It was a dark and stormy night — the perfect night, it seemed, for a bowl of udon at Marugame.
As I drove up Shattuck Avenue, the torrential rain blurred my view from the windshield. After parking several blocks away, I found myself hopping over puddles, eager to step inside Marugame for a bowl of udon. But instead, I waited in line outside amid the blustering wind and rain. Even once inside the restaurant, the draft from the open door left a chill in my bones that I hoped udon would be able to cure.
Over two months after opening, Marugame Udon still attracts consistent lines outside during lunch and dinner. It's become somewhat standard practice here in the Bay Area to line up for noodles, especially from Japanese chains like nearby Ippudo and Marafuku in Temescal. Marugame Udon, too, is a Japanese chain, with over a thousand stores worldwide but only a handful of stores in the United States — the newest being its long-anticipated, highly hyped-up Berkeley location.
Other than the fact that it focuses on udon, not ramen, what sets Marugame apart from the other Japanese noodle chains is its casual, cafeteria-style service. That means prices are a lot lower — as low as $5.20 for a bowl of udon. That also means that the lines aren't as bad as they look. While you're waiting in line inside, you can watch the noodle making, from rolling out the dough with metal rods to cutting the noodles and boiling each serving individually. Once you place your order, the noodles are rinsed, the excess water sucked away by a specialized vacuum-like device. The servers will place the appropriate broth, sauces, and garnishes on top of the noodles, and a minute later, a complete bowl of udon appears on your tray.
The next stop on the assembly line is the self-serve tempura, where employees are constantly frying batches of shrimp and veggies in giant vats behind the counter. Nearly a dozen varieties await. At the end of the line are snacks like onigiri, musubi, and canned and bottled drinks. After paying, it's up to you to dress your udon with green onions, cilantro, and tempura flakes, and to grab your own dashi, tempura sauce, and utensils before carrying your precariously stacked tray over to the nearest empty seat.
So is Marugame worth the hype? The noodles absolutely are. They're thick, chewy, and cooked just a little bit past al dente, with surfaces that are silky, smooth, and perfect for slurping. Accordingly, the udon dishes I liked the most were the simplest ones, which allowed the noodles to shine.
The menu of udon choices can be a little difficult to decipher for those who aren't familiar with traditional udon dishes. On the backlit menu board, there are photos of all the dishes along with their Japanese name, without further description. I particularly enjoyed the kama-age udon, for which noodles are plucked straight from the pot and served in a circular bamboo container along with a little bit of their starchy cooking water. This water helped the noodles retain their heat, and it also prevented the noodles from tasting too salty after being dipped in the kake sauce, a briny, dark mixture of fish-based dashi and mirin.
I also enjoyed the kitsune udon, which consisted of hot udon noodles in warm kake broth with a thin sheet of sweet fried tofu. The sweet tofu soaked up the savory broth, meaning that each bite burst with sweet-salty flavor. Another winner was the nikutama udon, which came with kake sauce, sweet shredded beef with onions, and a soft-boiled egg that's cracked into the bowl upon ordering. The sweet beef balanced well with the dashi, and the soft-boiled egg added thick, creamy richness to the udon.
After trying a few of Marugame's udon offerings, though, it's clear to me that the focus is on the noodles rather than the soup. Most of the udon dishes came with just enough broth to cover the soup, and in some cases, the broth wasn't as hot as I would have liked. This isn't like the Japanese ramen chains where you'll hear about pork bones being simmered for 10 hours at a time to create a milky tonkotsu broth.
In fact, I found most of the more complex broth-based soups to be a letdown. I'd never tried tonkotsu udon (I usually see it paired with ramen instead), but the version here tasted more like miso than pork. I did, however, like the nutty, toasty chili oil that floated on top. The curry udon was satisfying on the first bite, but eventually became overwhelmingly oily, salty, and overly sweet.
Instead of going for one of the heavier udon dishes, I think the best strategy at Marugame is to pick a simple udon and pair it with a few tempura of your choice. The shrimp tempura was always fresh on my visits, and I liked the sweetness of the shrimp combined with the crisp, warm batter and a little dashi sauce for dipping. The potato croquette was also a winner — a crispy cloud of starchy, fluffy mashed potatoes that paired well with the thicker, tangy sweet tempura sauce. Others, like the vegetable kakiage and zucchini tempura, tasted heavily of old oil and not much else. The fish tempura, meanwhile, was overcooked to the point that it was dry and impossible to chew. But the sleeper hit was the big chicken katsu, a giant piece of fried chicken breast served on two skewers. The breading was thin, crisp, and well-seasoned, while the chicken was surprisingly juicy.
With meager amounts of mediocre broth, Marugame Udon won't satisfy cravings for a comforting soup during the winter. For that, you're better off turning to your favorite ramen, pho, pozole, or won ton noodle shop. But freshly made noodles like these rarely come at a better price.