “[It’s] hard to keep up service without becoming a non-personal, order-taking service. The style and level of service we hope to have with the speed of lunch is sometimes very, very challenging.”
Our appetizers arrived, and they both looked fantastic. Four pork belly baos were lined up next to each other, with a streak of sake hoisin and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. The steamed buns hold a pickle, cilantro and fat slices of pork belly. Each bao is small and goes down in two bites, but they’re deceptively filling. The green stuff we saw on the shrimp gyoza turned out to be edamame and avocado puree. I preferred the bao, while my roommate devoured the shrimp gyoza. The gyoza filling didn’t have enough flavor for me, even with the ponzu sauce.
Both dishes are available during Lucky Belly’s takeout “Window” between 10pm to 2:30am for party animals, bouncers and bartenders.
The Lucky Bowl came in a bowl that was bigger than my face. We split the food into two bowls and proceeded to dig in. Delicious, oishii, ono!
Ramen usually has two dimensions of flavor: the base and then additional seasoning like sesame oil or miso. With the Lucky Bowl, the broth was not even remotely traditional, and I loved it. There was the rich pork base, but the second layer of shoyu, miso and sesame seeds was absolutely “Chef-inspired,” as Grable called it. I couldn’t stop drinking the broth after I was done. And the noodles? Sun noodles, which most local ramen shops use because they’re good stuff. Toppings were excellent: bean sprouts, steamed egg, wakame, sesame seeds, ginger and green onion. I especially loved the kick from the ginger.
There was none of the previous saltiness, which is a credit to Lucky Belly’s careful timing. “We had a theory that if we opened up in waves, it’ll give us a chance to learn, tweak, train and do the best job possible for the actual opening,” Grable said. It’s a good theory, and it’s worked out pretty well.
Grable met chef Jesse Cruz at Formaggio Grill, an upscale Italian restaurant in Kailua. They dreamed of opening a restaurant together, and after three years, Grable left his job as house manager and moved to San Francisco to learn more from “a city that breathes food and beverage,” he said. When Cruz heard about the downtown location, he immediately called up Grable. “There were 12 other applicants, but luckily the landlord found our concept appealing and appropriate for the spot,” Grable said.
Afterwards, we heard that the Beast Bowl ($12) is even better than the Lucky Bowl, but is only offered during dinner because it takes longer to prepare.
How could we resist? We went back the next week. Yes, the rumors were true: The tender brisket, short ribs and juicy oxtail wontons kicked up the flavor, even with the same broth. This bowl was good enough to warrant a fourth trip soon. Maybe tonight.