Many of Tokyo’s finest restaurants are so hidden away you hardly know they’re even there. But there’s little chance of missing Maruka. In the unlikely event that you fail to spot the large white noren curtain across the entrance, you won’t miss the long line leading up to it.
Year-round, rain or shine, you can expect to wait outside that doorway — often for 45 minutes or more. What’s the deal? And is it worth it, just for a meal that will take a quarter of that time to finish? The answer depends on how much you like udon noodles.
Maruka serves the chunky white wheat noodles that are a specialty of Kagawa Prefecture, better known by the area’s feudal name: Sanuki udon. Many aficionados say nowhere in the city does them better, and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment.
Anyone who has eaten Sanuki udon in the Shikoku heartland will understand: Decor and setting have no bearing on noodle quality. Maruka is humble, functional and spotlessly clean, with bright lights, basic seating — simple stools drawn up to long tabletops where you rub elbows (almost literally) with your neighbors — and a no-nonsense style that can appear brisk, though it is never unwelcoming.
To speed things up, they ask you to order before you even get through the door. So it’s worth knowing the Japanese terminology ahead of time. As always when eating udon, there are three fundamental decisions to make: Hot noodles or cold? With soup or without? And what toppings or side dishes do you want?
Whatever the time of year, you can’t beat the basic kake udon, served in a clear dashi broth made from iriko (dried fish) with a dab of grated ginger and a mound of Kagawa’s best negi (chopped scallions) on the side. As a refreshing change-up, you can ask for cold noodles in a cold broth (known as hiya-hiya, literally “chilled-chilled”).
To perk your bowl up a bit, you’ll find a grater filled with roasted sesame seeds. You can also help yourself from trays full of agedama, crouton-like bits of tempura batter. Simple, satisfying and affordable (just ¥420 a bowl), this is the Sanuki staple and Maruka executes it to perfection.
The noodles, all made fresh in-house, have just the right smooth, chewy consistency. The broth is light and fragrant, the batter bits are crisp and freshly made and the scallions are a bright appetizing green. What more do you need?
The answer is tempura, the classic accompaniment for Sanuki udon. Whether you order ebi (prawn), yasai (mixed vegetables), the house special chikuwa-ten, long tubular fish “sausages” or the ever-popular kashiwa (chicken nuggets), they are all freshly cooked to order inside a substantial coating of crisp batter that is a far cry from the delicate, gauzy layers served at Tokyo’s high-end tempura specialists.
After almost 15 years, Maruka has become a fixture in the backstreets near Jinbocho. But it still has a style all its own, a taste of Kagawa in the heart of the city.
First published in The Japan Times, July 15, 2017.