Mid-Market’s Kagawa-Ya Gives Udon the Spotlight

Kagawa-Ya Udon Noodle Company dishes. (Trevor Felch)

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 exterior.
Kagawa-Ya exterior. (Trevor Felch)

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.

Kagawa-Ya's cold noodle option.
Kagawa-Ya's cold noodle option. (Trevor Felch)

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.

Niku (beef) Udon Soup
Niku (beef) Udon Soup (Trevor Felch)

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.

Kabocha squash udon soup.
Kabocha squash udon soup. (Trevor Felch)

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.

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All in all, these are sensational noodles with timid broths. Japanese beef curry with carrots and onions gets translated into an udon soup broth as the other meat option. Vegetarians can also opt for the warm dashi-based Kitsune Udon. If you somehow end up at the udon specialist and don’t want udon, then there is a mushroom curry rice bowl, which I didn’t see ordered one time while watching about 50 diners stroll by during a recent weekday lunch rush.

Kagawa-Ya interior.
Kagawa-Ya interior. (Trevor Felch)

While the udon broths need attention, those noodles are proving to be special. Kagawa is a prefecture on Japan’s Shikoku Island, not tremendously far from Osaka. It’s considered Japan’s udon capital and Kagawa-Ya claims that the prefecture’s residents consume more than seven times the udon per capita than the national average. They love their udon. That’s why it’s the Mid-Market restaurant’s namesake and why Kagawa-Ya’s chef Sean Lim trained there to get the ultimate udon education at the source. It’s evident when you bite into the noodle and focus purely on that element.

Lim is from Honolulu originally but has worked at several San Francisco institutions, with his latest post being as a sous chef for The Palace Hotel. Seven blocks down Market Street, he’s working in a completely different type of operation and cooking a vastly different style of food than hotel banquet chicken and salmon.

Kagawa-Ya interior counter.
Kagawa-Ya interior counter. (Trevor Felch)

Kagawa-Ya’s 30-foot high ceiling and prominent overhead bubble lamp chandelier in the dining area are the dominant design features, feeling like a corporate atrium lobby (Uber’s next door probably isn’t very different). Lots of natural light streams in but the distracting white floors, exposed concrete, and off-putting black metal stools and chairs are all the clichés of contemporary minimalist design that elicit complaints about acoustics and comfort. This might be too much architecture credit to give but the restaurant is exactly like a Frank Lloyd Wright house’s tiny door meets spacious living room philosophy. The kitchen and cash register area are claustrophobic with a low ceiling. Then you emerge in a massive communal space. It just all feels impersonal and trying to be trendy.

Most diners sit at a central raised reclaimed wood communal table, with a handful of lower tables scattered by the door and along the Market Street side wall where the street view is blocked by signs advertising udon to pedestrians (pro tip: get rid of the signs).

Kagawa-Ya’s menu.
Kagawa-Ya’s menu. (Trevor Felch)

You’ll order one of the udons from the menus on monitors at the far end of the counter and have to scream that order since it’s hard to communicate over the glass barrier with cooks. The soup bowls are put together right in front of you and take just a couple of seconds to prepare. Who knew that udon can be served faster than burritos?

Kagawa-Ya’s tempura.
Kagawa-Ya’s tempura. (Trevor Felch)

After being handed your soup, next up is the very unappetizing appearance of various tempuras under a heat lamp as a la carte sides at $1.50 each. Whether you choose shrimp or a curry sweet potato croquette, it’s fine fried food but seems more like filler than actually rounding out a meal. On the positive side, they’re grease-less and the batter isn’t too heavy (you can actually taste shrimp in the shrimp one, for example).

Hawaiian fruit juices and sodas available at Kagawa-Ya.
Hawaiian fruit juices and sodas available at Kagawa-Ya. (Trevor Felch)

The one little quirk at Kagawa-Ya is the large roster of Hawaiian fruit juices and sodas available after the tempura. Who knew that udon and lilikoi juice were a match? They aren’t really (sugary juices don’t mesh with delicate noodles) but at least you can briefly think about that far-off Maui vacation during your lunch break.

Hopefully, Kagawa-Ya will punch up the flavor depth in the broths because the excellent noodles deserve them. Let’s root for a little bit more personality somewhere, maybe from a little more interior work or adjusting the ordering line so it doesn’t feel like you’re nudged up to the bathroom.

Prices are in line with what you’d expect (generally $11-13 a bowl). Then again, maybe that’s now a bargain per San Francisco standards. We’ll see how Kagawa-Ya develops. Despite opening hurdles, there is a lot of potential for the restaurant because udon really is poised to have its breakout at any moment and Kagawa-Ya seems determined to be the one responsible for a new noodle trend.

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Kagawa-Ya Udon Noodle Company
1455 Market St.
San Francisco, CA 94103 [Map]
Ph: (415) 703-0995
Hours: Mon-Fri, 11am-7pm, closed Saturday and Sunday
Facebook: Kagawa-Ya Udon Noodle Company
Twitter: @KagawayaUdon
Instagram: kagawaya.udon
Price Range: $$ ($11-$15 per diner)

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