Marukame Udon is a popular Japanese restaurant in the heart of Waikiki, Honolulu’s premier tourism district. Reservations are not accepted. And why should they be when hungry locals and tourists alike are willing to wait in line to satisfy their craving for homemade udon and, tempura? But with those lengthy lines stretching down Kuhio Avenue, is it really worth the wait?
The Back Story
I have been to the Hawaiian Islands sixteen times. And 10 of those trips were to Oahu. So I am no stranger to Waikiki and all it has to offer.
In fact, I have passed by the Marukame Udon Japanese restaurant on walks around Waikiki many times. But I could never commit to waiting in a lengthy line to see what made it so popular.
However, on my most recent trip to Oahu, I was determined to stand in line and discover for myself if it really was worth the wait.
To clarify, Marukame Udon is one of many Japanese restaurants on Oahu. In fact, more than 13% of the Hawaiian population has Japanese ancestry. And a strong Japanese influence can be felt around the island.
While most Japanese restaurants serve sushi and sashimi, Marukame Udon, which is located in the centre of Waikiki, is known exclusively for its fresh udon and crispy tempura.
At the casual, busy restaurant with Japanese décor, lunch and dinner are served from 11 am to 10 pm seven days a week. While you can always expect a line, once inside, you will be seated and eating their famous udon in minutes.
Best Time to Visit?
So when is the best time to visit? I caught The Pink Line Bus to Kuhio Avenue for a late lunch and discovered that the line was more reasonable later in the afternoon than it was at lunch time.
And I couldn’t believe my luck! I was finally going to sample their famous udon noodles made in the restaurant’s very own kitchen!
In fact, once at the front of the line, I was able to watch Udon Master Tetsu Ishihara prepare hand-crafted noodles based on a centuries-old method.
Marukame Udon Japanese restaurant is set up with a theatre kitchen. As a result, you can watch the chefs prepare the udon and the tempura.
If you’re not familiar with Japanese cuisine, udon is a thick Japanese pasta made with wheat. And tempura is a Japanese dish made made with fish, shellfish, or vegetables, which are fried in a light batter.
Some might call the interior “cafeteria style” as you walk past each station. But somehow that phrase doesn’t convey the interest I felt at watching the noodles being washed and curled into bowls, or the tempura being dipped in batter and sizzling as it cooked.
The menu at Marukame Udon Japanese restaurant is simple, running from plain udon in kake sauce and udon noodles with eggs to sweet fried tofu or beef. Both of the curry udon dishes come with beef. But vegans will find that a soy udon is also available.
While there are two rice dishes with either chicken or beef, I didn’t see anyone ordering it. Apparently, udon is the very soul of this restaurant. So noodles are consumed by almost everyone along with a seasonal choice of crispy tempura, which is sold individually.
I dined with my daughter. And she chose the Vegan Udon (US$ 9.25), which was served with ground soy and topped with ginger and lemon. The creamy broth, with its tempting aroma, was a tasty mix of flavors. And they included the fresh ginger which mingled with the thick, square, and slightly firm udon noodles.
I had the Garlic Chicken Salad (US$8.25), a cold noodle bowl topped with tempura chicken, lettuce, tomato, and cucumber. The hot noodles are immediately rinsed in cold water before serving. And the flavour is mild and salty, complemented by a sweet garlic dressing.
The chicken was juicy and tender with a crunchy coating. I highly recommend this dish.
In addition, there was a wonderful selection of tempura ready to complement our meal. And the tempura is seasonal and based on what is fresh that day.
We tried the strong umami-flavored mushroom tempura, the perfectly softened zucchini tempura, and the sweet potato. And they all came in the same flaky light tempura batter.
If you’re not familiar with the term “umami”, it is a taste distinct from the more familiar categories of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Actually, it corresponds to the flavour of glutamates, especially monosodium glutamate (MSG). And it is popular in Japanese cookery.
The vegetable tempuras were all very large, with each one costing US $2. I tried the squid zucchini, which was very tasty and inexpensive at US$2.25.
The seating area is clean and bright with Japanese art and lighting. And there are a few coveted booths, which you can’t wait for. But the tables are well spaced and conversations feel private in this very busy restaurant. Although it is popular and always full, I did not feel at all rushed to finish my meal while I savoured every bite.
I loved walking through the entrance of this lively restaurant and watching the udon preparation. And the aroma of ginger and garlic greeted me as I entered.
Watching the chefs prepare my dish was a fun and novel experience. The choice of tempura was excellent. And the batter was perfect. Despite the wait, once you are inside, the service is very fast!
The dining area is more than adequate,. But I would have preferred tables that were set with cutlery and napkins. However, the total cost of the meal was US $25.75, which was extremely reasonable by Oahu standards.
To clarify, it was about one-third the cost of a typical meal at one of Honolulu’s fine-dining Japanese restaurants.
I give Marukame Udon Japanese restaurant an enthusiastic two thumbs up!
Marukame Udon – 2310 Kuhio Avenue, Honolulu, Hawaii. Telephone: (808) 931-6000.
The restaurant is in the heart of Waikiki at street level on the Ala Wai Canal side of the International Market Place, which is famous by for the enormous Banyan tree that was planted in the mid 1800’s. There is another Marukame Udon outlet in downtown Honolulu.
Note: reservations are not accepted. The phone number is for information only,