Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Cold day, hot udon: Marugame Monzo

There is a stark divide among the patrons at Marugame Monzo.

Half of them are fighting their instincts.  Their instincts tell them to be restless.  They tell them to feel irritated at the long wait, the shoulder-to-shoulder closeness, the space for exactly two people to wait inside and no more, this coupled with the freezing (for L.A.) temperatures and threat of rain.  Even once they're seated, the overwhelming smell of dashi, butter, and seaweed coupling with their own empty plates, their instincts tell them to be urgently, impatiently hungry.

Their bodies want to fidget, their fingers to seek their phones, their voices to rise, but their brains won't let them, because their brains are firmly directing their eyes to stare at the Udon-Making-Man.

The Udon-Making-Man is a wonder.  He is perpetually on display - behind a large glass pane at the bar - and perpetually moving.  He isn't a blur, for he moves at a steady, careful pace, but his limbs never stop rolling, patting, flour-sprinkling, stretching, chopping, and rinsing.  Not once does his hand derail to wipe his brow (a kerchief takes care of that) or do his eyes leave his station (despite the pairs of eyes all directed at him).  He displays no evidence of being unsettled by the attention.

The disc of dough grows, it stretches, it's floured.  It's floured A LOT.  "Floury," murmurs my mom from her spot at our hard-won table.  I detect a hint of judgment in her voice that may just be me, projecting my own.  It looks like the noodles are going to taste like a used rolling pin.  90% flour, 10% dough.

They do not.

For the other half of the patrons, those who have received their half-bowl, half-platters of noodles, have a different air entirely.

Their bodies and brains are in harmony: both dedicated wholly to eating udon.  They're wearing constant grins, grins visible even through rapid chopstickfuls of noodles and the motion of conversation.

Mirroring the Udon-Making-Man's, the customers' hands don't stop moving until the job is done.  The job, in this case, is to get every last snake of udon into their mouths.  Every last spoonful of roe-speckled, lightly spicy butter, every last textured tiny tongue of urchin, every last strip of pork fat or duck breast or green onion.

As for me, I look like everyone else - robotically yet wonderingly raising chopsticks to my mouth - but I'm also marveling at the slow build of the spice in the mentai (cod roe) and how well the tiny eggs stick to the noodles, as though the noodles had microscopic gaps made just for them.  I'm wondering how the squid came to be so butterfly-edged and tender, almost like a whitefish, and how the cook coaxed all the rubber band texture out.  I'm staring at my sauce, thinking how even though it looks like melted butter, I still somehow want to eat it with a spoon.

And perhaps most strongly of all, I'm enjoying the udon like I've never really enjoyed it before.  Secretly, I've historically dismissed udon as unnecessarily beefed-up pasta: the steroid-injected gym rat of the noodle world.  This particular udon, though, retains none of the excess flour I watched poured onto the wooden rolling-mat.  It has three textures: the outer bite, the slight give afterwards, and the final chew, which feels like the most satisfying sort of sourdough.

My appetite is hardly ever as big as my tastebuds want it to be, but here I am left with a tiny, penny-sized pool of butter-broth and nothing else.

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