Udon noodles hold a special place in my heart. I think I made as much clear when I gushed over Rodan's udon noodles in vegan broth, which I stumbled upon back in February. So it must have been fate when, on a recent visit to Urbanbelly, in Avondale, I discovered yet another bowl of transcendent udon.
Urbanbelly devotees may suspect that I'm referring to the udon with shrimp, coriander, and sweet chili lime broth off the regular noodle menu. But what you see above is actually a rare but recurring special noodle bowl that, according to the counter staff on the day of my visit, surfaces about three times a year for a roughly month-long engagement: udon noodles, Asian bolognese, Tasso ham, mushrooms, and bok choy ($13).
Spaghetti with meat sauce, you are now under chef Bill Kim's control.
Indeed, like the best Italian pasta dishes, this bowl turns on an intimate duet between noodles and sauce. Complementing the commanding presence of a wonderfully cooked bed of udon noodles—which are so dense, springy, and slippery, they must be chased to be eaten—the chili-like, black-bean-studded "Asian bolognese" is meaty, juicy, earthy, and complexly flavored. The sauce's lacing of fennel seed is like a rinse of absinthe to a finely crafted cocktail, and sliced bok choy—which you'd think would get lost in this stew of big flavors—provides the crunch needed to offset the weightier ingredients.
But let's not overlook the regular noodle menu, which includes winners like the rice cake noodles ($12) with sliced fried-chicken cutlet, cubed mango, fish-sauce-spiked tofu, and Korean chili spices. How amazing is that ingredient list? But the weirdly awesome noodles hiding beneath all that goodness need a moment's recognition. Gummy and dense in the best possible way, these noodles have an oblong disk shape that recalls a penny after it's been flattened by one of those old-time carnival games; each one is like a single mutant grain of rice, pounded pancake-flat with a mallet. The broth is bright, tomatoey and kicking with spice, which makes the sweet mango all the more welcome. And although it was swimming in broth, the juicy panko-breaded chicken cutlet stayed nicely crisp on the outside.
Luckily, you can get your hands on Urbanbelly's rice cake noodles anytime. But udon lovers, don't let this special give you the slip.