Marugame Monzo – Little Tokyo

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

We’ve been talking about ramen on this blog quite frequently lately, but with my insatiable love for noodles of all sorts, we did not forget about another one of Japan’s specialties – udon. Thick, white strands made from a wheat flour based dough, udon is like a blank template for a variety of serving methods. Hot or cold, soupy or saucy, the best udon dishes start with the best udon noodles, and for those, be sure to stop by Marugame Monzo in the heart of Little Tokyo. This tiny storefront is located adjacent to the Downtown location of Daikokuya with its characteristically long lines weaving onto the sidewalk. Marugame Monzo is quite popular as well, though we were lucky to be immediately at prime seats at the counter one late Wednesday night. Thankfully, not too late to catch the Noodle Master making his last batch of handmade udon. I’ll repeat that one more time — HANDMADE UDON.

The Noodle Master

The Noodle Master in Action

I had bookmarked Marugame Monzo since earlier this year when they took Little Tokyo by storm, opening up shop in the former Fat Spoon. Martin boasted that he had the opportunity to have lunch here sometime this summer with his coworkers, but I had the last laugh – their signature sea urchin cream udon is only served on the dinner menu. And that one dish, my friends, is a powerful motivator to get me in my car on a weeknight and brave traffic all the way to DTLA. So when I got to choose our dinner destination, Marugame Monzo was first choice on my list.

Hand-cutting the Noodles

Hand-cutting the Noodles

We were both mesmerized by the swift and deliberate movements of the Noodle Master at work. He rolled out the dough flat, folded it onto itself, and rolled it out again. Then he centered a piece of equipment that looked like a custom built swinging-arm paper cutter. With an (unnecessarily?) large blade and a very watchful eye, he cut dough into noodle like a machine. With each cut, I could see the hinge of the blade slide over just the tiniest bit, allowing him to make the next cut with absolute precision. Using his hands to measure out portions of noodles, he grabbed bundles by the fistful and twirled them, distributing the excess flour and ensuring that none of them stuck to each other. Amazing. Somehow we managed to tear our eyes away from the magic and place our order.

Chicken Karaage (Fried Chicken)

Chicken Karaage (Fried Chicken)

First, an appetizer. I was tempted to try the beef tataki but we both were swayed toward the idea of fried chicken. Japanese style fried chicken, known as 唐揚げ (chicken karaage) or simply フライドチキン (furaido chicken), is often lightly battered, very crispy on the outside but juicy on the inside, and well seasoned. Such was the case here, as our server explained that the chicken could be eaten on its own or with the optional condiments of sweet Kewpie mayo or curry salt.

Chicken Karaage - a closeup

Chicken Karaage – a closeup

Martin enjoyed the chicken it its purest state – savoring the slightly salted and not at all greasy coating that surrounded the moist morsels of poultry. I really liked the curry salt and dipped the corner of each piece to get that extra flavor boost. The mayo was a bit much (fried AND fatty?) but I love sweet Japanese mayo so I didn’t mind using a teeny bit to help the curry salt to better adhere.

Mentai Squid Butter Udon

Mentai Squid Butter Udon

So as I mentioned earlier, udon is served in many ways — in a steaming shoyu-based broth (kakeudon), cold with a tsuyu dipping sauce (zaru udon), in a stone pot with a thick curry sauce, and perhaps most creatively, in the style of Japanese spaghetti (blanched noodles dressed with a sauce made from otherwise traditional ingredients). Ume (pickled plum) and cod roe are common spaghetti toppings, which are even sold in Asian grocery stores as prepackaged sauce packets for regular ol’ boxed pasta. But we opted for some fairly unique fare. Martin had the mentai squid butter udon, tinted pale pink from the generous serving of mentaiko (Alaskan pollock roe). The shredded nori is a must to add a bit of crunch to the otherwise very rich sauce. The squid is impressively tender and plentiful.

Uni (Sea Urchin) Cream Udon

Uni (Sea Urchin) Cream Udon

My selection was the long-awaited udon with a sea urchin cream sauce (うにクリームソースうどん). It was every bit as amazing as I’d hoped it would be. A balance of briny sacs of sea urchin roe swimming in an Alfredo-like cream sauce, this decadent dish was accentuated by the chewy texture that only comes with fresh, handmade udon noodles. There was a LOT of uni, so despite being the most expensive dish on the menu (at $15.95 per plate), I really felt like it was a great deal.

Showcasing one of the (many) pieces of uni

Showcasing one of the (many) pieces of uni

I had never had cooked uni before, only nigiri-style atop perfectly formed mounds of rice at sushi places. When cooked, the roe shrivels a bit and firms up, yielding an almost brittle texture. A stark contrast from the lush mouth-feel when eaten raw. Overall, I loved it and would certainly order it again, but be forewarned, there was a bit of diminishing return by the time I finally devoured the last strands of sauce-coated udon… or perhaps it was my rising cholesterol levels begging my hand to stop lifting fork to mouth.

If you can get seats at the counter, take them. You’ll have the best seats in the house to observe the Noodle Master at work. If you sit along the side of the glass enclosure, you can even peek into the kitchen, where a female chef is manning the burners and sauteing multiple orders simultaneously. An awesome experience rounded out by friendly service and amazing eats, Marugame Monzo is a must-try destination in Little Tokyo!

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Check out Marugame Monzo:

329 E 1st St
Los Angeles, CA 90012

See their Yelp reviews here!

Cafe Dulce – Little Tokyo

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

Tucked into a cozy corner of the Japan Village Plaza (日本村プラザ) of Little Tokyo in Downtown LA are all sorts of bakeries, cafes, souvenir vendors, even mochi ice cream. Our most recent discovery, however, was Cafe Dulce. We just could not resist the bright yellow umbrellas beckoning us inside.

Cafe Dulce in Little Tokyo

Cafe Dulce in Little Tokyo

And once inside, I was floored by the baked goods on display. Martin pulled me over to the glass case and pointed out one magical word: BACON. (Which of course, immediately brought to mind that good ol’ commercial for dog treats… IT’S BACON!!!!)

It's BACON!

It’s BACON!

That’s right, folks. Cafe Dulce is home to a delicious, salty-sweet bacon doughnut. Available in both whole doughnuts and doughnut holes, the fluffy fried dough is topped with a basic white sugar icing and sprinkled generously with flecks of smoky bacon. Though it was the first to catch my eye, it was not the only impressive item in the display case…

The Glass Display of Goodies

The Glass Display of Goodies

Behold the beautiful treats. I wanted to buy one of everything. Especially intriguing was that colorful tray on the second shelf, filled with doughnut holes topped with Fruity Pebbles cereal. What’ll they think of next??

Green Tea Brick Toast

Green Tea Brick Toast

Of course. Matcha-flavored brick toast. Brick toast is traditionally a Taiwanese boba shop dessert consisting of a hefty slice of bread soaked in sweet syrup or condensed milk or other flavorings, served warm. Just seeing those two words brought back memories of driving out to Guppy’s Tea House in high school just to dig into a giant brick toast (and shaved ice, but that’s a story for another day). Since we were planning to bring a few doughnuts home, I ordered one of these as well to heat up later.

Green Tea Brick Toast - the middles

Green Tea Brick Toast – the middles

Dissecting the brick toast reveals a fluffy center and a crunchy exterior from the sugary glaze. The matcha flavor and gorgeous pale green color was present throughout the toast. We heated it up for just a few seconds in the microwave and it was good as new. I meant to eat only half but I polished that off with a quickness. Pictured above is the second half, the one I had fully intended to save for later. But, it was delicious and I have no regrets.

Bacon Doughnut Hole

Bacon Doughnut Hole

Ahh the bacon doughnut hole. We thought these little puffs of dough would be cuter and easier to portion-control than the full-sized doughnuts. Personally I think they photograph better as well. I loved the doughnut itself – light, fluffy, and not at all greasy. Like a little deep fried cloud. The icing was simple which helped the bacon stand out better (usually I see bacon doughnuts with a maple glaze). This was unadulterated sweet & meat goodness. The bacon could have been crunchier, but then again, I like my bacon so crispy that they crumble when you look at them. It was a nice little artery-clogging treat and certainly a great novelty item if you’re looking to pick up dessert to bring to a party. Give it a try – you just might like it!

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Check out Cafe Dulce: cafedulcelosangeles.com

134 Japanese Village Plz
Bldg E
Los Angeles, CA 90012

See their Yelp reviews here!

Hakata Ramen Shin Sen Gumi – Little Tokyo

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

Oh ramen… It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles for college did I finally discover that ラーメン is so much more than Cup ‘O Noodles or Nong Shim shin cups. There was shio (salt) ramen, shoyu (soy sauce) ramen, miso ramen, and of course our favorite – tonkotsu (pork-based) ramen. With a rich broth enriched by the fat and collagen in pork bones, there’s nothing quite like a big bowl of tonkotsu ramen on a cold rainy day (or even on a hot summer’s day) to really make my insides feel warm and fuzzy. Martin and I have been known to stand on the sidewalk of 1st Street in hour-long waits for Daikokuya, but this time, we were in the mood for something a bit different. Cue, Shin-Sen-Gumi.

The Guys at Shin-Sen-Gumi

The Guys at Shin-Sen-Gumi

Hakata ramen is traditionally a pork-based broth served with thin, pale white noodles, chashu (roasted pork slices), negi (green onions), and benishoga (red pickled ginger). Two relatively unique concepts make Shin-Sen-Gumi stand out among the other ramen shops — 1) you use an order form where you can check off your desired broth strength, noodle texture, and amount of oil, and 2) you can purchase any variety of the 30 available regular and special toppings to really customize your bowl. Add in the fact that Shin-Sen-Gumi offers kaedama (that is, the purchase of extra noodles) and we have a winning combination!

The Menu

The Menu

It will be difficult, but definitely narrow down your toppings to just a few or the price of a standard sized bowl will quickly add up. Luckily, most toppings hover between $1-2 and since they come in separate little dishes, you can always share.

Our Order

Our Order

We were practically drooling at the counter watching the guys set up bowl after bowl of noodles and broth with a deft swiftness. The energy was great as they enthusiastically called out each new order and simultaneously welcomed new customers with a loud  いっらしゃい (irrashai!).

Other Toppings / Mix-ins

Other Toppings / Mix-ins

At each table sat this cute little rack of additional toppings so you could further customize your broth (customization is the theme of this meal). I saw many others using a combination of the goma (sesame seeds), white pepper, chili oil, vinegar, and shoyu, but we left ours as-is.

Toppings

Toppings (clockwise from the center): chashu, thick cut chashu, menma (bamboo), shoyu egg, kikurage (wood ear mushroom), crispy pig ear

We were very happy when the toppings arrived; it was a sign that our bowls of ramen would be coming soon! One of the orders of bamboo, along with the egg and chashu, were for Martin’s bowl, while I was excited to add the bamboo, wood ear mushroom, thick cut chashu, and crispy pig ear to my bowl. As you can see, we don’t share well when it comes to delicious noms.

Hakata Ramen

Hakata Ramen

Martin and I each ordered a bowl of Hakata Ramen. He went “normal” across the board for noodle firmness, oil, and broth strength but omitted the benishoga. Mine (the one pictured above) was normal noodle firmness, light oil, and normal broth strength. The broth was hearty, rich, and totally hits the spot. Though not quite as fatty as the kotteri ramen at Daikokuya, I very much appreciated that the broth here was not awkwardly cloying on my lips and tongue like it can be at other tonkotsu ramen places.

My Toppings

My Toppings

After what felt like an eternity trying to keep my hands steady enough to take these photographs, I finally grabbed the cute little dishes of toppings and tossed them into my bowl. All except for the crispy pig ear. I decided to reserve those bits of crispy pig ear and add them throughout the meal so they stay crunchy.

All mixed in!

All mixed in!

The noodles here were much thinner than at other ramen places. I was ambivalent, although I generally prefer thicker noodles. Also, I was swimming in pork as I had not realized that the regular bowl of hakata ramen comes with a few chashu slices by default. I’m definitely not complaining though! Martin and I were focused — we ate in stunned silence, save for the occasional slurp.

Crispy Pig Ear

Crispy Pig Ear

Hands down the crispy pig ear was my favorite topping and probably the best $1.50 I’ve ever spent. A generous pile of golden brown crunchy bits, they reminded me of the pork rinds served with Vietnamese steamed rice cakes (bánh bèo). Some went into my bowl to soak up a bit of broth, but admittedly, many of the pieces just went straight into my mouth. Don’t miss out on this topping!

About $12 - not bad for lunch

About $12 – not bad for lunch

In retrospect, I realized I spent almost as much in toppings as the price of the ramen itself, but I have no regrets. The wood ear mushroom and bamboo added great textures to complement the noodles, and the thick cut chashu was so moist and tender that it practically melted in my mouth. It was definitely a satisfying lunch and well worth the journey out to Downtown LA’s Little Tokyo.

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Check out Hakata Ramen Shin-Sen-Gumi: shinsengumigroup.com

132 S Central Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90013

See their Yelp reviews here!