Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Other Noodle - The Fresh, Hand-Made Udon of Kotohira

Of the "Big 3" types of noodles in Japanese cuisine - Ramen, Soba and Udon - Udon has been my least favorite while growing up. There was always something unappetizing about eating the thicker, starchy, chalky noodle compared to Ramen and Soba. To be fair, my experiences with Udon (usually a thicker, pale noodle made of wheat flour) has generally been with the manufactured varieties, which is as vastly different to hand-made Udon as can be, as I was soon about to find out.

While I've almost lost hope on finding a Ramen-ya in So Cal that makes their own Ramen noodles, as I was thinking about just how amazing fresh-made Soba noodles are compared to mass-produced, manufactured versions, I began to think about how nice it'd be to try a fresh, hand-made version of the oft-neglected noodle of the "Big 3" Japanese noodles - Udon - which is how I stumbled upon Kotohira.

Kotohira is literally buried in the deepest (hidden) corner of a secluded L-shaped strip mall in Gardena. They have been serving fresh Udon in Southern California for over 15 years, with the current owner, Chigusa Noguchi-san, having bought the restaurant from the previous owner from Japan years ago. At the heart of the menu is their Sanuki Udon, a style of Udon that originated from the ancient Sanuki Province (now Kagawa Prefecture) on Shikoku Island, Japan. It's believed that that is where Udon originated from, and Kotohira's menu proudly states that they serve the style of Udon that has 1,200 years of history behind it(!).

Currently, Seiya Noguchi-san (Chigusa's son), is the person who hand-makes the Udon noodle every day for the restaurant. He learned how to make Udon from his father, who learned it from the original owner of Kotohira, who learned his craft in Japan. To this day, the restaurant still imports in their kona (flour) from the Sanuki region of Japan.

Perusing their menu and seeing all types of Udon dishes, my guest and I could feel the excitement building. Could this be a revelation to Udon noodles the way that Ichimian was to Soba?

The first Udon dish to arrive is their Tsukimi Udon (literally "Moon Watching" Udon), featuring their Hand-Made Udon Noodles, Lightly Poached Egg in a House-Made Dashi Broth.

The first sip reveals a very light Dashi Broth, heavily accented by Katsuobushi (Dried Bonito Shavings) and light notes of Konbu (Kelp). I take a bite of the Udon noodle: Wow, truly different! This hand-made Udon noodle had a very good chew and bite, with a softness that held an interesting elasticity (in a good way) that challenged every notion I had about Udon. But at the very core, there was just a *tiny* bit of undercooked taste, but only in a few noodles. And breaking the lightly poached egg and eating it with the Hand-Made Udon Noodles was just wonderful.

The problem, however was in a slight tingling sensation that I got after a few sips and bites. I asked our waitress and she confirmed that in the soup-based Udon dishes, the kitchen uses a bit of MSG in the broth. :( My friend who's less weak to MSG than I am had no complaints, so it shouldn't be an issue for those with a good defense against the flavor crystals.

Our next dish arrives and fortunately they don't add any MSG in this one: The simply named Shoyu Udon (Soy Sauce Udon) is served dry, with their Hand-Made Udon Noodles, Tenkasu (Tempura Lace), Negi (Green Onions), Katsuobushi (Dried Bonito Shavings) and freshly-grated Ginger, served with a House-Made Light Shoyu-based Sauce. (We order it in a Combination, so it comes with a Tonkatsu (Pork Cutlet) with Rice as well.)

I quickly mix the dry ingredients together and lightly douse the bowl with a bit of their House-Made Shoyu Blend Sauce and mix some more. And then I take a bite:

Simply Excellent. :)

I had thought that since this was a non-soup Udon dish that with less time in a hot broth the Udon might be less cooked / harder than the previous Tsukimi Udon, but it was quite the opposite: The Udon Noodles here were just perfect, trumping the soup-based Tsukimi and everything else I had thought about Udon before this dish. :) It has a great chew, and the Katsuobushi, Negi and especially the Tenkasu (Tempura Lace) coats and clings to the Udon, so each bite has a nice textural contrast with a downright sexy chew, and a slight crunchiness. The Green Onions and Ginger add a freshness to the Udon that helps balance the dish. The highlight of their menu. :)

The Tonkatsu (Pork Cutlet) that came with this combination (you can order the Shoyu Udon by itself) is a pretty standard execution of Tonkatsu. It's not great, but it's not horrible, either, with the Tonkatsu not being fried at the right temperature (the coating soaked up too much oil), but still having a relatively moist Pork within.

On another visit, we try the classic Tenzaru Combination of Zaru Udon (Udon Noodles served atop a bamboo slotted serving device) and Tempura.

The Tempura consists of Shrimp and the standard offering of Assorted Vegetables seen in so many standard boxed meals. It's the typical, overly-crunchy, heavy batter, nowhere close to the specialty Tempura of Inaba or Komatsu, but I wasn't expecting as much from an Udon specialist.

The Zaru Udon is served in a similar manner to the classic Zaru Soba dish: Freshly-cooked Udon Noodles are then quickly chilled and placed on a zaru (slotted bamboo) and served with a Tsuyu (Light Soy Sauce, Dashi, Mirin blend) Dipping Sauce.

Taking a bit of the Hand-Made Udon and dipping it into the Tsuyu Sauce, this preparation probably shows off the texture of the Sanuki Udon the best. According to Chigusa-san, one of Sanuki Udon's characteristics is its outstanding chew and thicker noodle, while still being supple. The Zaru Udon shows that off and then some: This Udon has even more elasticity and chew (without being gummy) than the Shoyu Udon I had on my last visit. The pairing with the Tsuyu Sauce works, but I still prefer Soba for a Zaru-style preparation.

Kotohira's Yamakake Udon (Udon Noodles Topped with Tororo (Grated Japanese Yam) and a Raw Quail Egg) arrives next.

It should be noted that freshly grated Japanese Yam can be a bit slimy (sort of like Okra), so if you find it off-putting, then it's probably best to try another Udon dish instead.

Mixing all the ingredients together and taking a bite, the Yamakake Udon is an interesting showpiece for the noodle: It gives each bite a viscous, slippery quality, while still allowing you to appreciate the bite of the hand-made noodle itself. Unfortunately, I found the Udon to be undercooked in this dish with just a bit too much of the uncooked flour-core coming through (but it still had a good chewiness).

We also tried an appetizer of their Tori no Teba Karaage (Fried Chicken Wings), which turned out to be a decent version of Japanese-style Chicken Wings, with a good crunch and the chicken tasted fresh, but the oil was a bit old. Overall, a passable version if you're in the mood for some Fried Chicken Wings along with your Udon. :)

While Kotohira is a relatively small place, there were only 2 waitresses covering the whole restaurant during each of our visits. The waitresses may not make the rounds enough, so it might take a while to flag someone down, but overall, they were friendly and helpful when we got their attention. Prices range from $2.75 - $6.95 for Appetizers, and $5.95 - $9.50 for Udon (and Combinations). We averaged about ~$11 per person, including tax and tip.

Kotohira is a rarity in So Cal for providing fresh, Hand-Made Sanuki Udon in a variety of dishes at very reasonable prices. While their usage of MSG in their Soup-based Udon entries on the menu is unfortunate, their Non-Soup-based Udon are MSG-free (except trace amounts in one type of Light Soy Sauce that is part of their house-blend recipe). Their simply named Shoyu Udon is by far the standout of the menu and a reason to visit and try what fresh, Hand-Made Udon Noodles are all about.

Note that Kotohira will sometimes use frozen, manufactured Udon Noodles under limited circumstances: (1) When Seiya-san is sick or away from the restaurant, as he's the only one who knows how to make it; or, (2) When they sell out: Kotohira usually sells out of their Hand-Made Udon before Dinner (or sometime early during Dinner hours). While it would be nice for Kotohira to just close-up shop once they sell out (or if Seiya-san was out sick), it's understandable that for the sake of paying the bills they keep a backup plan. Definitely call ahead and confirm if they have the Hand-Made Udon before you go. Ultimately, if you enjoy a noodle with a good bite and chewiness that challenges you in a good way, then look no further than Kotohira, one of the few Udon Specialists of Southern California.

Rating: 7.0 (out of 10.0)

1747 W. Redondo Beach Blvd.
Gardena, CA 90247
(310) 323-3966

Hours: Wednesday - Monday, 11:30 a.m. - 11:00 p.m.
Closed Tuesdays.


Noah said...

I've gotta stop reading these before lunch. Another great find.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Noah,

Thanks. :) Let me know if you end up going. :)

pleasurepalate said...

Sometimes when I order at an ethnic restaurant, I make uninformed decisions just because I want to try something different. I've never had grated yam before so I did order that udon noodle with the grated yam and wish I didn't. I actually like okra, but the texture of that grated yam was just too much for me. :(

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Abby,

I totally feel your uncomfortableness! :) Definitely Tororo isn't for everyone. :) (I feel the same about Natto.)

Did you try the Shoyu Udon? I think that was the highlight of their menu.

burumun said...

Exile Kiss, because of you I've been driving too much to the South Bay area! I'm blaming you for increased gas expenses! :P

Obviously I need to be trying this place soon.
I tried the tororo soba at Ichimiann and decided yamakake is not for me though :P

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

Hehehe, thanks. :) I'm glad you liked Ichimian (except the Tororo :). Did you get a chance to try Ichimian's pure Zaru Soba w/ Hosomen? If not, give their original a try, or their Mentai Oroshi (which is a more gritty / safer option than Tororo (it's more like the rough grated Daikon provided for Tempura or various Ponzu dipping sauces :).

If you try Kotohira for Udon, definitely go with their Shoyu Udon then. :)

edjusted said...

Nice review. I've always thought Udon was very "pretty" to look at, especially with an egg on top. But yeah, I definitely prefer ramen and soba over udon. I don't dislike udon, it's just a bit light for my taste.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi edjusted,

Yah, I'm in the same boat as you. :) After Kotohira, I've gained a greater respect for Udon (it's totally different from the typical manufactured / frozen Udon served at many eateries around So Cal). But Soba and Ramen are still my faves over this.

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