Among the many dining districts and restaurant rows that have emerged in central Phoenix, one of those currently burgeoning is the stretch of Seventh Avenue that runs through the Melrose neighborhood. From Indian School up to Camelback, independent restaurants have emerged on both sides of the street to make this part of town worth exploring. At the northern end of the Melrose corridor, diagonally across the street from the Seventh Avenue / Camelback light rail station, a small two-story building next to the transit park-and-ride lot is now known as Belly.
Belly came into being during the pandemic, initially as a takeout operation, and now as a full-service restaurant with a pan-Asian menu and a lively bar scene in a compact space. The building was once an auto repair shop, the type of small business that once dominated Melrose, and the renovation has created an unlikely restaurant space on two stories. A bike rack is found just behind the restaurant next to the park-and-ride. The first floor is mostly just a host station and kitchen with only a few downstairs seats at counters more often used for takeout pickup.
The main dining space is on the second floor. A modest dining room is defined by a bar with a metal counter and tile floors. The choice of materials creates a modern, minimalist look but also a sometimes noisy environment. Diners in search of a more quiet experience might prefer the back patio, which is mist cooled and situated on the east side of the building and therefore shaded during evening dinner service. Tables are mostly high-tops, and due to limited space, reservations are recommended, especially during peak hours, even for seating at the bar.
Belly came into being after its creators traveled extensively in southeast Asia, and the menu draws most heavily on Vietnamese influences. It’s a different experience than some of the inexpensive pho joints a mile or so to the west, however. While those places do an outstanding job with big bowls of noodles at modest prices in a bare bones atmosphere, Belly’s full bar and urbane atmosphere makes it stand out on west Camelback. Belly’s version of banh xeo, the familiar Vietnamese crepe, is bursting with so much crab meat that it overflows the pancake.
Plenty of romaine leaves are provided for scooping up the excess, along with herbs and dipping sauce. The same approach is used with the crispy vegetable spring rolls, and lettuce takes on an unexpected starring role in the chow saung choy, a vegetable dish created with romaine hearts sauteed in abundant garlic and ginger. The crispy soft shell crab bao features two slightly sweet steamed buns filled not only with crustacean meat, but also abundant green papaya salad and a bit of spicy mayonnaise that the kitchen uses to add flavor and moisture to the dish.
The section of the menu labeled “specialties” includes several crowd-pleasers that will appeal to customers with a more casual interest in east Asian food. Fried rice is available in two different versions: one with pork and the other with jackfruit, the meat replacement of the moment. Both are augmented with bits of fermented mustard greens. The fried chicken entree features three crisp pieces with cucumber, pickles, and limes for seasoning. A bowl of chicken pho, one of the few items that does not lend itself easily to sharing, also makes use of Two Wash Ranch poultry.
Additional seafood entrees are crispy white fish in a sauce redolent of turmeric and ginger and mussels in a broth of lemongrass and coconut milk. A recent addition to the menu is skewers of chicken thigh, hanger steak, and head-on shrimp. Vegetable dishes that can function either as meatless entrees or side dishes include meaty mushrooms in a black bean sauce with Szechuan peppercorns; sauteed stalks of broccolini with abundant garlic and a bit of wine; and wok-fried green beans that turn out crisp and charred with flakes of bonito dancing on top.
Belly offers two choices for dessert, both of them with some Asian influence and restrained sweetness. Sweet potato donuts are tiny balls of fried dough with a salty, nutty flavor from yams and a custard-like side sauce of coconut and pandan leaves to impart a little more flavor if desired. The sticky rice dessert is presented with a changing selection of seasonal toppings, rather than the usual Thai restaurant standard of ripe mango. When sampled recently, the grains were paired with slices of fresh peaches, roasted walnuts, and slivers of coconut.
The restaurant pays as much attention to beverages as food with bar offerings that lead with cocktails, many of them with Asian influences. The Spicy Hydra incorporates reposado, pineapple, cucumber, thai chili, and jalapeño with a tamarind salt rim. The Midtown Lassi is more soothing with rum, bourbon, mango, oolong tea, honey, yogurt, mint, and lime in a mix reminiscent of the popular Indian drink. Burn the Debt is a campy cocktail with myriad tropical flavors served in a coconut milk can with a burning cinnamon stick adding a smoky note.
Beyond the menu of mixed drinks, Belly has a few tap handles with local favorites such as Wren House’s Spellbinder hazy IPA and Greenwood Brewing’s Purpose Pilsner. The wine selection, all sold by the bottle or the glass, is small but well chosen with thoughtful representation of multiple countries and varietals. Belly’s location at the north end of Melrose, its second story dining room, and, most of all, the restaurant’s successful adaptation of Vietnamese and other Asian cuisines, puts it at the top of the neighborhood’s dining scene in more ways than one.
4971 N. 7th Ave., Phoenix AZ 85013