Sunday, November 8, 2015

How to eat: Hana-Maru – udon noodles and tempura galore!

Today we go to Hanamaru, a chain famous for its udon dishes. Udon is a type of thick wheat noodle, usually served in a broth seasoned with fish-sauce and various toppings. It also goes well with tempura, various deep-fried pieces of vegetable, fish and meat. Udon is healthy and delicious, and the various combinations make for a lot of variety of the basic dish. But you should be prepared before you enter, or ordering may be a little difficult!

Hanamaru literally means "round flower", and its characteristic symbol can be seen all over Tokyo and the rest of Japan. There are about 350 restaurants in Japan, and they are also starting to expand internationally.

The system at Hanamaru is a little different from the previous chains we have covered, as you don't have either vending machines or table orders. Instead, you go straight ahead to the ordering counter and pick up a tray. You tell the person at the counter what udon dish you want, and they make it fresh literally before your eyes! You can order by pointing at the menu at the counter, but since chances are it will be busy, you had better be prepared before you get there...

There will be several menus posted on the walls on the way to the counter, so stop and look at one of them First, note that the udon bowls at Hanamaru come in three different sizes: small, medium and large. We find that small is more than enough, especially if you combine it with tempura or karaage (fried chicken). At the top of the menu above, you see the different sets, where you get a curry or a side dish along with your udon bowl. Below that are various forms of beef udon, and then comes the regular udon dishes, topped with egg, vegetables, etc. Decide if you are going for a set or a single bowl – the pictures should be fairly self explanatory.

Apart from the type of topping and size of the bowl, you also have another decision to make: hot or cold! In the summer, it can be refreshing to get you noodles in cool ("tsumetai") soup, but hot ("atatakai") is the most common. You will be asked which you want, and if your Japanese is not up to scratch, saying "hotto" should be enough to get you hot soup, and "cold" (actually pronounced "korudo", but not a common loan word in Japanese) just might work too.

The person at the counter will take your order and prepare the udon bowl and any extras, and you simply put it on the tray. (Don't try to pay yet!)

Then, you move your tray along the tempura station, where you can pick up various fried seafood, vegetables and meat. You put these on a separate platter on the tray. 

After this, you reach the payment station, and pay for the food before taking a seat.

There are also a few other useful things to note: There is a water dispenser where you pick up glasses and fill them up yourself. Beside it, there is a station for picking up various condiments to put in the soup, as well as spoons and other eating implements. Finally, there will also be a hot water dispenser to top up the soup if you want to. 

After loading your tray, you sit down at any free seat. Note that there will be chopsticks and soy sauce at your place, but spoons and other condiments will have to be picked up at the station.

Here, we ordered a kara-age set with tamago udon for 580 yen. Tamago is egg, so we get a soft-boiled egg on the basic udon noodles. Kara-age is fried chicken, which is served with another egg on top of boiled rice. It is especially delicious with mayonnaise, which comes in a little plastic container on the side. Finally, we picked up some tempura, in this case a cluster of deep-fried vegetables for 140 yen. You can eat the tempura as is, or drop it into the soup on top of the noodles, whichever you prefer. 

Here, we tried on of the beef udon dishes at 550 yen for the medium size. To be honest, beef on udon feels a little wrong, so in the future we will instead just get a basic bowl and top up with tempura! But if you absolutely must have meat, the beef udon is a good choice.

When you are done, you just return the tray to the kitchen station, which will be somewhere near where you picked up the food. 

Overall, Hanamaru is great value and you can build a lot of different types of meals with the various toppings and tempura in addition to the basic udon. 

Quick facts

Link: Official Hanamaru web site (Japanese only)

Where to find it: Although not as plentiful as some other chains, you can find Hanamaru at most major parts of Tokyo – there are about 350 locations in Japan

Price: Small udon bowls start at 300 yen and go to 650 for the large beef bowls. Sets are 530-580 yen. Tempura are about 100-150 yen each.

Hours: Varies with location.

Order system: Take a tray and order at the counter; pick up extras and pay at the end of the counter. Sit anywhere you like and don't forget to return your tray afterwards!

Take-out? It doesn't appear so.

Vegetarian options? The basic udon bowls are all based on fish sauce, so not strictly vegetarian. You may be able to stop the chef from putting in the sauce ("Soosu irenaide kudasai!") and get the noodles flat, but it's a gamble. A better strategy may be to order rice on the side and pack up with vegetable tempura, of which there is plenty.

What to get: The kara-age (udon and fried chicken) set is our favorite, and a small size udon portion is enough to feed all but the most hungry. But we think you should just look for the most appetizing udon on the menu, and pile on the tempura by taste – you won't be disappointed!

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