Lunch at U:Don (Seattle, WA)

Niku-udon-oroshi udon with a side of tempura shrimp

When foodies talk about Japanese soup noodles, they usually think of ramen, arguably the most popular kind found all over Japan. Not as well known outside Japan is a different type of soup noodle, also of Chinese origin, that is widely popular, called udon. The wheat noodle is thick-cut and the very best freshly-made versions have an unmistakably chewy texture that fans seek when judging the noodle’s quality. My wife and I were mightily impressed with the udon served by Jimbo in Honolulu, not only for its superior noodle but its rich, smoky broth of Hokkaido origin.

U:Don opened in the University District not too long ago, part of a trend toward make-your-own noodle soups that is making an appearance both in Japan and here. Its name is almost an ideograph since the colon and capitalized D are supposed to represent a happy face. For happy customers?
There really is an attempt to make a high-quality noodle at this cafeteria-style restaurant; you can see them making it at the beginning of the line. The twist at U:Don is that you pretty much can “customize” your order—within limits. You specify the style of udon, size (small, medium or large), toppings typical for the style, which usually include grated ginger and radish, and then augment your bowl of noodles with one or more tempura extras found at the end of the line (tempura, chicken karaage, and onigiri usually, with occasional other sides), all for additional cost. Be aware that it is shockingly easy to pile on too many of these on your tray, they look so tempting. Available today were kurobuta sausage, crab tempura, jalapeño and crab poppers, shrimp tempura, takoyaki and chikuwa (fish cake).

U:Don’s udon is very good, with the required textural chew. Not the very best we’ve ever had, but still very good.

The broth for the niku-ume-oroshi udon is a tad sweet, presumably to counter the puckering saltiness of the minced pickled plum (umeboshi), though the broth is rich in flavor. It was accompanied by sliced beef (niku), seaweed (wakame), sliced green onions, grated horseradish (daikon oroshi) and grated ginger.

There is a spiciness-level warning when ordering the tan-tan udon, a Japanese interpretation of Chinese dan-dan noodles. Eat it at your own risk at “5” stars, for there is no refund. The topping consists of minced pork, green onions and chiles in a savory-sweet sauce, but the addition of a liberal amount of homemade chile oil (rayu) sends this dish well up the Scoville-meter. I like very spicy food, but this entrée was enough to incinerate my tongue and the back of my throat, causing me to break out in a sweat and blow my nose. Herein lies a lesson I’m learning about chiles in hot liquid—their spiciness gets intensified because the capsaicin is released into the hot broth, their combination greater than the sum of its parts. For toppings, I picked wakame, green onions and ginger. A very good udon, I will probably ask for less rayu next time or, better yet, ask for it on the side.

Tan-tan udon with sides of kurobuta sausage and chicken karaage

This cafeteria-style of udon dining seems to be gaining in popularity. There are several in Honolulu alone. Is it possible to make a high-quality product in such an arrangement? The answer is yes, so long as the noodles are not pre-cooked, which would destroy their texture. Is this enough to be on a par with the best udonya where the bowls are individually assembled and made-to-order? Probably not. Overall, U:Don provides pretty good udon at reasonable prices.

4515 University Way NE
Seattle, WA 98105

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