I think we can all agree that Oahu has its fair share of ramen restaurants. From tiny Tokyo-based shops that specialize in pork and seafood tsukemen dipping noods to local chains that have cult followings for unctuous broths, ramen noodles are well represented in just about every corner of our small island.
Where we're truly lacking are restaurants that specialize in soba and udon – the contrasting noodle duo of thin buckwheat and thick wheat flour noodles that have been around much longer than ramen. Jimbo has served up fresh udon noodles on King Street since 1994, but it was the arrival of Marukame Udon on Kuhio Avenue in 2011 that forever changed our view on these thick bouncy strings of dough. To this day, Marukame serves an astronomical number of udon bowls to visitors and locals alike and has been a top destination in Waikiki for those seeking an affordable meal in the otherwise ritzy tourist district.
TsuruTonTan Udon Noodle Brasserie takes the humble udon noodle soup and punts it to next level quality and presentation. The Osaka-based udon chain, known for humongous bowls and a vast selection of broths, sauces and toppings arrived in Waikiki by way of New York, where its first international location served as the testing ground for their westward expansion. Management said that if they could make it in the Big Apple, they could make it any where. I suppose that could be true in some ways.
Other than being a mouthful, the name TsuruTonTan is actually onomatopoeia for udon in three ways: "tsuru" is the sound for slurping udon; "ton" is the sound for kneading udon; and "tan" is the sound for cutting udon. When a restaurant doubles (or triples) down on their focus, you'd expect they'd be experts in their field and I'm happy to report that TsuruTonTan has their udon craft down pat. Using a blended flour from Japan, each location has noodle masters that create udon noodles fresh by hand daily. The result: silky strings of serious chew in two sizes, a thinner noodle meant for cold preparations and thinner broths and a thicker version meant to stand up to the sizzling hot pots and thicker sauces on the menu.
Admittedly, when it comes to Japanese noodles, I side with the skinny ones but TsuruTonTan's udon had me reconsidering my allegiance. The thinner of the two struck a nice balance between the beefier udon I'm familiar with and the thinner buckwheat soba, but both score high when it comes to texture and slurpability.
The picture book menu reads like it belongs in an izakaya with pages of well-priced starters like the $11 grilled duck breast (get it) and $6 corn kakiage fritters (hard pass). The bulk of the menu is brimming with colorful images of udon bowls topped with anything from lobes of uni and mentaiko in creamy sauces to the traditional konbu dashi or thick curry with loads of crispy tempura. Lighter fare includes cold noodles under a mound of shaved ice flavored with ume plum, shiso and lime as well your standard kitsune and zaru udon. Prices range from $13 up to $22.
More extreme examples of the menu include the rich truffle creme with crab and mushroom udon ($22) and bubbling spicy jigae udon ($22), but if you're not feeling the soup, get the sizzling sukiyaki udon ($17). I discovered for the same price, you're offered two choices of noodle portions, normal and large, and found the normal to be satisfying for my appetite after a couple of sides and a cocktail. Delivered to your table in a hot stone bowl, you're encouraged to mix in the egg yolk, but I recommend asking for it on the side to dip as you go rather than scrambling it against the super hot walls of the bowl.
As far as dessert goes, the water cake is interesting but don't let it fool you – it's a trap made from 2016 and not worth those sweet calories. I am tempted to try the matcha crepe cake, which I've had at Lady M in New York (so I know what to expect), but it's the shaved ice that I must have upon my return. The machine was down both days I went so it remains on my list.
If you're going to TsuruTonTan for udon then you'll find yourself smitten with noodles that show their versatility in a vast number of applications. From light dashi to truffle creme, luxe toppings to humble tradition, these noodle bowls shine bright in any form.
TsuruTonTan Udon Noodle Brasserie
Royal Hawaiian Center
2233 Kalakaua Ave B310
Lunch: 11:30 a.m. - 3 p.m.
Dinner: 5 - 10 p.m.