“Full house,” the staff at Marugame Udon and Tempura shouted in unison as customers chuckled at the unexpected announcement. While this meant those of us in line to order would have to wait longer to be seated, it did not hinder the excitement of trying their much sought-after bowls of soup. Usually offered at Japanese or sushi restaurants, udon is a type of thick-cut wheat noodle, served in a mildly flavored broth with beef or chicken and vegetables. Unlike ramen and pho, which have largely taken over the dining scene, udon has not had its own rise to fame.
Marugame Udon and Tempura is looking to change that.
Located next to McDonald’s in the Glendale Galleria food court, it’s only the third location in the Los Angeles area but among more than a 1,000 restaurants worldwide, mostly outside of the United States. Their quick service approach seems to be working; with customers lining up in droves at the Galleria.
Marugame Udon and Tempura serves its food cafeteria style, where patrons line up, pick up a tray and begin the ordering journey. When I finally visited, a staff member stood at the front of the line and called customers up when there was enough room to seat more. Despite the wait and its small dining area, the line moved more quickly than I expected. There were also enough signs around explaining the proper steps to make one’s way through the line, and friendly staff to further guide in the right direction.
Step 1: Order udon
Step 2: Wait for cooked udon
Step 3: Choose toppings and more
Step 4: Pay cashier
While it sounds straightforward, I was both surprised at how much I fell in love with the concept and menu options and shocked that it hadn’t made its way to us sooner.
Just beyond the glass is the open kitchen, showcasing udon noodles in the making, chicken and meat being cut and cooked, and the staff in constant communication, relaying orders or how many people are in each party and ensuring them there was enough seating available before taking more orders.
I immediately knew I wanted to try one of their curry udon dishes, so I went with chicken. After choosing my meal, I approached the station for toppings, which consisted of tempura flakes and green onions. At this point, you can also request extras like chicken, beef or a soft-boiled egg for an upcharge. Once they handed over my bowl of goodness, I moved onto the tempura station, arguably both the best and worst part. Best, because it’s tempura, and worst because it was difficult to make a hasty decision in the midst of a long line. I managed and went with chicken, sweet potato and asparagus. On several occasions when ordering veggie tempura at sushi restaurants, it’s no surprise to receive a vast majority of onion and broccoli, so it was nice to wield the power to choose my own vegetables.
Once I paid and had my tray ready to go, a staff member guided me to my seat and pointed toward the table behind me where they offered soy sauce, tempura sauce and a couple of hot sauces. Tempura was fried to perfection and I regretted not piling more onto my plate. Yet, the chicken curry udon is now one of the favorite meals I’ve had as of late. The shredded chicken and tempura flakes mixed seamlessly into the thick, flavor-packed broth. This time, unlike many of my dining excursions, there was not enough left over to take home.
While my curry udon was amazing, their menu item listed as the best seller is the nikutama udon, ordered by a group ahead of me and behind me in line, and a clear favorite on Yelp. It is served in a sweet beef broth and topped with a soft-boiled egg. Other must-try bowls are the spicy chicken udon, which is on the menu for a limited time, and their black tonkatsu udon.
They also offer a wide array of tasty sides like musubi rice balls consisting of spam, crab meat and inari (fried bean curd stuffed with vinegar flavored rice).Other tempura options include shrimp, fish, pumpkin, and zucchini. Further down the side section are croquettes.
Marugame Udon’s concept is interesting, but what makes it most fascinating is how the staff works together to ensure they don’t miss a beat. On top of that is how attentive they are to their customers — likely because they have to work in such a small space with high demand, but everyone seemed genuinely happy to help. When I finished my meal and a staff member noticed the slightest hesitation to check where I could leave my tray, he ran over and said, “Oh, I will take that from you.” Not 30 seconds before I walked away, someone else walked up behind him to wipe down the table where I was seated to be ready for the next customer. They’re fast, efficient and friendly, and it’s easy to see why they have been able to expand and succeed so rapidly.
(A version of this story appeared in our Jan. 10, 2019 edition.)
Marugame Udon and Tempura
1318 Galleria Way, Glendale
Major Cards Accepted