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Udon on the run

Marukame Udon's template for dishing out the Japanese staple is quick and easy

By Nadine Kam

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 05:50 p.m. HST, Jul 22, 2013


Whenever there's a line, you can be sure that I'm going to steer clear of it (unless it's work-related). I've never believed in followingthe crowd and never will, so I'm always curious about others' attraction to lines.

If you've ever doubted that people are lemmings, all you have to do isstand outside Marukame Udon restaurant at dinnertime when a line startsto form. People just passing by will start peering into the window, suddenly realize it's time to eat and getin line even before reading the menu posted at the door. Clearly, in listening to their conversations, some of the Western visitors don't even know whatudon is, but if there's a line, it's got to be good, right?

I don't pretend to understand the whys of human behavior, but with so much of our biological and psychological impulses credited to evolution, I figure ancient man simply foundthere was safety in numbers whether you were a hunter tackling big game as a group, or a gatherer learning what was edible by trial and error. If you were followingcaveman Bob around and he ate a poison mushroom, you'd know better than to suffer the same fate.

Certainly there's safety in the common denominator of noodles, a popular food form in many cultures.

Here, udon has taken a back seat to the more popular saimin and ramen, but over the past few years, I've been won over by the thick, chewy udon. Its silky, tactile and substantive nature demands complete attention as you slurp up the chubby wheat noodles, causing other worrisome thoughts to melt away. Its stress-reducing, time-slowing quality is part of what makes udon one of my top comfort foods.

That said, we had an excellent udon restaurant in Go Shi Go, which is unfortunately gone. There, the noodles were lovingly handmade from start to finish, in a room made to enhance enjoyment. Unfortunately, Hawaii's small population means there are not enough culinary geeks who would appreciate such old-school labor, even at the similar cost. It's sad that people choose to spend more time waiting in line than savoring a meal, but that is every restaurateur's challenge, dealing with a new clientele that can't sit still.

There's nothing wrong with fast and Marukame does an excellent job of it. I just wish there were room for both styles. Marukame Udon is a creature for these times. It's a fast, self-service, cafeteria-style restaurant, hence the line, which tends to move at a fairly fast clip because there aren't a lot of choices.

There's an udon maker at work in the front window, who attracts attention for the restaurant, but this is shortcut udon, flattened and cut by machine, doing away with the element of human skill and artistry.

The comfort level also dissipates in a room in which people feel the pressure to eat quickly to make way for the next round of diners. Otherwise, most people will find the textural difference between slow and fast udon too minuscule to note.

When you get  in line, the cooked noodles are there in front of you. All you have to do is pick your broth, toppings of green onion and tempura crumbs, and assorted tempura or musubi side orders. The two bottlenecks come as people wait for hot udon and at the cashier station. Having two cashiers would be better than just one.

The noodles don't change, only the style of broth and toppings. At the very basic, there is zaru udon ($3.75), served cold and kake ($3.75), served in a warm broth. Meat eaters can opt for the niku ($5.75), topped with a tangle of thin beef.

There is also a curry ($5.25) version, coated in a thick Japanese brown curry sauce. It's great for curry fans, but plainer broth is truer to the udon experience. In the curry sauce, you can't enjoy the impact of green onions or the texture of the tempura crumbles, which wilt under the weight of the curry.

For many, udon and tempura go hand in hand, and there are a lot of choices, though for the most part, due to the line setup, these will tend to be cold by the time you get to the head of the line. It's only by luck that you might be able to get there at the moment they're refilling selections that include thick-battered deep-fried chicken, shrimp tempura, vegetable, asparagus and eggplant tempura, each priced at about $1.25 to $1.50 per piece, that are best enjoyed hot.

You'll get the most bang for your buck for the thick ball of onion and carrot kakiage, or mixed vegetable tempura, and, once you minus out the thick batter coating, the most nutrition item is the purple sweet potato, which is important in such a carb-based meal. If there's one thing I'd pass on, it would be the mushroom tempura, the soft 'shroom disappearing under the weight of the crust.

If you want a guarantee of hot-out-of-the-fryer crispness, you also have the option of placing orders for shrimp ($7.25) and vegetable kakiage ($7.50).

To add to the experience there are assorted ume, kombu ($1.50 each), Spam ($1.75) and other musubi at the end of the line.

The quickness and prices have a lot of appeal, and those with a sharp eye may note one important detail posted on the menu outside the restaurant: "No tip required."

———

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Email nkam@staradvertiser.com.






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