Dish: Kitsune udon
Place: U:Don, University District (“U” is pronounced “You”)
Price: $5.75 for a medium bowl
In the bowl: From the menu: “Udon noodles served hot with our extra thick fried and marinated tofu (Atsu-age), sliced green onions & grated fresh ginger.”
Supporting cast/What to do: Grab a tray and slide along the line, cafeteria-style, which is typical of udon joints in Japan. When you place your order, the bowl-maker will ask if you want tenkasu (tempura flakes, like Rice Krispies) in the bowl, or on the side. After getting your bowl, you’ll slide down to an area where you can pick up pieces of tempura, kakiage (tempura made with vegetable strips, like a fritter), or karaage (fried chicken) before paying. These extras range in cost from 35 cents for tempura broccoli to $1.79 for tempura chikuwa. (You’ll want the chikuwa, which is fishcake in the shape of a tube.) See below for more on what to do to eat this udon.
Noodling around: U:Don, which opened late last month, serves the first house-made udon noodles in Seattle. You can watch the noodle-making process while you wait to order. The udon is ultimately 3mm thick, and it’s boiled briefly to achieve a koshi quality (firm, al dente texture). The cold preparations, such as on-tama udon (in soy sauce-dashi sauce, served with a “hot-spring” egg, sliced green onions, and grated ginger) show off the chewiness of the udon best.
Especially comforting in winter, the warm broths soften the noodles. Kitsune udon features deep-fried tofu pouches (kitsune means fox, and it’s said that foxes like fried tofu) which absorb the broth, making for bites that are slightly sweet. The broth, too, is bit sweet–the one minor complaint I’m consistently hearing from Japanese friends who have visited U:Don since its opening. (I especially noticed this in the niku udon, perhaps due to the meat marinade.) But it’s early in the game for U:Don, and chef Tak Kurachi seems open to feedback from his customers.
Otherwise, everyone’s thrilled to have this low-cost noodle restaurant in town, with special praise for the tempura and kakiage. There’s a nice selection available. Some like to drop these items in the soup to get the breading a bit soggy. I prefer to keep mine crisp, or to just swipe them through the broth as I eat them. This is also why I get my tenkasu on side, as I can add the flakes to the soup as I please, keeping them crisp. You’ll have to sample various types of tempura to see what you like best, but I especially recommend the chikuwa, which is a perfect blend of chewy and crispy.
If you want more: Karaage (49 cents per piece) is an interesting side option for the udon. It’s not traditional, and I wouldn’t put it in the bowl of udon, but it’s fun to have as part of the meal. There’s also onigiri (more typical of what you might find as a side in Japan) if you’re carbo-loading. Personally, I’d just go for a bigger portion of tempura. You can also pay 50 cents more for a larger bowl of noodles (or 50 cents less for a smaller bowl).
Be aware/beware: If you’ve never had fresh-made udon before, it’s a great experience, as the texture of the noodles is quite special. Just as you can appreciate the jump from Top Ramen to real ramen, try U:Don’s noodles and you might not want to go back to dried or frozen udon–except for the convenience.
Like ramen, note that it’s best to eat udon within ten minutes to keep the noodles from getting too soft. That might be tricky for the chopstick-challenged, as these thick noodles are quite slippery, but as I’ve written before, just keep in mind that they are “supremely slurpable,” meaning it’s okay to make noise while sucking them in.
Note: U:Don is included in my round-up of Seattle-area Asian noodle restaurants as part of my cover story in the current IBUKI magazine (available at Japan-centric stores and restaurants).
First published in Seattle Weekly’s Voracious on January 2, 2012.
*** Here are two other noodle bowls I’ve tried at U:Don:
On-tama udon with onsen tamago (hot-spring egg), sliced green onions, grated ginger, and dashi-shoyu
Niku udon with sukiyaki braised beef, onions, sliced green onions, and grated ginger