Ben Falik is strongly pro-gluten.
“Our noodles are high in gluten, so they have a lot of bounce and chew,” he says. “We're the anti-soba.”
Falik is the co-founder of Odang Udon, a brand that's the only maker of fresh udon in the United States and which can be found in several Whole Foods, via Good Eggs, and at the SoMa StrEat Food Park, where Odang's food truck — or trailer, technically — serves lunch and dinner every day of the week but Monday.
“The udon we make has four basic ingredients: non-GMO wheat flour from Australia, salt, vinegar, and water,” Falik says. “No preservatives, no xanthan gum, no fats. There's a lot of protein in it, because of that gluten content. We're crusaders for the good kind of gluten.”
[jump] Born out of the ramen craze and the more recent shift in California palates toward nourishing soups and bone broths, Odang had a curious origin. Falik quit his job in advertising after his high school friend (and current business partner) Matt Palley took a trip to Hawaii, where he ate fresh udon for the first time. He traveled to rural Kagawa Prefecture in Japan, the first Western-born individual ever to enroll in a course on how to make sanuki udon noodles. (His classmates teased him, but in fun.)
Falik says that, growing up in Berkeley, he and Palley had both eaten plenty of Asian foods all their lives. But he got accustomed to hunching over his desktop eating sad, limp udon from a cellophane package purchased from a semi-disreputable chain near Folsom and Second streets.
“Having fresh udon was an a-ha moment,” he says. “Like fresh bread for the first time. It's an epiphany: The way you'd had it the whole time wasn't as good.”
As scaling up is the logic of tech startups, so too is it the only path forward for a plucky food enterprise, and Falik claims to have done 400 supermarket demos in the last four months, trying to build the brand. But the trailer and its cauldron full of noodles aren't a way-station on the road to global conquest; Odang pays rent to SoMa StrEat Food, which allows them to park there full-time. (The fact that people asked after them probably didn't hurt, either.)
There are four soups and three stir-fries, all made with fresh noodles. The Miso Udon (made with dashi, tempura flakes, mushrooms, kombu seaweed, green onions, miso, and shrimp tempura, $11) certainly benefits from a subtle depth and complexity that in most miso soups simply translates as salt, while the City Udon ($13) is pretty clever, a take on bibimbop that swaps out the sizzling rice for udon. (“The noodles aren't sitting in broth, but they're hot,” Falik says.) With the arrival of warm weather — fickle though it might be, even in SoMa — they're planning on making cold noodles a permanent menu fixture, most likely in a salad. But they're not averse to getting playful, either. Odang serves a tempura-battered udon funnel cake that Falik describes as “kind of ridiculous,” that is braided like a churro and doused with cinnamon, creating a smell that spreads everywhere. (He calls that “good contamination.”)
“It draws people in,” he says. “It's not as though we're Michelin-starred chefs. We are literally falling forward.”
Odang Udon, at SoMa StrEat Food Park, 428 11th St.