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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
329 E 1st St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
See their Yelp reviews here!