The inside at Pink Bellies is all indirect angles, wavy traces, and glowing pastel colours. White partitions are hung with vertically-mounted planks spaced just a few inches aside, the light-stained wooden planed into gently undulating waves.
Brief sound-muffling panels are suspended from the ceiling in three-tiered teams, accented by glowing lights that shift from blue throughout daylight to pastel pink, orange, and yellow as darkness falls exterior. A half dozen angular wooden stools line a low, curving white counter the place diners can peer by an array of potted crops on the cooks working within the open kitchen past.
The menu at Pink Bellies doesn’t play it straight, both. The cocktails (18) outnumber the meals dishes (14). A few of these cocktails are fairly tasty. The gin-based and brilliantly-named Miss Main Woman ($16) has a surge of citrus and elderflower beneath a layer of candy egg-white foam. The Suntory Kiss ($12) balances Japanese malt whiskey with vibrant fruit and herbs — passionfruit, kalamansi, lemongrass. The menu describes it as “harking back to youth,” although whose youth I do not know.
I do want they might double pressure the shaken cocktails, although. A sleet storm clouds the intense orange Pho Cocktail ($13), which is billed as “in contrast to some other.” I can’t argue with that. A single star anise atop a tiny disc of lime rides upon the floor. Shaken in with the gin is pho syrup, lime juice, Sriracha and fish sauce. As an experiment in umami flavors it’s fairly intriguing, although I didn’t discover myself wanting a second one.
The meals follows an analogous sample, with daring stretches and sudden twists that delight once they land however often tumble off the mat.
Within the pleasant class are the dumplings. All three varieties swim in bowls of chili oil and pho-spiced smoked dumpling sauce, a mix that’s shimmeringly vibrant and brimming with crimson chili, sesame and scallions. Beneath a fluffy inexperienced blanket of cilantro leaves, the spicy lamb pierogis ($11) are, as promised, very spicy. Just a few kernels of corn tucked in with the savory minced lamb appear a bit odd, however as a complete it’s a flavorful bowl.
I significantly loved the triangular sui cao dumplings ($10), that are hand-rolled and full of a lovely mix of floor pork and shrimp. Crisp curves of chili bamboo shoots down within the sauce add a splendidly sharp crunch.
After he graduated from the MBA program on the School of Charleston, chef/proprietor Thai Phi launched Pink Bellies as meals truck, posting up frequently on the nook of Calhoun and St. Philip streets. In 2017, he superior to a stall within the Workshop incubator meals corridor and two years later secured a everlasting King Avenue location on the bottom ground of Hoffler Place, a privately-owned scholar house constructing that casts itself as “subtle, hip, and aspirational.”
Pink Bellies eased into the King Avenue scene due to the pandemic, opening for takeout solely in March 2021 and for in-person eating six months later. Now two years in, the restaurant nonetheless does a brisk takeout enterprise and has relatively restricted hours — dinner from 5 to 9 p.m., Thursday by Sunday — although that appears completely conserving with our instances.
The restaurant appears very up to date in different methods, too. For each meals and décor, Phi drew inspiration from far-off — his grandmother’s and aunt’s kitchens in Vietnam, noodle retailers and bakeries in San Francisco, ramen bars in Tokyo and Kyoto — and rolled them along with American pop eating tradition. (Witness the In-and-Out-inspired Animal Type Burger, $16, and the Nashville Sizzling Hen Karaage, $14.)
The OG Garlic Noodles ($17) have been on the menu because the meals truck days. Cooked in butter and garlic, the tangles of thick, umami-rich egg noodles by themselves are splendid, and the lengthy strands of pulled pork and pickled crimson onions mounded on prime add tender softness and a candy crunch. A smear of vibrant orange Sriracha rings the within of the big bowl, although oddly it appears so as to add extra shade and sweetness than it does warmth, even in case you dredge the noodles by it. Add the additional umami of a poached egg ($1.50) and you may see why it’s now the OG.
A lot of the fare nonetheless reveals the late night time munchie aesthetic of a campus-side meals truck. Purple-hued Amarosa fingerlings ($10) are ready within the type of Da Lat banh trang nuong, a form of Vietnamese pizza. As an alternative of grilled rice paper, tender potatoes function the bottom, they usually’re completely delicate, steamy and earthy inside. However the tubers are buried beneath a mound of crumbled pork, wispy shrimp powder and diced scallions, which in flip are obscured by lengthy squiggles of creamy kewpie mayo and orange Sriracha, and in the long run it’s simply loads of flavors clashing in a bowl.
In the event you improve the pho mai burger ($16) by including a fried egg ($5), the dish is completed tableside. It arrives open-faced, with the fried egg and the highest bun on one small plate and the whole lot else on one other. The server pierces the egg with a steak knife then drizzles the sunny yolk over the remainder of the burger and flips the bun on prime. Then comes the coup de grâce: stabbing the knife straight by the middle to spear all of the layers collectively.
That structural help is required, for the burger is twice as tall as it’s broad. Between two domes of sentimental milk bun, a pair of cheese-capped beef patties are interspersed with slick swimming pools of aioli and onion jam. Thick-sliced pickles act as shims and tilt the entire tower at a relatively precarious angle. It’s a sloppy mess of a burger, which isn’t essentially a foul factor. Sadly, jalapeño rings make an unbilled cameo, including an unwelcome blast of warmth that ought to actually be warned of on the menu.
The Garlic KFC Wings ($16), although, are true works of late-night genius. I believe that’s KFC as in Korean Fried Hen, not Kentucky, however who is aware of today. What issues is that they’re scrumptious in a smack-every-taste-receptor-on-your tongue sort of manner. The wings have a crisp starchy crust that’s painted with salty, honey-sweet soy glaze and dappled with minced scallions and chives. Alongside is a small bowl of blue cheese dressing for dunking.
It’s not simply run-of-the-mill blue cheese dressing, both. Our server knowledgeable us once we ordered the wings that they didn’t ordinarily like blue cheese dressing however that this blue cheese dressing was totally different. The runner who delivered the wings informed us primarily the identical factor. Final 12 months, The Publish and Courier’s Meals Editor Parker Milner commented within the Charleston Menu e-newsletter that he was “by no means a fan of blue cheese dressing” however that he “can’t argue with the river of cream-colored sauce flowing down the mountain of wings.”
I had no concept so many individuals have been hostile to blue cheese dressing, and it appears curious that among the many riot of flavors in Pink Bellies’ numerous bowls, that’s the one which so many individuals single out. Possibly it’s too twentieth century. I agree with them, although, that Pink Bellies’ model is phenomenal — in no way gloppy, with only a few chunks of cheese enrobed in a skinny white dressing. It’s the proper pungently cream accompaniment for these sticky-sweet-salty wings — or in your finger, for that matter.
Sure, a bowl of blue cheese dressing is a small element, however small particulars add up, and there are many little issues to love about Pink Bellies: the squatty pink stoneware cups by which the water is served. The stylized pig brand — spherical nostril, ears akimbo, a noodle bowl inverted on its head — that seem on the whole lot from the menu to the take-out containers. The little additional bits on the plates, just like the chili bamboo contained in the dumpling sauce and the chunks of crisp, tart pickled daikon that add a pleasant zip to the KFC wings.
It’s not all upside, although. The colourful lights and all of the angles and curves make for a modern, alluring setting, however because the eating room fills, it could appear a bit loud and cramped. Because the night rolls on, the air grows thick with oily steam rolling over the low divider from the open kitchen, and the temperature begins to creep up and up. Some could discover that vibe to be high-energy and thrilling, however for others it might appear a bit a lot.
However dessert seals the deal. If a restaurant is just going to have a single possibility on the menu, it higher be good. Pink Bellies comes by with its blackberry cheesecake ($12), a tall wedge of dense, lemon-tinged sweetness. As an alternative of a prim scoop of berries, it’s completed with a torrent of condensed milk foam and fruity blackberry compote that cascades down the edges and swimming pools across the plate. Past the pleasant disheveled-ness of the presentation, there appears no thematic linkage between that dessert and the remainder of the menu, however I don’t suppose we actually want one.
I really feel many issues at Pink Bellies go a little bit over my head, like web memes that by no means made it into my feeds. Nonetheless, it’s an thrilling place to seize an off-the-cuff dinner, large on taste and lengthy on type, particularly because the solar goes down and the pastel lights shift to energetic oranges, yellows and magentas.