By Jeff Kronenfeld, January 2021 Issue.
A group of friends travel to Vietnam and Japan seeking inspiration, in the end coming away with a deeper respect for the cultures and cuisines of both countries. It may sound like the premise for a raunchy comedy flick, but in fact, it is the origin story behind Belly, one of West Phoenix’s newest eateries. While its head chef and one of the co-owners, Michael Babcock, laughed heartily during the tale’s telling, he demurred when it came to sharing any Hangover-style antics that may or may not have occurred during the group’s gastronomical globetrotting.
Before Belly, Babcock was the Welcome Diner’s chef. Together with Wayne Coats, that restaurant’s general manager, they built up the local watering hole until stepping away in early 2019. The pair then joined forces with a trio of former members of defunct indie rock band Dear and the Headlights to found Instrumental Hospitality.
With the squad now assembled, they collectively decided to conduct a very tasty fact-finding mission overseas. Not content with gimmicky mashups like Pho burritos, the partners wanted to find menu items with deep roots in Southeast Asia. In the same way that Babcock’s love of Creole food inspired Welcome Diner’s menu, he and his team again wanted to let their foodie inclinations be their guide.
Upon their return, the decision to focus on Vietnamese cuisine for the new concept’s menu was firmly cemented. The co-owners secured a building at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Camelback Road and got to work renovating. Everything was going smoothly until the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. Not only was the grand opening indefinitely delayed, but as the scope and scale of the changes wrought by the virus slowly became clear, Babcock and company realized they had to go back to the drawing board.
Originally conceived of as a cocktail bar with a menu of small plates, this model now seemed ill-suited to an era of social distancing. Plucky and determined, the restaurateurs shifted focus, reimagining Belly as a takeout pit stop rather than a swanky hangout. The menu also had to adapt. Foods that traveled well were the new order of business, but Babcock still wanted to find a way to offer something unique.
“I didn’t want to do Pho because I figured every Vietnamese place in town already does that, so we really zoned in on braised claypot dishes as something that would be really cool,” Babcock explained.
The menu currently features four such braised claypot dishes, which are known as kho in Vietnam. Although the nature of the takeout model means the dishes aren’t literally served in ceramics, they’re still packed with all that smokey complex flavor.
The first one I tried was the turmeric chicken thighs, the slightly tangy fragrance filling my truck on the drive home after a security guard unceremoniously cut short my tailgate picnic in an adjacent parking lot. We had a little trouble getting into the actual restaurant’s parking lot due to its position relative to the very busy intersection. If I hadn’t been on the clock, this might have deterred me, but the meal proved well worth the traffic. To save yourself the headaches, just remember you can only enter the property by car if you’re heading north on Seventh Avenue.
Since I was ordering other items, too, I opted for the smaller portion, priced at $15. It was a good size for one person and also came with a heaping pile of white rice, two cucumber slices, and half a lime for adding a little fresh zest. The tender chunks of chicken dripped with mildly sweet juices and were topped with minced green onions. The spices were potent, but not too much so, complementing rather than overwhelming the chicken. As I gulped it down on the cold night, the savory warmth was like a cozy sweater for my insides.
On a later visit, I ordered the pork belly and egg braised claypot, again opting for the half portion. This dish was my personal favorite. The sweet slow-cooked pork goes so well with the coconut juice, fish sauce and other ingredients. The ample juices dripped from each tender chunk of pig meat, soaking the rice with umami richness.
As an appetizer, I split an order of the classic spring rolls with a friend. The two semi-transparent cylinders were large and packed to the brim with pork sausage and juicy shrimp. The nuoc cham dipping sauce adds plenty of spice, citrus and just the right amount of astringency. All this combined with the noodles and fresh veggies to create an enjoyable blend of flavors and textures.
My friend gave one of Belly’s two pan mi sandwiches a try, opting for the vegetarian one stuffed with jackfruit over the pork sausage. The bun was different from the standard sub-style role used in most banh mis, being wider, flatter and airier. It tasted great and held the boldly flavored inners together. The sandwich has a lot going on, from the powerful pickled veggies to the various sweet and spicy notes, but they all played well together.
Last but not least, I just had to try Babcock’s spin on this most comforting of comfort foods: fried rice. One of the three items on the specialties section of the menu, this reporter went with the pork and pickled mustard greens fried rice. I’m sure the jackfruit is delectable, but I’m almost as much as a sucker for alliteration as I am for anything pickled.
Another sumptuously aromatic dish, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish it all after everything else, but this ended up being a total nonissue. From the first waft of pungent steam to that last kernel of flavor-infused rice, this dish worked for me. Every part of my tongue was covered by the diverse but complimentary medley of tastes. Sour, savory and with the perfect pinch of spiciness, it’s just what the doctor ordered pre or post hangover, though I’m sure the less lush would enjoy it too.
A plethora of options are available to wash down all this grub, too. I ordered a glass of the lemongrass horchata, which adds a Southeast Asian twist to the sweet Hispanic specialty. It’s hard for me to capture in words just how creamy and rich this shake was. The coconut base adds a velvety smoothness while the lemongrass balances the cloying sweetness.
The team at Instrumental Hospitality may not help you shed that quarantine spare tire, but they sure will make sure your belly is happy and full.