Bill Kim’s Belly Shack is supposed to be one with the streets, an entity that seamlessly blends the gritty El tracks above it with the Asian-Latino blend of street food inside. But if this place is urban, then Joe Lieberman’s a Democrat. The graffiti on the walls appears stenciled on as carefully as the walltalkers at the MCA, and all the “industrial” details gleam with polish, stripped of their grime. This is urban as a Disney boardroom might define it—a hazy, cartoonish view of what something edgy should look like. And that thin skin of cool is hardly enough to hide the joint’s corporate intentions—there are just as many Belly Shack T-shirts for sale here as there are sandwiches.
The disappointing—or, I should say, the most disappointing—part of all this is that, depending on what you order, that T-shirt may be the most joy-inducing purchase you make. With a menu this small and controlled, and a chef this talented and accomplished, the margin of error should be slim. And yet there are pitfalls everywhere: An Asian meatball sandwich boasts dry meatballs coupled with a harmless but awkward tangle of bland rice noodles. A plate of kogi lacks the soy-garlic punch of any Korean barbecue you can get on Lincoln Avenue. And the tostones, though drizzled with a piquant chimichurri, turned heavy and greasy within minutes of sitting at the table.
It’s not all this bad. The sides—sweet, aromatic roasted squash; brussels sprouts tossed with crumbly bits of savory chorizo—fared better than any other portion of the menu. But for me, these glimmers of inspired cooking fade when compared to innocuous mains like the adamantly gluten-free Boricua. That sandwich slips an underseasoned slab of tofu between two hot disks of plantain that crumbled and split as I tried to eat it. When I finally got a taste of the thing, I found the marriage of funky Chinese black beans and this Puerto Rican–ish sandwich to be somewhat hostile. It almost tasted like a divorce.
But I don’t blame the fusion concept for anything. When he gets it right, Kim proves that there is no combination too unusual for success. The blackened tilapia sandwich (pictured) with curry tartar sauce has a nice punch to it and doesn’t seem at all incongruous with the Middle Eastern bread it is plated on. And in his wondrous somen noodle salad, Kim takes cool noodles and pairs them with plump shrimp, a lively tomatillo sauce and—in his most genius move—tortilla chips, the pure corn flavor of which pushes the dish to a territory I’d never been in (but would gladly return to).
And when I’m there, I’ll order some soft serve, offered in heaping portions in slick, stainless-steel bowls and topped with Mindy Segal’s brownies, blondies and bacon-chocolate-chip cookies. The ice cream is rich yet still reminiscent of Dairy Queen—a good memory to evoke, if you spent your summers there as I did—and the toppings are, as always with Segal, incomparable. Separately they’re no big deal, but together there’s something addictive going on. It’s the historically harmonious pairing of ice cream and brownies, sure. But it’s also the high-low spirit of pairing fine-dining desserts with lowly soft serve. At a place where high/low seems to be the point, it’s good to end on a note that’s finally struck right.