During my first meal at the Chubby Noodle, I endured a sonic assault of chirpy, bubble-gum electro-pop straight out of a junior high cotillion. Also setting the mood was an NBA game on multiple screens and a shrill tiara party in the corner.
But amid this audio melee, I barely looked up from my food. Only after I’d eaten the last morsel of tender fried chicken, slurped down the rich ramen dregs and hit the bottom of my savory grits, did I notice, “Hey, this place is annoying.”
Chubby Noodle is a permanent pop-up inside Amante, a semi-divey North Beach bar. Amante has the rococo decor of fallen nobility — thick, shabby curtains and greasy-looking throw pillows — combined with mid-1980s mood lighting and a soundtrack that reminds me of old Nintendo games.
But unlike other pop-ups inside tacky nightspots (e.g., Nick’s Crispy Tacos), Chubby Noodle’s food transcends its surroundings. “People wander in from the street, expecting nothing,” said chef Peter Mrabe. “Then they try the food and are like, ‘Why is this here?’”
Mrabe also runs the lauded Mexican eatery Don Pisto’s; he started Chubby Noodle last fall as a modest side project.
You could throw a broad “pan-Asian” label on the menu, though even that is too narrow. If Mrabe (an alumnus of Alex Ong’s kitchen at Betelnut) wants to make grits and fried chicken at Chubby Noodle, who’s going to argue?
Not me, certainly. Buttermilk-brined fried wings and tenders, served five to a popcorn bucket, were so gigantic that I almost doubted their organic origins. Then the supple, flavorful meat melted onto my tongue; call me a believer.
And the Anson Mills-sourced grits, tanned from a slow bath in wonton broth, were more than a mild backdrop for the shrimp and bacon within. These beauties were earthy and full-bodied, blending nicely with a poached egg’s yolk. Garish stripes of Sriracha proved unnecessary.
Price points are refreshingly low at Chubby Noodle, largely a result of Mrabe’s no-waste kitchen ethos. For instance, Don Pisto’s uses leftover drumsticks and thighs from Chubby Noodle’s fried chicken, and bones from Niman Ranch rib chops make a rich broth for the ramen noodles.
And what a ramen it was. Chunks of Snake River Farms pork belly shimmied in the chili-spiked broth, along with pickled spinach and a fat poached egg. Recent disappointments at Ramen Underground and Ken Ken Ramen had shaken my faith; I found religion at Chubby Noodle.
Niman rib meat is used in a comfortable rendering of the Korean taco, in which charred but tender pork chunks were set off by fiery arbol chili vinegar, thin Korean pickles and a cooling yogurt sauce.
Another highlight was the garlic noodles, a dish Mrabe co-opted from Betelnut. It’s a heaping tangle of thick, chewy tubes in oyster sauce, torched up with paper-thin jalapeño wisps.
Even the timeworn tuna poke tasted pure and bright, with perfect sesame and scallion accents.
Mrabe thinks Amante’s downbeat digs give Chubby Noodle a quirky appeal, but I enjoyed my meals in spite of — not because of — the surroundings. It’s like Karen Leibowitz (Mission Street Food co-founder) once said: “The novelty of eating tacos in a car wash wears off quickly. A pop-up better serve good food or no one’s coming back.”
The Chubby Noodle
Location: 570 Green St. (at Columbus Avenue), S.F.
Contact: (415) 361-8850, thechubbynoodle.com
Hours: 6 to 11 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays
Price range: $8 to $11
Recommended dishes: Spicy garlic noodles ($8), ramen ($10), five-piece fried chicken ($9), Chubby grits ($11), Korean pork tacos ($9)
Credit cards: Cash only
Reservations: Not accepted