An Engaging and Fantastical Ride through Jamaican and Korean Fusion Experience
Philadelphia is a foodie’s paradise, ripe with experimental cousine right down to the nitty gritty cheesesteak. The city’s options are endless, fraught with the usual Friday night decisision- where should we go? What should we do tonight? I heartily invite you to experience The Spicy Belly, a fusion restaurant right in the heart of Manyunk- yes, you heard right, Manyunk. Before you write off the decision to leave the City of Brotherly Love’s tender coils, I remind you that life is about experience, and you live once…and live you must at the Spicy Belly. The food alone is a magnificent reason to venture out, but more than that, Chef Jimmy Mills and his team are the other. Family owned and operated business are this reviewer’s heart and soul. As the owner of one, I should know that above all, passion and customer service are paramount, and Jimmy Mills provides just that!
My finance and I arrived on a Friday night at approximately 6:00 PM, the dinner hour. From the outside, the restaurant can easily be confused for your local neighborhood bar, wooden tables, the Philadelphia row-home turned dining establishment and yet, when we arrived we were greeted by another world. A fresh outlook on fusion food and a friendly face to welcome us! Jimmy himself, not only working the bar, the floor and greeting customers, but also advising where his heart is most, the kitchen. A jack of all trades, with a passion for food.
We were seated in the back with a hearty view of the kitchen. Jimmy and his staff presented Banchan, age old Korean tradition. These are side dishes given to you for free to prepare your palate for the meal. Essentially, to use theatrical folk, your overture. Delicious! Jimmy and I connected over our passion for small businesses and coming from New York, both recognizing the city of Philadelphia has endless options for trying new things and starting a business! He reminded us of his islander roots, sharing anecdotes of his grandmother’s cooking, convincing us both of the most endearing entrees! But to start, drinks and appetizers… or as my fiancé says “appies”. To start we had the lettuce wraps, Red Leaf lettuce, asian pear slaw, cucumber kimchi, and shrimp. As a health food fanatic, lettuce wraps are a favorite but often arrive underwhelming. Not in this case. The food was fresh, lightly spiced and prepared to allow for the natural flavors to inform one another, something Chef Jimmy is adamant about. The highlight was the Asian pear slaw, something I’ve never encountered and here a perfect example of simple fusion for taste, not for show. The dish didn’t look fancy, but the taste took us for a dance and after that fox trot, we were taking numbers for the marathon! A great way to start the meal. Needless to say, the service is impeccable, as the entrees came out in 16 minutes, all the while we enjoyed the warm atmosphere, and open room, simple tables surrounded by dim light and a vibrant conversation. I might mention that the tables are close to one another, which for us is a fun way to see other dishes and hear juicy conversation (oh, the drama!), so if you’re looking for a candlelit night with quiet violins, this is not the establishment for you. However, you might want to change your tune, because the food is beyond exciting and the journey is well worth it!
We also tried the friend plantains, something near and dear to my Latino roots. They were delicious , prepared simply enough to allow the natural flavors of the plantain and the texture (I despise when they come out at restaurants so soft it may as well be apple sauce) to resonate! Also, the spices, again… fusion magic here. They were engaged with Korean influence, but not enough to take away from the prep work that makes fried plantains a favorite!
For an entrée, I asked Jimmy for the dish he’s most passionate about and was greeted by the Oxtail Stew, Sautéed Oxtail, steamed cabbage, rice and peas. As a Cuban man, I’m well aware of the intricacies of oxtail, it’s no easy feat to cook well. Yet, Jimmy and his team rose to the occasion. The meat was savory and tender and the spices had hints of Korean undertones, all the while keeping true to the prep and style of the dish, typically Jamaican fare. This was only made better by the accompanying story of the recipe, a favorite of Jimmy’s grandmother. What a goddess she was, because this dish is the reason to come! It’s not only fresh (20 minutes after the appetizer, appropriate and perfect timing) but again, cooked in a way that leaves you feeling that you’ve eaten well, but not bogged down by over-spice and oil. The flavors of the cabbage are informative of the spices used in the meat and the bone-in tenderness is a perfect adventure!
My finance had the Mo-Bay Bimbap, Kimchi, pickled veggies, sunnyside egg, rice & peas, choice of protein, spicy korean kochujang sauce. I wish I could speak to the dish as a whole, but it was gone in minutes- noting the Spicy Belly’s ability to unleash the monster in all of us! He raved of the unique experience, both citing new flavors and spices and something familiar as well, which brings us back to fusion…..
Quite often, fusion restaurants try to embellish a dish with a fancy name and a “sauce”… a topping that allows us to see the marriage of two styles, which for me is always insulting, as it assumes your audience isn’t educated enough about the meal prep and styles themselves! Chef Jimmy is far from that! He understands the intelligence of his customers, and yet, also welcomes the questions. His take on fusion lies in exciting experiments with styles and spices of family recipes that come straight from the experience, noting family members living in Jamaica and their flavors and stylistic choices in cooking. His sense of fusion is informed by his sense of adventure and family value… it’s never to make a buck.. it’s always to honor culture and yet, find the delicate dance of allowing the culture to marry that of another… to play a romance right on the plate itself! For this critic, that is what makes the restaurant worth the visit, the food is great, but the efforts of the owners is beyond stellar!
To note, they don’t have a large dessert menu, but we were greeted to fresh ice cream! This was a highlight and I encourage Chef Jimmy to add this to the menu! The textures of fresh ice cream are very easy to detect, as there is always a slight grit when making fruit flavored ice cream, which is wonderful! This was a great way to end the meal!
I would venture to say the Spicy Belly is the perfect Friday night date. Put on your comfortable jeans, favorite tee-shirt and come ready to relax! No pretense here! And if you get the chance, talk to Jimmy…. He’s what makes family owned businesses wonderful!
About the Spicy Belly:
The Spicy Belly Opened In January Of 2017 And Is Located Inside The Philadelphia Neighborhood Of Wissahickon, Next To Manayunk, The Spicy Belly Is A Cultural Fusion Between Traditional And Contemporary Jamaican And Korean Dishes Brought To You By Brothers, Owner Jason And Chef Jimmy Mills. The Spicy Belly Offers A Fresh And Focused Look Into The Delicious Marriage Of Jamaican And Korean Flavors. The Creative Food And Vibrant Atmosphere Hopes To Add To The Growing Food Culture In Its Historic Wissahickon And Manayunk Neighborhoods Of Philadelphia.
Brothers, James and Jason Mills, are originally from New York City and bring their culinary vision and their take on a new cuisine to the Philadelphia area. James is a self-taught chef with primary focus on Jamaican and Korean cuisine. This magical food combination arose from their multiracial parents, with their mother being from South Korea and their father from Jamaica. Fueled by their parents’ home cooking, two brothers expanded their culinary visions and created an establishment to highlight their multicultural cuisine. After an eye-opening trip to Jamaica in 2011, the bold idea to bring their unique background to the table was born. Living in the nearby neighborhood of Manayunk, James and Jason saw this neighborhood as a forefront to introduce their food culture to its Philly natives.
From our Jerk chicken tacos to our Kimchi pork belly lettuce wraps, the menu at Spicy Belly is designed to pay respect to the great features of Jamaican and Korean foods and ingredients. Featuring traditional ingredients, simple and classic dishes from both culinary worlds are represented. Likewise, the bar highlights fun and innovative flavors with its specialty cocktails, local wine selection and wide variety of beers. We pride ourselves being about to provide food options for the eclectic and the daring. From the first bite to the last drink, Spicy Belly hopes to bring a community together in enjoying tasty food and fun atmosphere.