Marugame Udon: Udon Know Me, Yet.
Take a stroll along 1st Street in Little Tokyo and you may catch yourself doing the sidewalk shuffle to avoid the masses that surround celebrated ramen spots. With almost 20 ramen restaurants in DTLA alone, this brothy bowl of noodles has quickly become LA’s foodie obsession. So, what in-the-land-of-the-rising-sun is udon?
To those who don’t know, udon is much like ramen. It is a hot or cold soup filled to the brim with noodles and toppings that you can sip, slurp, suck—or arouse any masticating clamor that maximizes your enjoyment. But the differences lie in the noodles and broth. Udon’s flavor is rooted in dashi; a simple broth consisting of water, kelp, and bonito fish flakes. It’s savory, delicate, and less rich than ramen’s umami heavyweight, tonkatsu. Or as Goldie Locks might say, “it’s not too salty, not too oily, it’s just right.” Udon noodles are lighter in color, thicker in size, chewier in texture, and slipperier in slurp allowing it to whip back and slap your chin like a wet towel on a bare buttock. Simply delightful.
Newly opened Marugame Udon is serving all of that and more. The Japan-based, fast-casual restaurant has over 1000 locations worldwide and chose The Bloc as its newest location to expand the udon craze. The cafeteria-style setup is designed for the lunchtime Downtowner, allowing guests to customize and observe the udon making process as they snake around the counter.
At the start of the line you’ll choose your soup ranging from the most popular kake and bukkake (no, it’s not what you think) to seasonal soups like green curry and red cayenne chicken. There you will see Japan’s other great import, an udon noodle making machine that kneads and pulls dough until it resembles the limp bristles of a drive-thru car wash. Once cut, an employee portions each serving like a perfectly tousled man bun and plops it into a bowl of piping hot broth. Now, the fun part begins. As you continue to make your way towards the cashier, a line-up of tempura-battered toppings are begging for your choosing.
Everything from fried shrimp to fried crab sticks to chicken katsu are served hot with crumbling, crusty crags. And just priced around $1.50 a piece, you can go ahead and consider ‘golden-brown’ a new food group. Lastly, you’ll be prompted to garnish your udon with green onions, cilantro, fresh ginger, chili oil, and crunchy tempura bits. Pile them on or be conservative, it doesn’t matter because this station is free and nothing tastes better than free.
For first-timers, it’s recommended to order Marugame Udon’s bestseller, the Nikutama. It features thin slices of beef, a soft boiled egg, and chewy noodles swimming in sweet, beef broth. For some customers, this is the dish that loosened their grip on their ramen allegiance, and with so many amalgamations to consider, it’s likely Marugame Udon will convert you, too.
Written by Janica de Guzman | Photography by Chimera Singer