In the heart of Little Tokyo Los Angeles lies a Japanese noodle shop famous for its fresh to order handmade noodles.
Enter Marugame Monzo.
An easy to miss spot situated next to Daikokuya, the legendary ramen joint that has amassed a cult-following with crowds lining out the door. With competition like this, you’d think Marugame Monzo would be empty. But in reality, Marugame Monzo is able to hold its own. In fact, it has even cultivated its own loyal fans.
It was several years ago where I first discovered this buzzy restaurant and instantly fell in love. Each time I’ve returned the wait is at least 45 minutes. And every time, it is completely worth it.
Little Space. Big Flavor.
Marugame Monzo is situated in a spot with just enough area for a few tables. In the back right corner, you’ll find bar seating with a view of the open kitchen where all the action happens. A chef in all-white uniform is kneading dough as flatly as possible, while another is cooking long stringy udon. On the stove behind the chef, you can see freshly made udon frothing in a large pot of boiling water.
The size of the place coupled with the fact that their udon noodles are all handmade on site lends to the long wait time. And on their menu spans traditional and fusion takes on Japanese dishes from rice bowls to udon noodles (hot or cold) and fried octopus balls. With many items skewing towards seafood, there are also chicken and beef items for the hungry customer weary of squid and sea urchin! Whatever it is that you’re looking for, Monzo has it all.
The Sea Urchin Cream Udon.
My family and I sit down and everyone but me has decided what to order. I hop back and forth indecisively between trying a new dish and the only entree I ever order when I come here- #3: The sea urchin cream udon.
I know exactly what I’m going to get with it but I’m also curious to try the other things on the menu. After spending 10 minutes scrolling through a vast collection of food porn on their Yelp page, a Japanese male server appears looking at me while I continue to scroll.
Are you ready to order?
Everyone confidently orders but me. I haven’t been here in several months and am still debating because the sea urchin cream udon is just so satisfying. As I am about to take a chance with a new item, I return to the #3.
Can I get the sea urchin cream udon?
My prized dish finally arrives and I pick up a few udon pieces with my chopsticks and place them snugly into my ladle. Then I scoop up the sea of rich sauce and a small piece of uni.
I start to devour the bowl, slurping and slurping away.
The firm and chewy udon just go so well with the sauce and bits of creamy uni.
The sauce is a perfect balance of sweet and salty. In a country where tastebuds are appeased with extra heapings of salt, the only salt evident here is from the sea urchin itself.
As for the texture, it isn’t too thick and isn’t watery. Monzo manages to successfully balance the consistency of this dish by not turning it into a cheap TV-dinner pasta drowned in alfredo sauce. And they make sure the star of the bowl, the udon, shines through!
Simple and delicious.
The sea urchin cream udon is everything. It is wonderful, even on this hot summer day. I have zero regrets in getting the same bowl of sea urchin cream udon every damn time.
Now this isn’t the only restaurant that has the irresistible uni noodle dish on its menu. EMC Seafood & Raw Bar has a similar one, but uses spaghetti for their noodles instead. Then down the street there’s Pasta e Pasta Allegro which offers a similar version of uni pasta too, but with spaghetti. Of these three, Marugame Monzo really nails this with its authentic ingredients and fresh udon.
Luckily my family ordered appetizers so that I could try other things on their menu. They are all spectacular.
The shrimp tempura and the calamari are so light and crispy, almost like a potato chip! The tempura batter and frying techniques used here are noticeably different than American fried foods which tend to get soggy quickly from the flour and oil. It’s fried but I don’t feel so guilty eating this as I do when eating something heavier- Howlin Ray’s Nashville hot chicken. The takoyaki arrive in a trio topped with Katsuobushi (dried tuna) shavings. Upon biting into this, the soft chewy outer layer of the fried balls melt into my mouth. And then the firm soft warm center reveals a piece of octopus. YUM.
I’m with family and so my uncensored inner fatty comes out. I take my ladle and sample my little brother’s beef udon which is more of a real soup than mine. The light broth reminds me of my mother’s 8 hour-simmered pho bone broth- none of the added spices to chicken broth nonsense. This homestyle udon is worth ordering!
Then I bite into fried soft-boiled egg from my boyfriend’s rice bowl. It is perfectly cooked with the yolk inside slightly undercooked. It is so damn good that I finish the rest of it.
The atmosphere here inside and out make me forget for a second that I’m not actually in Japan. Right outside, a Japanese American heritage week ceremony is about to begin so I quickly finish scraping the remaining cream sauce off the sides of my bowl.
Sometimes I’ll get a sudden urge to fly to Japan for a piping hot bowl of delicious noodles like the time I had ramen for breakfast in Tokyo. While I’ll always say yes to a trip back there, for now, there’s Marugame Monzo.