Sunday, October 30, 2011

Marukame Udon

Because I still have a mountain of savory places to write about from my Oahu trip, I'm going to mix things up and rotate through Napa, Oahu, and home-cooking posts. And the first place that comes to mind when I think about Oahu savories is Marukame Udon.

My friends and I went to Marukame Udon three times over the course of nine days of beaching, and by the end of our trip, we wished we had gone at least five more times. It's that freaking good.

One of my law school mentors put Marukame Udon on my radar, and when my friend and I saw the huge line outside of the restaurant, we were more than sold. Don't let the line deter you. Persevere and you shall be rewarded.

Marukame Udon is a cafeteria-style joint that serves up an unbeatable combination: Housemade udon, tempura, and musubi. While you're in line, take a good look at the menu before you get thrown into the stressfully enjoyable process of getting your meal.

Once you enter the restaurant, look to your right and you'll see someone making batches upon batches of housemade udon. The line gently moves forward in a surprisingly organized and well-paced fashion. Before you make your order you'll see a person manning the noodle-cooking station. Next to piping hot water in a large tub outlined with noodle baskets, is a tub of running cold water to keep the udon nearly perfectly cooked. He then masterfully ties and weighs each individual serving of udon.

Take a second to pick up a tray, and if you're planning to get some tempura, grab a small plate as well.

Place your order and continue observing the udon-making process. The next person takes the tied udon, briefly dips the noodles in a lukewarm bath, which puts the finishing touch on reaching udon-cooking perfection, and runs the noodles through something similar to a salad spinner to remove excess water.

As the next cook adds the appropriate broth to a bowl containing a serving of the carefully prepared udon, another will ask you whether you want any tempura flakes, green onions, or soft-boiled eggs to add to your bowl. More often than not, get all three. And maybe more than just one soft-boiled egg.

After you get your udon, you have to walk past a tempting display of freshly fried tempura varieties.

They have all the standards, like eggplants, green beans, sweet potatoes, onions, carrots, and shrimp.

They also have Mushroom Tempura on skewers and huge bricks of sliced onions and carrots.

Though it's easy to get overwhelmed with all the options, make sure to get a piece of Chicken Tempura. The chicken is ridiculously juicy and the nugget is fried just enough to add some crunch without making each bite feel too heavy.

They also have Egg Tempura, which I was really excited about, despite the fact that I already had two soft-boiled eggs floating in my soup.

Thankfully, my heart was spared when I took my first bite. While the idea is awesome, I think this one is passable. I'd rather just get a third soft-boiled egg.

After passing up all the tempura, they tempt you with an assortment of musubi. I've had the Salmon Musubi and the Spam Musubi. While both are good, I think you're better off just sticking to some tempura and udon. If you want good musubi, head over to Iyasume Musubi.

Once you've paid for all your goodies, grab some shichimi, a drink, and some tempura sauce and find a table to enjoy your bowl of udon.

I've had many a bowl of udon here in the States, but for some reason, I never though udon was something exceptional. In the midst of hundreds of bowls of ramen in Japan, however, I did get introduced to a bowl of unbelievable udon at Udon Kurosawa (their Kurobuta Curry Namban is the best curry udon I've had in my life, topped with thick, delicious slices of rich black pig pork belly; shout out to Rina for taking me there). That bowl haunts me to this day.

But I still hadn't had a regular, simple bowl of udon that blew my socks off. At Marukame Udon, the standard Kake Udon exceeded expectations. The broth is clean, light, and addictive. The broth tasted more of a rich dashi with less soy sauce and mirin than the average udon. The noodles had just the right amount of chew. They almost had the texture of the first bite of a piece of Korean rice cake, without any of the subsequent stickiness. The optional green onions really add a lot to this bowl, but the tempura flake and shichimi toppings are unnecessary. But sometimes you're just in the mood for some deep-fried bits and a kick of spice. So if you're in that mood, go for it.

The Ontama Bukkake Udon is perfect for those really hot days in Oahu, though if you're not into cold udon, don't bother. This bowl comes with tempura flakes, green onions, a soft-boiled egg, and a small base of concentrated broth. The broth has some hearty hints of anchovy, but isn't so liberally applied to make it overwhelming. With this bowl, however, the udon is the star. With cold udon, the udon is perfectly cooked, more so than hot udon because if you don't eat your hot udon fast enough, the noodles slowly get overcooked. So if it's unbearably hot out and you need a refreshing bowl of perfect udon from your first bite to your last, get this one.

If you're looking for a heavy bowl of comfort and warmth, get the Curry Udon. In this bowl, the delicious udon slithers around in a lake of thick curry. Definitely get the green onions on this bowl to break up the heaviness of the curry, and definitely get the tempura flakes to add some welcome texture. The curry itself is absurdly delicious, speckled with bits of addictive, sweet onions. Come here hungry if you plan on getting this one.

The best bowl of udon I had, by far, was the Niku Udon. The broth is noticeably heartier than the Kake Udon, without being as heavy as the Curry Udon, and the thin strips of brisket come perfectly tender and not too fatty. By the end of my trip in Oahu, I had no qualms with ordering this bowl of udon over the other options. The best way to enjoy this bowl is with two soft-boiled eggs, tempura flakes, green onions, and shichimi. The light spice from the green onions balance really well with the umami broth, the shichimi gives each spoonful a nice little kick, and the tempura flakes add some crunch to the gooey soft-boiled eggs. Add some of those awesome, toothsome, housemade noodles and you've really got yourself a winner.

With one last bowl of Niku Udon, I said a sorrowful goodbye to Marukame Udon. I knew we'd meet again. Some day. But I knew that each step I took away from the restaurant was a step towards mediocre, unsatisfactory, depressing udon. For all those planning to go to Oahu, do me a favor to help battle my bout of udonless depression. Plan for enough meals to eat everything on your list, but set aside at least two of those meals for Marukame Udon.

Marukame Udon
2310 Kuhio Ave
Honolulu, HI 96815
(808) 931-6000

GET: Chicken Tempura; Mushroom Tempura; Niku Udon with Two Soft-Boiled Eggs, Tempura Flakes, and Green Onion (add some shichimi, too).

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