Anticipating a line, we arrived ahead of our appetite, but the slightly acrid smell of fresh dashi wafting over the street hurried our hunger. Tucked behind a handful of confounding corners southwest of Shinjuku Station in a mixed-use neighborhood of apartments, shops and offices, Udon Shin has consistently ranked among the best udon restaurants in Tokyo since opening in April 2011.
At around ¥1000 (US$9) per meal, you feel like you’re getting away with something. Owner and chef Shinji Narahara deftly handles the classic accompaniment to udon (think homemade dashi, deep-fried tofu and tempura) but elevates the humble noodle to modern heights with their trademark carbonara udon.
A young staff member handed us a menu as we stood in line and came back a few minutes later to take our order. Hunger mounting, we couldn’t help but order selections from both the old- and new-style menus. It was another half hour of waiting, the line getting longer and longer behind us. Quality takes time, however, and the noodles here are never made in advance. Udon Shin makes its noodles to order, by hand, to guarantee freshness.
Closer to the door we could see through the window and watch the chefs at work rolling out dough and cutting the noodles with an old, squeaky machine covered in a fine layer of flour. As each order was placed, noodles were cut and dropped into a vat of water kept at a rolling boil before being cooled in a bath of ice water to arrest cooking. The chefs labored with grave intensity behind the counter, slopping servings of udon into bowls.
Although we placed our order while we waited in line, the kitchen didn’t start rolling out the dough for our noodles until we were seated. In the meantime we inspected the restaurant’s cramped interior, which sports two tables that can seat a tight three, plus a counter with room for six stools. The décor is minimal, but like the food blends traditional and modern Japanese styles.
Ten minutes later our order hit the table. First timers are encouraged to enjoy their noodles cold to fully appreciate the freshness and texture, but we like our udon hot. Despite our hunger, we couldn’t help but take a moment to goggle at the sumptuous serving before us. A twist of thick, white noodles cradled a raw, yellow egg yolk. A slab of tempura-fried back bacon leaned against the side of the bowl. The egg was slightly cooked, and tendrils of steam carried up the scent of melting parmesan cheese and black pepper, as we stirred the hot noodles with our chopsticks. The flavors melded perfectly, the tempura bacon toasty and deeply satisfying. Narahara’s innovation is a particular cut and lighter-than-average flouring, resulting in noodles that are exceptionally flavorful and chewy, belying their simple seeming nature.
Hunger not yet abated, we turned to our bowl of kitsune, a traditional udon dish of noodles in dashi broth and topped with deep-fried tofu. The dashi was perfectly balanced, warm and slightly smoky. Between bites we brought the bowl to our lips and drank deeply to wash down the chewy tofu and delicately battered tempura vegetables.
When we left, the line was even longer, a good hour at least. We were certain those in it would find Udon Shin worth the wait, too.
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