Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Off the Map: We're Not in Kansas Anymore. Or We Are

Rice Noodles with Hominy, Kimchi and Spicy Pork Broth -- Urban Belly, Chicago, IL
Urban Belly

It is not easy to be too early for lunch at a place that opens at 11am.  It is even harder to be too early for lunch at a place that opens at 11am IN CHICAGO.  Yet here we are.
Our Kind of Town? Only Time Will Tell
After an early morning flight from New York and an entirely-too-pleasant-for-a-subway ride ("We're not in Kansas anymore.  Or we are"), we are now in the midst of dragging our suitcases around Logan Square, wasting time until Urban Belly opens their doors.
Outdoor Subways? Did We Take a Wrong Turn and End Up in Queens?
After a pit stop to drink iced tea in the equivalent of a sidewalk crate, and another to purchase new sunscreen after the TSA unceremoniously stole Vodka's, we wander our way up the the strip mall in which Urban Belly is located.
Jailhouse-Style Iced Tea
Helpfully Located Next to a Dry Cleaners In Case We Spill Food on Our Luggage
At exactly 11:02am, we pry open the front doors of the establishment and are greeted by the employees' quizzical looks.
So What You're Saying Is Not Everyone Drags Rolling Suitcases Through Your Door the Second You Open?
We approach the counter with purpose and order chicken and mushroom dumplings, along with Art Smith's HOT AND SPICY Best Thing I Ever Ate choice of rice noodles with hominy, kimchi, and spicy pork broth. 
When in Rome, Do Like the Ramen
It soon becomes clear to us that we have actually chosen the ideal time to dine at Urban Belly, because the place features only communal tables for eating.  As we hate to socialize with anyone but ourselves, this situation would be far from ideal had any other customers actually been present.
We Never Received Top Marks for "Plays Well With Others"
Luckily, not only are we completely alone, but we are the prestigious recipients of the  "#1" table marker -- you know, in case it were not obvious who had ordered the mid-morning kimchi noodles.
Everybody Cross Your Fingers That That Don't Deliver Our Soup to the Wrong People!
When our food arrives, we place our spoons into the soup tentatively, visions of sliced fish szechuan style and mirchi ka salan dancing in our spice-intolerant heads.  Transferring small portions of the concoction into smaller bowls, we dabble bits of the broth on our lips, trying to discern what we are up against.
Multiple Bowls + No Ladle = Not All That Helpful
When our insides do not scald on impact, we venture deeper inside, making our way through the long, chewy noodles, the kimchi leaves, and the balls of hominy.  The soup is somehow refreshing despite its level of spice, and while it eventually does make our noses run, we are pleasantly surprised by how much flavor it maintains.
In Other Words, We're Not Dead Yet
Sprinkled in the soup are thick, chewy white ovals which we are too uncultured to identify, yet mildly obsessed with their taste and texture.
The Inner Workings of the Sinus-Clearing Ramen
The same holds true for the rice noodles, as our only complaint about them is that there should be more of them.
For Future Reference, We Will Never Dispute a Large Helping of Carbs
Gulping glass after glass of water, we make it about halfway through the large bowl before giving up, which is no small feat concerning our near-death experiences with the other Best Thing I Ever Ate HOT AND SPICY dishes.
Ten Points for the Self-Serve Water, By the Way
Turning to the chicken and mushroom dumplings, we find them even more enjoyable than the soup.
Urban Belly's Answer to the Pierogie
Crispy and pan-fried on the outside with ground meat and scallions on the inside, they rest atop mushroom slices, and if given the opportunity, we could have eaten a full dozen of them.
And Were We Not Still Inconspicuously Urban Belly's Only Diners, We Just Might Have Tried
As we finish our lunch, Ginger begins rambling some narcissistic accolades concerning our mission, summing up our service, "This is useful information -- after all, people need to eat.  It's not like we're just buying shoes."
No, Rating the Country's Population of Dumplings Is a Much More Significant Cultural Contribution....
A waitress arrives with our bill and some ginger candies, which make Ginger entirely too excited.  After we procure our change, Vodka asks Ginger, with notable panic in her voice, "Did you take your cash?"

"No, the other patrons stole it," Ginger answers, gesturing around the empty restaurant.
Safety First When It Comes to Loose Change!
Apparently, crossing state lines and time zones is not enough to curb our penchant for odd behavior, especially when it comes to irregular eating times.  We stumble through the door and the employees call goodbye to us in a decidedly "thank goodness the weirdos are finally leaving" tone.
It's Okay -- After All, This Is What You People Call a "Beach"
"They knew there was something up with us," we surmise.  But this underlying sense of bemused judgment has never stopped us before, Chicago, and you're most certainly not going to slap the crazy out of us now.
Urban Belly's Rice Noodles with Hominy, Kimchi and Spicy Pork Broth: 4 stars

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