Sunday, April 17, 2011

Dining in Waikiki: Marukame Udon

Marukame Udon is one of the latest additions to the Waikiki restaurant scene. It opened on April 1 at the old Jack-in-the-Box location at 2310 Kuhio.

The relatively fancy exterior might lead you to think this is an upscale Japanese noodle restaurant, but it's not; in the main, it's a moderately-priced cafeteria-style eatery serving varieties of udon and tempura.

In the first couple of weeks of operation, we observed very long waiting lines for such a small restaurant, so we let the fervor die down a little and went there one afternoon for a late lunch. In mid-afternoon, we experienced no wait.

Niku Udon

We decided on the Niku Udon (a beef dish) in the "regular" size for $5.75, and the Curry Udon (also beef) for just $5.25 in the same size. The servings were more than enough for lunch, perhaps even dinner, and you'd have to be really hungry to eat all of the "large" bowl.

The udon noodles are made on-premises and that makes all the difference. We found them to be utterly fresh and with incomparable flavor. They were cooked to perfection, having that combined softness and solidity that is characteristic of really excellent udon.

The broth in the Niku had a nice lightness and a pleasing taste; it didn't have the watered-down quality of broth found at "Americanized" Asian restaurants, but it wasn't so heavy and strong as to interfere with the enjoyment of the noodles. The beef was average; we thought it a little bland.

Curry Udon

With Japanese curries, knowing what to expect is usually an open question. Marukame Udon's version of curry was full-flavored and rich without being overpowering. The broth had the slightly muddy mouth-feel of many a Far East curry; we didn't find that especially pleasing but on the other hand, we didn't leave any of it behind, either. The flavor complimented the noodles nicely enough, but we liked the broth in the Niku a little more.

From left: Inari (top), Mushroom-ten (lower), Nasu-ten, Asuparagus-ten

The Udon bowls are a real bargain, and lunch for two can be had for as little as around $12 without drinks or tempura. But once you start adding in a la carte side items of tempura, the cost of a meal definitely goes up substantially.

But first we tried the Inari, which was well-priced at $1.25. The tofu skin had a pleasant flavor and was not overly sweet, and the vinegary rice filling contrasted nicely.

We also tried tempura mushrooms; a small skewer of three mushrooms sold for $1.50. The batter was light and crunchy but had definitely suffered from sitting under a heat lamp.

The "asuparagus-ten" or asparagus tempura sold for $1.50 per stalk of asparagus, a price we consider close to outrageous. The asparagus was fresh and good; the batter also suffered the depredations of the heat lamp.

The Nasu-ten, or eggplant, for $1.25, wasn't so expensive but it wasn't good; the eggplant was mushy and tasted old, and the usual comment applies about the batter.

We didn't order drinks, instead taking advantage of copious self-serve pitchers of ice water. Lunch for two totalled $21; tax is included in the item prices and there is no tipping. Be aware that only cash is accepted.

At the time of our visit, the interior decor was still not quite finished and some construction debris remained. But when everything is done, which we suspect will be soon, Marukame Udon will be attractive inside and out. If you skip the tempura-- and you won't be missing much if you do--- and just eat the Udon, you'll have a very inexpensive, tasty, and filling meal.

Marukame Udon is set to position itself as one of the best noodle places in Waikiki, and at some of the most attractive prices to boot. Those long waiting lines may persist well beyond opening week, and with good reason. If you're a fan of good, fresh noodles served in excellent broth, this is definitely a place you'll visit again and again.

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