Oakland’s Noodle Belly mixes ingredients and influences
In his primary day job, Eugene Lee owns a roofing supply company. It’s not the first profession that comes to mind when I try the food at Noodle Belly. The concept is straightforward: Choose a vegetable and a protein to accompany a bowl of noodles and the housemade sauce. One can, for example, combine fried chicken and roasted carrots or barbecue pork belly and sauteed rainbow chard. The chewy noodles are plentiful, and as thick as chopsticks. The secret sauce tastes sweeter than a typical barbecue glaze, complementing—rather than overpowering—one’s chosen combination of vegetable and meat.
Jorge Concha is the chef executing a shared vision with Lee and his business partner Kevyn Miyata. Lee describes the food at Noodle Belly as “Bay Area comfort food.” Lee says he’s Korean American, Miyata is Japanese American via Hawaii and Concha is Peruvian American. “I can’t call the food Asian, because it’s not really Asian,” Lee says. It’s not Peruvian either. “It just has influences from all of our backgrounds.”
Lee and Miyata had been toying with a concept like Noodle Belly for nearly a decade. They only began to take the idea seriously, to hone and define it, in the last couple of years. Hiring Concha sealed the deal. With Concha’s background in fine dining and the Mr. Lomo Peruvian pop-up, Lee believes he was “the perfect candidate” for the job. The Bay Area, Lee feels, has its own culinary identity that differs from New York. “We have our own idea of how ingredients should be treated,” he says. “We call it comfort food because this isn’t a $300-a-plate situation.”
Like the menu, the space on Fruitvale Avenue is in its infancy. When I dropped by last month to pick up my lunch, there wasn’t any decor, signage—the sign is due to go up in June—or sense of a restaurant identity as yet. I checked in at a long table inside the front doorway and waited for the order on the concrete patio out back. While inside, I peered into the massive, industrial-sized kitchen through large glass windows.
Lee says they bought the property because they’re also in the process of providing room in the kitchen for a couple of other pop-ups so they can test out their ideas. IVSF Catering, headed by Jason Angeles and Ronnie Taylor, and Alex Tejada’s Magnolia Mini Mart (MMM) are two such tenants. IVSF Catering prepares meals for senior citizens. MMM will operate a small pantry to sell products from their location in West Oakland, while also preparing sandwiches and small bites. Once the City of Oakland approves the liquor license, there are plans to create a bar dedicated to serving craft cocktails. Customers would be able to order from any one of the concepts, and have a drink while they’re waiting.
When Lee, and a handful of his friends, bought the property at 1014 Fruitvale Avenue, they saw great potential in it. “There’s a 3,000-square-foot courtyard behind the facade of the building,” he says. “It’s right next to the BART station.” Once installed, they’re going to call the bar Korner Bar. As for adding to the menu, Lee says they’ll be gauging the expansion by looking at sales metrics but, more importantly, only when they all feel comfortable doing so. Lee imagines the future of the outdoor courtyard as a place to hang out with food and drinks, similar to restaurants along the Embarcadero. He also envisions setting up a barbecue. “We could do a whole roasted pig one day,” he says. “That’s why we have this large kitchen, to be able to produce fun, new things.”
One of the food businesses they’re working with is run by someone who lives locally. “She has a food concept, but she doesn’t have her entity set up,” Lee says. “We’re working with her pro bono to help her set up the accounting side.” Helping these nascent food companies start up makes his team feel like they’re adding something to the community.
“We’ve had numerous people stop by, including local politicians like the vice mayor of Oakland and district supervisors,” Lee says. “They’re very happy about what we’re doing here.” People just across the bridge in Alameda have also responded well to Noodle Belly’s initial opening. “I’m very adamant about trying to be part of any community I go into,” Lee says. “We’ve gotten a very, very warm welcome from the neighborhood.”
Noodle Belly, open Wednesday–Saturday 11am to 3pm, 1014 Fruitvale Ave., Oakland. 510.439.9459. noodlebelly.com