Le Lan chef goes casual at new Avondale eatery

First impressions: Located in an Avondale strip mall between a laundromat and a dry cleaner, Urban Belly is a hip noodle and dumpling shop that feels as if it dropped in from Mars. It is supposed to be an antidote to the high-end dining that chef Bill Kim has been dishing out for more than a decade at Le Lan and Charlie Trotter's. Hatched by Kim, his brother Mike and wife Yvonne Cadiz-Kim, Urban Belly's 40-seat dining room consists of a mere four communal tables with tree stump-like chairs. Pieces of driftwood adorn two plain brown walls. Customers order, pay at the counter and fetch their own water, napkins and silverware.

On the plate: The 19-item menu is divided into dumplings, noodles, rice and sides. The various categories take their inspiration from Japan, Korea, China, Southeast Asia and beyond.At your service: Counter servers are helpful and super knowledgeable about the menu. They can recommend dishes and even find out what's still available by asking the kitchen staff who work right behind them. Folks who bring the food to your table are equally swift and polite.

Second helpings: Lamb and brandy dumplings ($8) sport a silky rectangular skin holding a rich lamb filling topped by a tasty chile-garlic oil. A bed of boiled edamame soaks up the chile oil and makes for yummy, post-dumpling munching. Deep fried duck and pho spice dumplings ($8) burst with juice as you bite them, releasing a sweet duck flavor laced with anise and cinnamon. Skip the ultra-salty dipping sauce. The short rib and scallion rice bowl ($8) offers fragrant fried rice topped with two juicy Korean kalbi-style short ribs. Urban Belly ramen rocks with a complex broth, incredible noodles with decadent strips of pork belly, shiitake mushrooms and aromatic pho broth ($13). Although the plump udon noodles with shrimp, Vietnamese coriander and sweet chile-lime broth ($13) felt a little hearty for a hot summer day, we can see it as a comforting companion come autumn. We can't wait to return and try the stir fried egg noodles in garlic chile with Japanese eggplant and the rice cakes with chicken mango and Korean chile sauce.

Take a pass: Although we love seasonal kimchi (this one with napa cabbage), the $4 price tag for the tiny dish seemed out of whack for such a casual joint. In our soba noodle dish the king oyster mushrooms and scallops delighted -- delicious, sweet and meaty -- but the noodles were overcooked and the blue crab broth left us underwhelmed.

Thirst quenchers: Canned sodas, bottled water and Asian specialty drinks include grape and apple drinks with bits of crushed fruit in them for $1. Patrons can also bring their own alcoholic beverages.

Price range: Dumplings, $6-$8; noodles, $11-$13; rice dishes, $7-$9; sides, $4.


(3 forks)

3053 N. California Ave.


Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tues.-Sun.

Credit cards: A, M, V

Noise: Conversation friendly

Delivery: No, but takeout is available.

Other: Wheelchair accessible

Ratings key: 4 forks, don't miss it; 3 forks, one of the best; 2 forks, very good; 1 fork, good

Cheap Eats reviews restaurants where entrees are $13 or less. Reviews are based on anonymous visits by Tribune staff members; meals are paid for by the Tribune.