The restaurant is located in a Melrose space built like a shoebox on its side. Inside, music bumps and the heavy dimness is thinly starred with tabletop candles. It’s a buzzy den of inventive cocktails, surreal art, and dishes that cherrypick mostly from Southeast Asia. Broadly, Belly braids a loose mesh of flavors linked with that region, such as ginger, basil, lemongrass, coconut milk, chiles, and many others. There are also some sparser influences from East Asia, like Hoisin and Japanese sweet potatoes. Babcock’s interest in the cooking of Japan, which stems partly from his Japanese grandmother, runs very faintly on the menu’s edges. The core focus is on Vietnam, on dishes like pho, banh mi, banh xeo, and then on a motley mix of other dishes calibrated with the flavors of the region (see: Vietnamese pizza).
To start, the crispy spring rolls rock. Jammed with wood ear mushrooms and pork, these pack an umami counterbalanced some with jicama and nuoc cham. The server instructs you to wrap your rolls in lettuce, and even swaddled in a leaf the tubes tear and crackle as you chomp in.
Eating at Belly, a pattern tends to recur. You get some food — a pancake, a roll, maybe noodles. You have a nuoc cham for dipping. There’s basil and maybe mint. You dip. You eat.
Like the food, Belly’s drinks crib from the flavor palette of Vietnam and its neighbors. These cocktails are creative and intricate. Some use split spirits (mezcal and tequila, bourbon and rum, rum and cachaca). Others loop in thoughtful components like wine-barrel-aged gin, champagne vinegar, arak, or lemon marmalade. Not all cocktails are perfect, like a rye-based sour Christmas-y with cinnamon and a pineapple-packed reposado sipper with an overly aromatic salted rim. Still, even these cocktails have their virtues and you’ll very likely be happy to taste around this juicy, citrus-forward list.
This drink, though excellent, has one major flaw. The lime leaf used has a few names. One — the name that Belly uses — actually contains a racial slur. In recent years, there has been a movement away from this name and toward another, “makrut lime leaf.” Given that Belly is a Southeast Asian-inspired restaurant run by owners who aren’t Southeast Asian, I would have hoped they would have done the heavy research to avoid this kind of thing. This might seem abstract and weirdly pedantic, but I believe it’s important. Since Belly is a restaurant that riffs on, and profits from, the foodways of another culture, it would be nice to see this culture centered a bit more. Maybe this could happen by sharing more history, or by highlighting the people and places that inspired the riffs, or by sincerely honoring the people behind the food traditions in a more visible way.
I would also try a flavorful chicken pho and a sausage-laden banh mi once built on a torta roll but now on a more conventional baguette. These are both good and a few steps beyond the norm, though I don’t know if they quite match the very best versions around town.
In my mind, Belly’s food peaks with that pork belly, a crispy fish entrée, and a banh xeo. The fish, sourced from Nelson’s Meat + Fish, is fried to a nice sultry golden-brown. It has been finished in yogurt sauce zipping with turmeric, fish paste, and dill. Once you’ve evenly distributed this sauce over the fish morsels (do this or it’s on the salty side), you have a texturally joyous, refreshing plate of food. The banh xeo? Heavily browned to the edge of being blackened. The halfmoon pancake is crisp and snappy, just spilling slightly sweet crabmeat perfumed with a smidgen of Old Bay.
All in all, I am curious to see how Belly evolves moving forward. Already, the Instrumental folks are lined up to open a second Belly location in Epicenter at Agritopia, the ambitious Gilbert mixed-use project that will blend commercial and residential spaces. I hope the owners can let their research and props to the culture they borrow from shine through a bit more. The drinks are creative and well made. The food can hit the spot, too. I think the changes made on the road to Belly 2.0 will tell the full story.
Belly Kitchen and Bar
4971 North Seventh Avenue
Handmade Crispy Rolls $9
Cha Lua Banh Mi $12
Pork Belly & Egg Claypot $17
Crispy White Fish $30
Crab Ban Xeo $22