Marugame Monzo (Los Angeles, CA)

Marugame Monzo
329 E 1st St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Dining date: 4/5/13

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I’ve always been surprised that Little Tokyo (or LA really, for that matter) didn’t have any udon specialists. Ramen is big here, of course, but there aren’t any shops dedicated to the thick, white noodle (I have heard there are a couple in Gardena/Torrance though). Whereas ramen is typically served in a richer, fattier broth (pork-bone tonkotsu, soy sauce shoyu, miso, and salt shio are most popular in LA), udon is usually served in a much lighter dashi-based clear broth.

Of course, most of the jack-of-all-trades Japanese restaurants serve their variation of the noodle soup, but it’s typically in very basic form using frozen or dried noodles. In fact, it was in one of these do-all Japanese restaurants where I fell in love with the thick, chewy noodle at a young age. Tempura udon (tempura on the side) was one of my favorite dishes growing up, back when I thought ramen came in packages of dehydrated noodles with an oh-so-addicting salty seasoning packet.

However, just in the past couple of months, two udon specialists have opened up shop in Little Tokyo featuring fresh, handmade noodles and a menu centered on (if not exclusively on) the noodle. Tsurumaru Udon opened in February in the quiet Little Tokyo Galleria Mall, serving a cafeteria-style menu often seen in Japan. You pick a base udon, a size, and customize toppings and are usually eating within 5-10 minutes of entering. It’s cheap, quick and they make a very satisfying bowl. Marugame Monzo, next door to ever-popular ramen joint Daikokuya, replaced Fat Spoon last month with a sit-down affair.

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Marugame Monzo’s menu features about a dozen hot ramen and half-dozen cold ramen with even some ‘salad udon’ options. Not really sure what that last one is. They also have a handful of rice bowls (which I’ve heard are quite good), but I was here for the udon.

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Tempura Kondo (Tokyo, Japan)

Tempura Kondo
Sakaguchi Building 9F
5-5-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Dining date: 11/7/12

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Tempura is easy to find in America, and it’s something I really enjoyed eating as a kid (especially the shrimp). In Japan, tempura is taken to another level, with restaurants solely focused on the style. Diners sit around a bar while a chef prepares seasonal vegetables and fish right in front of you. It’s similar to a sushi or kaiseki meal in that aspect, and the prices can be just as high. As far as I know, we don’t have anything quite like this in America.

Tempura Kondo is a Michelin two-star restaurant in Ginza, helmed by Fumio Kondo. It’s one of the most notable tempura restaurants in Tokyo, partially because Kondo-san is a bit of a chef celebrity, often seen on TV.

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Three fixed menus were available of differing lengths: ¥10,500, ¥12,600, and ¥17,850. I went with the middle choice, supplementing it with two a la carte tempura dishes: uni with shiso and sweet potato.

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Dining alone, I was lucky enough to be seated in the middle, right in front of Kondo-san himself! Preparing tempura appears fairly simple in concept, but the precision in execution was definitely on display with such a view of the action.

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whole baby shrimp marinated in soy

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I started with whole baby shrimp marinated in soy. Served raw, they were sweet with a little bit of a delightful crunch.

scallop, salmon roe, sea snail, mackerel sashimi

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A small sashimi plate was next: I enjoyed the scallop and sea snail most. The sea snail, pulled out of its shell, yielded a very sweet, tasty meat.

steamed tofu with yam, gingko nuts, and potato

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Creamy tofu and a duo of creamy starches from the nuts and potato combined for a rather savory, earthy mix.

With the first few dishes done, we moved on to tempura service.

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fried shrimp heads

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Light and crunchy, these were quite nice.

shrimp

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Next up was a pair of shrimp – one was eaten with a squirt of fresh sudachi juice while the other with the more traditional dashi-based dipping sauce. I liked them both, complementing the hot, sweet flesh of the shrimp. The batter was light, crisp, and not at all oily.

asparagus

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Huge spears of asparagus from Australia were fried then cut. These were quite flavorful, almost juicy, with a nice crunch.

shiitake mushroom

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The tender shiitake mushroom was next with its characteristic woody, earthy flavor.

kisu

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This flat white fish was cooked well, moist with a pretty light flavor.

chestnut

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This tasted kind of like a roasted chestnut on the inside, with a hearty creamy texture.

lotus root

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I found this lotus root to be a highlight. I thought it was perfectly cooked, with a crispy texture, and a sort of earthy sweetness.

megochi

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This white fish had a stronger flavor than the kisu, along with a denser flesh. Still tasty though.

eggplant

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Soft and juicy, almost mushy on the inside. Good flavor.

uni with shiso

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This was an extra order off the set menu, and a bit of the letdown. I thought it was cooked well with a creamy interior, but the clean flavor of the uni was somehow lost. Instead, it tasted kind of murky and just off.

onion

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Sweet and tender, this one tasted about as expected.

sea eel

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Rich in flavor and moist, I enjoyed this piece of sea eel.

sweet potato

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This is supposedly one of the specialties here, and another off-menu item. Seriously, this thing was huge…at this point in the meal, I could barely finish it. I don’t normally love sweet potatoes and this one didn’t particularly win me over either. The interior was sweet with a roasted flavor…almost creamy. Cooked well, but just not for me.

The next course (and final savory) was kakiage served in three different ways: tendon (atop rice with sauce), ten-cha (atop rice with tea) and separately with rice.

kakiage with tea

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I went with this choice since it seemed the most unique to me. The rice had a nice chew to it that held up in the roasted tea; parts of crispy and soggy kakiage made an interesting mix of textures, packed with small chunks of seafood.

strawberries and pear

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The last course of the evening was a simple plate of fruit. Very sweet, these were quite delicious.

I enjoyed my meal at Kondo and left completely stuffed; it was truly a unique type of meal. Having said that, I was far from being blown away; maybe my expectations were too high, but I found it slightly disappointing. Everything was pretty good but nothing really was great; overall, for 200 bucks I was looking for something a bit more.