Quick: If you’re standing at the traffic circle at the foot of Eighth Street, where it intersects Division, Townsend, and Henry Adams streets, what neighborhood are you in? It isn’t SoMa, Mission Bay, or Potrero Hill. Technically, it’s the Design District or Showplace Square, but both of those alliterative names feel grafted on by booster-happy eager beavers, although the latter is sillier. (And what was it called before the wholesale rugs moved in?)
It might almost be the Omakase District, because before Chef Jackson Yu’s upscale sushi experience moved in in 2015, the area lacked much color beyond the giant Zynga dog, whose name happens to be Zinga. Omakase added more zing, though, when Okane and later Dumpling Time opened within a block or two of the rotary, with Dumpling Time’s tom yum goong (vivid xiao long bao wrapped in beet skin) drawing sustained acclaim. Other places followed, including the amiable beer-and-barbecue joint Hardwood Bar and Smokery, the bafflingly underappreciated Thai street-food restaurant Saap Ver, and later El Pipila. There’s also The Grove, a vigorous and smartly designed cafe serving Sightglass-and-Three-Twins affogatos.
An intersection that recently had all the charm of Market and Gough is now creeping closer to Octavia and Hayes — at least during the day — and the Omakase Restaurant Group deserves the lion’s share of the credit. Now we have Udon Time, a fast-casual noodle house on the ground floor of 55 Division St. that’s next door to Omakase’s other debut, the ultra-luxe Niku Steakhouse.
Like the wonderful Marugame Udon at Stonestown, Udon Time is a cafeteria-style affair with perceptibly softer noodles (although also with blessedly shorter lines). The selection is about half as big, too, with around six noodle options at a lower overall spice level — although they’re considerably more customizable here. In contrast to Marugame’s nearly theatrical environment, Udon Time goes for the straightforward. And while you can’t get orange soda from a fountain, the liquor license allows for beer, wine, and even Suntory whisky.
Otherwise, Udon Time is more about the slurp than the chew. Hand-pulled noodles like you get at places like Bing’s Dumplings in Fremont — a South/East Bay gem, trust — require managing scissors, Udon Time is simpler. Granted, it’s a street-food-style menu in a brick-and-mortar, but that shouldn’t be unduly troubling for most people. While the vegetable mix in the $10 vegetarian udon feels season-agnostic or even indiscriminate — the cobs of corn quartered lengthwise are cumbersome, and although the halved cherry tomatoes throw in plenty of acidic pop, they feel out of place — the biggest overall drawback vis-a-vis Marugame is that comparative lack of heat.
Rather, get the Niku Udon ($14), a mix of sweet onions, green onions, and ginger, which lends itself well to the wide selection of tempura. The Kamatama (with a jidori egg, soy sauce, Parmesan, and butter, $12) is a very good idea, as it’s essentially a Japanese pasta carbonara, hovering at the threshold of soup, but you need to pluck out the butter after about one-third of it melts or you will be left with something altogether too rich for lunch.
Many of the add-ons are quite good, including the salty, restrained ume onigiri. Avocado tempura? It’s fairly rare to find it detached from a roll of some kind, but it’s here, alongside the requisite kariage and sweet potato, plus zucchini, asparagus, and curry potato. Getting into the rhythm of Udon Time, you’ll discover what suits you, and just how liberal to be with the tempura flakes or the mushroom tempura (the best option, texturally speaking, after the fish cakes).
But it might take you a few tries. An explanation of how the noodles are made adorns one wall, but Udon Time could actually benefit from a bit more hand-holding. Staff are trained to upsell you add-ons like egg or meat, but if you ask for recommendations on whether a broth is better with beef or pork, they might demur, seemingly unsure. Beguiling offerings such as daikon oroshi — a cold, lightly dressed grated radish condiment — might befuddle the uninitiated as well. That it goes with tempura is probably clear to most people, but doubts creep in: What if there is some combination of flavors you’re not thinking of here that will blow your mind? With some more guidance, Udon Time could really excel. As is, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure that may ask for a bit too much patience.
Udon Time, 55 Division St., 415-800-7585 or udontime.com