I have a good friend that used to work for the world-famous Marukame Udon in Hawaii for several years. What he learned from the shop owner was priceless as he ventured into the food industry himself: adherence to your values as an owner and businessperson are reflected inherently in your product, for better or worse. A strict process for noodle-making with little deviation is expected for udon of such consistently high quality. The noodles alone, for example, are subjected to strict limits on time, temperature, moisture, and type of flour. This owner, however, allegedly also refused a traditional soda fountain, adamantly, for many years, in order to preserve his own personal value of customer health and wellness. How tempting it must have been to opt into a ubiquitous (not to mention high-margin) item like soda. That compromise, however, would constitute a ‘selling out’ of his values – why should a highly-trained chef and his staff toil over the freshness of a bowl of udon to serve it with a Big Gulp-sized Mountain Dew?
I have never owned a restaurant, but that attention to consistency and detail is certainly admirable. The millennial generation’s food-porn ‘obsession’ has rightfully become a meme of sorts, but the underlying notion that food at it’s best is a craft, as much as any traditional art medium, remains true as ever.
Instead of the balmy beaches on my home island of Oahu, we found ourselves in the Orange County city of Tustin at Tanakaya, located in the El Camino Plaza alongside Cream Pan and their highly addictive strawberry croissants. Established in 1948, the interior and decor are modern but simple; most notably, navy and white elements furnish the interior and are also part of the logo. Unless you come during off-hours, expect a wait – the restaurant isn’t particularly small, but it’s popular. So much so, in fact, that they sell out of their noodles late at night. Of course, the flip side is it’s a win for freshness, as I’m sure Marukame would agree.
The lunch combination here offers excellent variety: three types of udon or three types of soba, and a choice of four side bowls (chicken curry, katsu-don, tentoji-don, and filet katsu-don). My favorite thing about ramen shops back home was the gyoza or fried rice combinations with ramen, and Tanakaya expanded on that nicely. I chose the kakitama udon + tentoji-don combination and Jane chose the tempura udon. Jane loves tempura, so the tentoji-don and its additional shrimp was the logical choice.
The traditional kakitama-jiru soup is served without udon, and is traditionally a food for between meals. Tanakaya added heft and substance in their take on kakitama, and it serves them well. I took a minute to stir and admire the consistency of the broth, which was more egg drop soup than normal udon, complete with the light wisps of egg intertwined between the noodles. The broth is hearty perfection; the irony is that their menu offers ample sides in combination, but I ordered it with a soup so rich that it defied the need to be paired with anything in the first place. Tanakaya’s kakitama wins so much, it would build the wall and make Mexico pay for it – no government shutdown required.
While the kakitama was my high point, the rest of the meal deserves equally high praise, but perhaps from a different perspective. Because of how many different pitfalls there are for udon noodles, too chewy, too starchy, too brittle, too thin, too thick, too long, too fast too furious, my words tend to fall short in characterizing the good ones. Same with the tempura – not overly oily, battered, or heavy. They’re just pleasant, balanced, and delicious, through a simplicity that surely betrays how challenging they are to master. Despite that, I’m sure of one thing: Tanakaya knows and highly values their quality, and it shows.
Appreciation: The running-out-of-noodles-at-night thing is inconvenient, don’t get me wrong, but the limited availability of their product is respectable. Instead of making too many noodles and either throwing them or using them the next day, they opt to limit waste and preserve their freshness – something that reminds me of one of my hometown favorites on O’ahu, Maui Mike’s Fire-Roasted Chicken, who also runs out of chicken on busy nights.
654 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780