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Marugame Udon Is a Machine Engineered to Deliver Perfect Noodles - August 2, 2018 - SF Weekly
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Marugame Udon Is a Machine Engineered to Deliver Perfect Noodles

Mentai Kamatama udon. Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

The idea of homeostasis, the condition of stability necessary for life to function, implies that an organism in that state will be at ease or at rest. It’s not necessarily so. At Marugame Udon, the second American location of a Japanese chain with nearly 1,000 cafeteria-style noodle houses worldwide, the default setting is an unceasing rhythm. Upon entering, you contemplate your selection from the menu of roughly a dozen options (a couple of which look like stripped-down things almost no one orders). Then you trundle past various stations where the noodles are made, watching ropes of wheat flour get rolled out on dowels and rinsed before joining their eventual broths and accompaniments. Although loud, the process has the slow, borderline-hypnotic quality of passing through a brushless car wash.

And these noodles are standardized for near-perfection. It’s udon engineered for maximum suppleness, just the right give and chew, but still quite soft. Almost every dish starts out in the $7 to $10 range, although if you can sail past Marugame’s enchanted forest of tempura, more power to you. But first, the broth. Ramen fans take note: The large bowl of tonkotsu udon ($10.90) is a little stingy on the chashu pork but makes up for it with a bit of miso ground pork. It’s also a bit shy in garlic and chili oil, and it might not make you switch your noodle allegiance.

Others might. As its sweetness lends complexity to the sanguine alchemy of beef’s inherent flavor, the drier Nikutama udon ($8.50) was arguably better in spite of lacking any real broth — and here, the soft egg made things noticeably creamier. The other difference over tonkotsu is the umami-heavy kake sauce, a proprietary mix of dashi, soy sauce, and the low-alcohol rice wine known as mirin. But again, if you demand a bowl of soup, this isn’t for you. Mentai Kamatama udon ($6.90), with a bit of pollock roe and an egg brought aquatic and terrestrial ova together in a snappier combination, is full of the briny whiffs that make poke such a delight.

The best, though, is the Thai spicy chicken udon ($7.90), which someone warned me about owing to its heat. I initially would have preferred it spicier, but the broth has such a harmonious tang — without any excess saltiness once you get to the dregs — that I changed my mind. You can always give it a squirt or Sriracha, too. Pair it with a chunk of chicken tempura, which Marugame helpfully points out is its best seller, and the contrast between it and the spicy chicken — which appears poached almost in the K.M.G. style, although rice-free — is excellent.

A sign by the condiment station instructs you on what to do with each udon preparation. Or you can just drown your potato croquette or fishcake tempura (my favorite, partly since the texture never changes even when the temperature does) in the tempura sauce that’s served in a coffee urn.

Some of the praise we may heap on Marugame originates not from what it has — namely, those thick and luscious noodles — but from what it lacks, which is sterility. Granted, it’s wedged between an Olive Garden and a Chipotle in a mall with an expressway-like approach that feels like Justin Herman gave it his personal stamp of approval. But in between the paradigmatic 1990s chain and the hapless doyenne of early-2000s fast-food culture, you’ll find an emphasis on communitarian order and very little corporate faux-glamour.

Nothing, apart from the food itself, waits to distract you as some sort of Instagram’s fly-trap. Nothing on the walls (in English, anyway) extols the virtues of udon to people who’ve already ordered some. Rather, signs ask that customers not save seats, that they please place their tray on the mat to receive their bowl of noodles, and that they kindly return those trays when they’ve finished, so everyone may enjoy. Everyone is friendly, on an In-N-Out level, and at the end of the night when the tempura vats look like science-class volcanos, the mess is endearing. There may even be someone shouting “Fresh udon!” in a quasi-performative way, to heighten the drama. Thousand locations notwithstanding, it feels genuine.

Every time I’ve gone, there’s been a long wait. Let it be said that the cafeteria-style service front-loads the wait into a lengthy queue rather than, say, dicing it up into a brief wait for a table followed by a wait for a server to take your order followed by a wait for the food to arrive. The hyper-organized line, monitored by workers who also do their best to make sure that you keep the door closed so as not to let in the chill, comes in two segments — or three, if things are really busy.

It can look like there’s a wait to wait. But there’s an agreeable vitality to all this being-bossed-around. You know that frustrating element to human psychology by which people wait for something for a long time only to panic and seize up when it finally comes time to spit out their decision? That doesn’t seem to happen here. And how crazy is the line, anyway? Well, I hung back on visiting Marugame until the K-L-M Muni tunnel closed for the summer, and somewhere between 15 and 40 minutes would elapse before I sat down to eat. Although you’re outside for all but the last 10 minutes, compare that to a polite host telling you at 6 p.m. that the next table is at 10:45 and you’ll have your answer. Go get some udon before the tunnel reopens and there’s a wait to wait to wait.

Marugame Udon, 3251 20th Ave. (Stonestown Galleria), 415-680-1280 or marugameudon.com