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Belly Buttoned Up

Belly Taqueria to Close, longtime restaurateurs plan move to Portland
Brendan Mahaney
Brendan Mahaney

Our Lady of Carnitas, the muse of rosy-fingered pork, is silent. The Mahaneys are leaving town.

Longtime co-owners of Eugene favorites Belly and Belly Taqueria, Brendan and Ann Marie Mahaney plan to move to Portland in early 2018 to ponder new avenues and do a little more yoga. 

As Ann Marie Mahaney continues her education in nursing, husband Brendan will spend the rest of the year cementing a partnership with some familiar faces. Together with two of his former chefs, partners Edgar Arellano and Mikey Lawrence, owners of the Buck Buck fried chicken cart, they plan to open a New Orleans-inspired New American restaurant, Black Wolf Supper Club, in the space that now houses Belly Taqueria at 454 Willamette Street. See our story in Chow this issue. 

The team’s experience with the Mahaneys’ restaurants will surely color the cuisine: Arellano served as sous chef at Belly Taqueria, and Lawrence worked his way up from doing odd jobs like picking plums to managing the kitchen as chef de cuisine at Belly. Both say they consider the Mahaneys family.

“We call them mom and dad. I owe everything to Brendan,” Lawrence says. “I’m so thankful to have those guys in my life.”

Nevertheless, with Brendan Mahaney’s departure, an era will end.

Belly and Belly Taqueria both served as models for casual but urbane dining, relying on our bounteous local farmers’ markets instead of trucked-in produce, all priced at under $20 a plate.

Mark Kosmicki, co-owner of Party Downtown, credits Mahaney and his business savvy for starting the new wave of creative Eugene restaurants that has swept town in the past decade. Belly employed young chefs like Kosmicki’s partner, Tiffany Norton, and elevated spirits in a city known to be hard on emerging talent. 

“Without him,” Kosmicki says, “there’d be no Party, Grit, Membrillo, Mame. He opened the door for the next generation, and he’s an inspiration to all of us.”

After leaving the Ph.D. program in English at the University of Oregon and serving stints at Marché, Red Agave and restaurants in San Francisco, Mahaney says he suspected he could “provide a marriage between fine dining and a less expensive, comfortable spot with seasonal food that was accessible, yet a little rough and tumble” in Eugene. 

It wasn’t fancy food, but it wasn’t mundane family cooking, either. Inspired by British chef Fergus Henderson, the burgeoning Portland dining scene and the greats of California cuisine, from day one Belly’s menu showcased local vegetables and hunky meats of European country cooking. 

The décor was as unpretentious and fun as the food. A black-masked Audrey Hepburn gazed out like a queen over thrift store furniture and tchotchkes. She shook when the train passed the building, and perhaps a little, too, when the sound system blasted Run DMC.

Ann Marie Mahaney puts it plainly: “The interior wasn’t moneyed or high design. It made people feel comfortable.” 

A few months after opening Belly in 2008, the Mahaneys were running a popular taco night on Mondays, which came and went and came again, and eventually inspired them to open up the Belly Taqueria in 2012. Visits by food critics Mark Bittman and Jonathan Gold, who tweeted about the “formidable tripe and trotters” in 2011, may have contributed to the restaurant’s prestigious James Beard award nomination. 

Although he says he talks about the nomination to anyone who asks him what he was doing in 2012, Mahaney credits the success to his favorite cook, wife Ann Marie, as well as her “honest palate,” killer gougère and key lime pie recipes and affinity for budget-priced European wines.

This marriage of minds allowed for an expansion into the much larger downtown space with a full bar. Belly quickly transformed into a popular venue that never gave up its specialties of the house: boudin sausage, bacon-wrapped figs and relentless pork confit served with an array of seasonal roasted fruit. 

After Belly was sold to Diana and Steve Lee in 2015, Mahaney retrenched at the taqueria, relieved to focus on simpler, satisfying fare, since “carnitas and margaritas and guacamole never went out of season.”

Though he certainly kept up the experimentation, as evidenced by the St. Patrick’s Day green-apple and kale margarita this year, he started thinking about transforming the taqueria into its next incarnation. Gustatory travels to New Orleans came to mind. Soon enough, they were discussing options with Lawrence. 

While still in town, Mahaney plans to focus on the pantry menu for Black Wolf Supper Club before gracefully fading into the background. “This transition is dreamy for me,” he says. “We get to have a good, creative young chef experienced in logistics tackle the challenge … and he’s providing me with 30-year-old energy past my bedtime.”

Iinterested in supporting the new restaurant’s Kickstarter campaign? Go to kickstarter.com/projects/1521306200/buck-buck-and-the-black-wolf-supper-club. If they raise $30,000, the Mahaneys will match the amount.