Location: 2029 Sawtelle Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025. (424) 317-2222
Date: September 25 & 28 and October 26, 2017
Cuisine: Japanese Udon
Rating: Interesting format, good prices, not the highest quality
I do love udon, and while Sawtelle has about 6 bazillion ramen places there isn’t any great udon, so I was excited to see Marugame was part of a new rush of noodle places opening this fall.
It’s just a touch north of Tsujita and has a good sized patio and a big inside. I’m pretty sure it’s related to a Hawaiian chain which is called Marukame there — but in any case the main chain has 778 stores in Japan!!!
Less than a week in, there is still a 20 minute line at peak lunch time. The seats weren’t even close to full so mostly this is throughput and will settle out as the staff gets faster (hopefully).
Inside is attractive with a weird Japanese cafeteria style.
There are a lot of udon options, although they mostly amount to different broths. It looks like a lot of choices
First you chose your broth. They have a lot of staff, I counted at least 12. The noodles were more or less precooked, then heated for a few seconds in boiling water on order.
Next you add tempura (if you like). You can see it frying back there but it’s all sitting out cafeteria style under heat lamps.
People slowly drift through the stations. Payment seemed to be a bottleneck.
They also have a few (very cheap) rice bowls at their own station after the tempura.
I was going to get one even though it would be too much food but the hotel pans of stuff didn’t look so hot, so I skipped it.
The minimalist drink area. They actually have a beer/wine license as they serve 1-2 Japanese beers and some odd canned sake!
After you pay using a Revel checkout, you can go to the condiment station and load up on sauces, plasticware and the like.
They have sloppy negi (green onion).
Sloppy ginger, wasabi, sauces.
Various tempura. Here are some of my tempura. The usual shrimp, sweet potato, a bit of overcooked chicken and some fish cake. The tempura was weak. It was luke warm at best, nothing like the awesome tempura at Hannosuke.
Curry udon. The udon was better. The noodles were good. The curry sauce was good but not great. A little bland and mostly just noodles and sauce. There was some sweet beef in it, but not a lot. The green onion and tempura bits added some decent texture. I’ll have to try the Nikutama next time (more or less the classic). The whole thing felt a little “sloppy” compared to the usual impeccable neatness of most Japanese food.
Nikutama udon. Kak sauce with sweet beef and soft boiled egg. This is an undecorated regular size. Not very much broth (which is a pretty good slightly sweet soy/dashi. The sweet beef is the totally typical Japanese style cheese-steak-like sliced fatty beef. The egg is an onsen-style egg. Broth is a little anemic (i.e. not enough of it).
With “decoration” (adds nice texture). This udon was better in relative terms than the curry. It’s pretty classic. Not amazing, but solid with it’s sweet/salty flavors and the nice bite to the noodles. If you skipped the tempura it wouldn’t even feel that heavy — but when you add a giant plate of fry like below :-)… The vegetable kakiage was pretty good, basically onions. Still no Hannosuke.
Tonkotsu. Pork broth with chashu pork, miso ground pork, garlic, seasoned egg and chili oil. Broth tasted like one of those typical packaged tonkotsu broths, not bad but a touch salty. Spicy level (from the oil) was considerable though and really brightened up the pure fat factor.
Mentai Cream. Cream sauce with mentai cod roe, crispy bacon, spinach and cheese.
I jazzed it up a bit. Very rich and heavy. Cheesy and tasty, but SO heavy and creamy. Kinda weird.
Overall, the price was very good IF you don’t get any tempura. I lot a large and a whole bunch of tempura and it was $16 all in with tip. The second time I went somehow even with a “regular” it was $17 — must have gotten more tempura. Most people would spend $8-10 but it would be too little food for a guy like me. The third time I got a regular, some tempura and a water and it was $20! The format is kinda interesting, but I don’t love the disposable plastic spoons and lousy napkins (splattered my shirt of course). Hard to eat a big soup with a tiny super-flimsy plastic regular soup spoon. And you have to clear your trays too. I go out because I’m lazy, I don’t need to clear. So it’s ALL the way fast casual like a fast food place with no service at all (they do wipe the tables, but that’s about it). It’s a cafeteria style zoo.
The tempura needed some real love though. It was still fried stuff, so okay, but this was very mediocre tempura. Half the pieces are cold and most are soggy. Like the kind of tempura you get at a buffet.
I had hoped for a really good artisanal udon bowl, instead there is just an okay cheap one with a long line — and I just don’t care about cheap. I know a lot of people do, but the difference between a $8 bowl of udon and a $20 bowl (most expensive udon I can imagine) is irrelevant to me. And furthermore, it’s easy to get Marugame up to $20 so it’s only cheap if you are minimalist.
Interestingly too, they generated a TON of Yelp reviews (mostly positive) in a very short time with some kind of Yelp Elite event. Hiss boo Yelp (my stint as a restauranteur did not leave me with a warm and fuzzy feeling about the crowd sourced review mafia). WARNING: the below video is NSFW but is funny!