Udon is trying to follow the noodle soup trend in an airy, light-filled Mid-Market space. So far, the homemade noodles are great but everything else is still in the works.
Has the Bay Area’s Ramen Moment cooled off yet? Judging by Mensho Tokyo’s nightly lines, the answer is clearly “no.” However, it just might be the opportune time for ramen’s Japanese noodle soup siblings, soba and udon, to at least deflect away a little of the fawning attention diners lavish upon ramen. After all, how much more densely concentrated pork fat broth can we all really handle?
Enter Mid-Market’s month-old Kagawa-Ya, a fast-casual concept that definitely isn’t the first udon specialist in San Francisco but certainly is the most high profile one to open. The mission is pretty clear. Kagawa-Ya wants to do for fast-casual udon what Souvla has succeeded at for Greek wraps and salads, and The Bird is thriving within the fried chicken sandwich sector: find your niche, use the expected fresh and high-quality ingredients, serve it fast and win over the hearts of the Instagrammer set and neighborhood tech workers.
Kagawa-Ya isn’t quite to the top of the competitive fast-casual heap yet, both for its inconsistent bowls and spare, to the point of harsh, environs. The udon is meant to be comforting and satisfying. Meanwhile, the space comes across as austere, uncomfortable and awkwardly shaped. It’s not loveable.
Being attached to Uber’s new offices on Market Street and a block from the Twitter Building, the daytime foot traffic (it’s wisely closed after 7pm) is there to make Kagawa-Ya a hit. The curiosity in udon is most definitely abundant citywide, as well. Nobody will rave about Kagawa-Ya and nobody will strongly dislike it. It’ll succeed because, hey, it makes and ages its own noodles for two days, the food is served fast and The Market’s set-up is just too chaotic to be a frequent habit.
The leader of the udon pack is the cold option, with a strong sweet and umami soy broth demanding for a hefty squeeze of the accompanying lemon wedge. It’s delicate while simultaneously being comforting. Grated daikon and a soft yolk boiled egg are essentially the only garnishes. The bowl’s real highlight are the thick homemade noodles themselves, plump and bouncy, far more on the al dente side of the texture spectrum than the soft end, and benefit tremendously from the broth’s slightly chilled temperature.
Those noodles don’t lose their perkiness when heated in one of the four warm broths. The problem is everything else in the bowl. A braised hunk of beef in the Niku Udon proved dry and a challenge to cut; the almost clear broth bearing a vaguely beefy essence that begged for some Sriracha to give it life. Caramelized onions scattered about are the main redeeming feature of the ensemble.
A creamy kabocha squash broth had the same issues, being too vague and needing way more of the squash flavor to shine through. The flavors are restrained and the broth consistency too watery.