Asian fusion sandwiches and salads at Belly Deli on South U
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A pair of food-loving University of Michigan student friends first told me about Belly Deli, open since April near the corner of South U and Washtenaw. I was intrigued by their description of a place to get "Asian-ish" food. I wouldn't have guessed from the name that the Belly Deli serves "gourmet Asian salads and sandwiches. And I also didn't expect the clean, modern lines, the single stainless steel communal table, the fun monster wallpaper, or the dozen shades of gray that inform the aesthetics of the small space.
1317 S. University Ave., Ann Arbor, MI
- Hours: Monday - Sunday 11:30 a.m. - 10 p.m.
- Plastic: Visa, Mastercard, Amex, Discover
- Liquor: None
- Prices: Inexpensive. Sandwiches $7-$8, salads $7-$9.
- Noise level: Moderately loud.
- Wheelchair access:Yes.
Among the best options on the Belly Deli menu are the yummy sides. The chicken salad in a creamy curry dressing was delicious, and I loved the various textures of white meat chicken chunks, crunchy almond bits and sweet and chewy dried cranberries. They have a chicken curry sandwich with this too.
Also worthwhile, the bokum balls and "Sea Fu" balls are like Asian arancini; golden, deep-fried rice balls that come three to an order. The bokum balls are slightly fishy, flecked with bits of kimchee and pork, lightly glazed with spicy sriracha ketchup. The Sea Fu balls are sweeter, with shrimp, "krab" and corn, and a bit of horseradish mayonnaise. Both of these options are tasty and affordable.
The signature "Belly Sammy" sandwich comes with interesting filling options like spicy chicken gochujang, beef bulgogi, pork char siu, and tofu soy-garlic. The "Sammy" is something like a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich, but served on a large fluffy submarine bun rather than a crisp french baguette. All of the sammy fillings are pre-cooked in the morning and kept warm (pork, chicken, fried tofu) and some are re-cooked on a flattop to melt the cheese (the cheese steak and the kimchee sausage). The sammy comes accessorized with sprightly cilantro, pickled strips of carrots and radish, and a slick of mayo. If you want to increase the banh mi authenticity quotient, add the mild chicken liver-based pate for an extra 50 cents.
The kimchee sausage sammy is a hot mess, so to speak. It's another fusion-y combination that puts slices of a spicy Dearborn red hot dog inside a big squishy roll together with grilled onion, red pepper, sauteed kimchee and lots of melted provolone cheese. While it may not be a good choice for those with delicate sensibilities (or in tidy whites), I thought the mouth-punching flavor combination worked. Especially washed down with some of their Puck's Handcrafted Sodas with cane sugar. Both the black cherry and the birch beer were delicious.
Not that anyone has asked for it yet, but a Dearborn red hot (or any of the other meats) is available as an add-on for each of the three salads on the menu. The Asian Cobb Salad was huge, with vegetables nicely cut into manageable pieces; I hate when you order a salad and have to struggle to get giant hunks of crudites into your maw. The box of salad was filled with crisp romaine and thinly sliced napa, matchsticked cucumber, fried strips of wonton crispies, and a perfectly cooked and sliced boiled egg.
Although most of the salad was tasty, I was nonplussed with the few leaves of wilted basil that appeared to have died a wrinkly death. As for the large pieces of cold congealed bacon, "I cut them with effort, and swallowed them with regret," in the manner of another intrepid food writer. The ginger miso vinaigrette also tasted odd to me—I wasn't able to discern either ginger or miso in the flavor.
The Szechuan stir-fry salad was very similar to the Asian Cobb, replacing the basil and bacon with a few flavor-free cooked green beans and pea pods. I thought the sweet and garlicky soy-based dressing on this one was tasty though.
The food at the Belly Deli is not subtle or delicate — even with all the salads, the vibe seems somehow masculine to me. Flavors are bold, the music is pop-y, portions are large, and 90 percent of the staff we saw was male. There's a prep kitchen in back, but much of the "cooking," or at least the assembling happens up front where you can see the fast-food pace and techniques. The staff at Belly Deli was friendly and accommodating, but their focus is definitely on speed, like the pit crew at the Indy 500.
The Asian-mod ambiance of the small space is unique and appealing, but since their business is take-out, it's not particularly comfortable to sit (or stand) and eat there. I hear they are planning an expanded menu for later this summer, and are testing out options now in an effort to be ready for the students to come rushing back in the fall. Until then, Belly Deli seems like a good place for townies to grab a picnic on the way to the Arb.
Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.