Prior to ordering from Ramen Belly this week, I had eaten restaurant-quality ramen exactly once — in 2018 while visiting my sister in Portland, Oregon. At the time, it was a novelty, and I didn’t really know what it was, my only previous ramen experience being with the kind that comes in a brick along with a sauce packet. I remember enjoying it, finding it a bit complicated to eat, and that was about it.
Almost four years later, ramen is ubiquitous and available in seemingly endless variations — and given my vague memories of the dish I had in Portland, it felt like it was time to try it again.
Based on a suggestion, my partner and I decided to try Ramen Belly, one of several Iowa City establishments that have opened during the pandemic and seem to be holding their own in exceptionally trying times for the industry.
Ramen Belly (1010 Martin St, Iowa City), located in the Peninsula neighborhood off Dubuque Street, is the brainchild of Takanami founders Andy Diep and John Lieu. The business came to be largely in response to changes in the two men’s lives, including those wrought by the pandemic. With a young child at home, Diep wanted to do something on a smaller scale that might allow for more time with his family. Lieu, who had gone on to work for Marriott, found his hours reduced in response to the pandemic. The closure of Apres, the restaurant formerly located at 1010 Martin St, presented them with an opportunity to try something new.
Ramen Belly opened in April of 2021 and boasts a menu with options ranging from sashimi to poke bowls to the titular ramen. And appropriately for two fathers, the menu also features a kid’s section that isn’t just chicken nuggets and hamburgers.
We ordered short ribs, pot stickers, the ramen in a blanket — which featured ramen noodles nestled in between two tonkatsu filets — and the classic ramen, which came with six-minute eggs and a bunch of fresh veggies.
I’ve eaten and enjoyed many different permutations of both short ribs and pot stickers, and these versions had both familiar characteristics and things that made them a little different. One of the most common preparations of short ribs is to braise them until they fall apart and to then serve them poured over something. These short ribs were cut thin, grilled to medium (a show of skill considering the thin cut) and graced with a touch of sauce, enough to flavor but not so much that the dish took on the texture of a stew. They were served with spicy-sweet housemade pickles.
The pot stickers were filled with mushrooms and braised pork and dressed with a slightly sweet sauce and sliced scallions. The difference came in both the texture of the pork — it had been braised and had a distinct shredded texture, where the fillings of many pot stickers are more akin to a paste — and the mushrooms, which constituted their own separate layer underneath the pork instead of being mixed in. This allowed us to really taste the flavor of each ingredient as well as feel the texture.
The two varieties of ramen were very different. The noodles in the ramen in a blanket were slathered in a creamy garlic sauce, and after my partner cut the tonkatsu into pieces and distributed it throughout the noodles, the dish ate almost like a casserole. The classic ramen was chock full of vegetables — bamboo shoots, bok choy, bean sprouts and corn kernels — cut large and left crisp. The yolk of the egg was the perfect texture, soft and silky but not runny.
I ordered a side of chili oil and swirled some into the dish to give it just a bit of bite. The broth, which is cooked for 24 hours, comes packaged separately so you can add exactly as much you want.
The thing that struck me, on eating ramen for the second time, is that it makes a hearty meal, though none of the components are heavy. The dish makes it easy to eat your vegetables without feeling like you’re eating your vegetables.
Both the well-thought-out menu and the food itself bespeak the experience and talents of Ramen Belly’s owners. And its origin story — two restaurant veterans reinventing themselves and their work for the current phase of their lives — is a perfect metaphor for our times.
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This article was originally published in Little Village issue 303.