The West has gone gaga for noodles, Japan’s most cherished comfort food. Hungry diners pack secret soba dens in Los Angeles for bites of hand-cut anything; they line up to plunk themselves down at sparkling counters offering $100 ramen tastings in New York and pick through ramen au beurre in Paris looking for the next new taste. In Tokyo, ramen masters are now competing for cult status within a ramen culture imported from the United States. Soba chefs are newly coveted for their skill in grinding, rolling, cutting and plating and are praised as master craftsmen.
Pity the chewy udon noodle, which has yet to find the same level of adoration. Comprised of wheat flour, salt and water, the humble udon noodle is served either hot or cold, thick or thin, and sold dry, pre-boiled or fresh. Cold udon is a summer classic all over Japan. Come cooler weather, udon in hot broth is a nourishing and belly-pleasing meal. Hot or cold, udon is served in a broth (kakejiru) of dashi, soy sauce and mirin and often topped with a variety of ingredients. The flavor and noodle toppings usually vary depending on the region of the country.
Smack in the middle of Roppongi and just a short walk from the station is Tsurutontan, one of Tokyo’s most beloved udon restaurants. What makes it easy to find is the rather large line perpetually snaking out the front door. On lucky days, during hours when the line is minimal, another identifier is the case housing plastic samples of the outlandishly massive noodle bowls served inside. It is near impossible to leave Tsurutontan hungry or with an empty wallet.
We like sitting at the bar in front of the kitchen, where Japanese chefs whip up the amazingly large troughs of udon. Tsurutontan also has table seating on two floors. There is an English menu. Large photographs with Japanese explanations of the seasonal specials are plastered everywhere. It’s incredibly easy to find what one might want, and frequently difficult to choose.
In summer we always succumb to the cold udon with sudachi (Japanese limes), which come straight from the island of Tokushima, sliced paper-thin over the noodles, with a mound of shaved ice riding on top and melting into a light sauce as it’s eaten. There is nothing more refreshing as the temperatures climb. The only way to order it if you can’t read Japanese is to point at a picture, as it isn’t on the menu. Other picture-only dishes are cold noodles topped with domestic free-range chicken and seasonal tempura. Order up a side of cold pickles on ice to seal the coolness deal.
Other warm-weather standout dishes are a meat and veggie sukiyaki over udon, fried tofu plumped atop cold broth, or a kombu (kelp) combination that smacks of the sea. All are on the menu.
From Hakata there is spicy pollack roe and thick egg-drop-laced udon, both full of umami and zesty at the same time. Various kinds of beef entrails top another intriguing udon dish. In a real flavor reverse mode, try the beef curry udon. A house favorite is pork cutlet, freshly fried and savory, gleaming atop the noodles.
Cooler weather beckons us toward a wider selection: shabu shabu udon, made with amazingly tasty beef, a flavorful dish with just-pink sliced duck simply splayed over the noodles; tempura-topped noodles with hot dipping sauce; or a crispy roasted rice cake riding atop the udon noodles, ready to be broken down into the broth.
When ordering, we sometimes whisper “futatama” (two balls) for twice the amount of noodles or “mitama” (three balls) for three times the noodles. We wonder if anyone has ever managed the mitama portion. There’s no extra charge for upgrading the amount and the noodles are always fresh and plentiful.
Also in easy supply are several sizes of draft beer and a good wine selection.
As with many worthy eating establishments in Japan, Tsurutontan is part of a chain. The Roppongi outlet is certainly the best and most beloved, with an upscale, yet friendly atmosphere. The economics of restaurant management and real estate prices in Tokyo would make eating these simple udon dishes, made with good quality and fresh ingredients, almost impossible without a corporate backer. That said, Tsurutontan feels personalized and fresh. We recommend going at off hours to avoid a long wait.
On our last visit to this udon paradise we heard that when Danny Meyers’s legendary Union Square Café moves out of its New York location to relocate to less expensive real estate, a branch of Tsurutontan will open in its place to feed New Yorkers the same fabulous udon. So fret not for humble udon; it’s about to get its moment in the sun.
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