BiteClub, Japanese, Santa Rosa

Slurp All You Want at Ippinn Udon in Santa Rosa

These chewy Japanese noodles are made from scratch in the store. See how.

Move over ramen, it’s udon’s turn in the spotlight.

The thicker, sassier noodle cousin to ramen, udon are chewy, slippery strands of cooked wheat and water that beg to be sauced, souped and slurped. Served hot in winter and cold in the summer, they’ve been a Japanese staple for nearly a thousand years — far longer than the two-hundred or so years since the introduction of ramen from China. Though, to be clear, nobody puts ramen in a corner.

It’s just that this simple homey dish is so, well, simple. While ramen lovers argue over the types of broth particular to the many variations of ramen noodles, how to make the ramen, and the specifics of each prefecture’s style, udon is classically served with dashi broth (a briny broth made with seaweed and shrimp flakes), some scallions and a soy dipping sauce — and that’s it.

Not that we’re exactly udon experts, but a brief lesson from newly-opened Ippinn Udon & Tempura owner Frank Wu helped to dispel some of the mystery of this very Japanese experience. The Mendocino Avenue shop he recently opened with collaborators Teng Yushu and Mason Lin is a sort of upscale cafeteria experience where you order a type of udon — from simple kama udon to cross-over dishes like spicy beef or curry udon noodles — then slide the tray past a variety of tempura, grabbing (with tongs of course) whatever tickles your fancy.

“ People are already familiar with ramen. We wanted to introduce udon to this region,” said Wu who, along with his business partners, hails from China rather than Japan. A businessman through and through, Wu saw the popularity of udon bars in San Francisco and wanted to bring the first to the North Bay. He is already planning a similar fast-casual concept for sushi in the nearby Big Lots shopping center.

Interior at Ippinn Udon and Tempura in Santa Rosa. Heather Irwin/PD

Like all the staff, Wu wears dentist-like face shields to keep things nice and sanitary. It’s like a personal sneeze guard, and more than a little funny when you try to figure out how the contraption stays on.

Ippin Udon & Tempura has been in development for nearly two years, and business partner Teng Yushu spent a month enrolled in “noodle school” in Kagawa, Japan learning the art of udon noodle making.

Part of the instruction is how to keep their $50,000 Yamato udon machine in good repair, since there’s no way to get a quick service call from across the ocean.

Interior at Ippinn Udon and Tempura in Santa Rosa. Heather Irwin/PD

The nondescript appliance sits by the window, quietly chopping noodles for hours.

It’s a fascinating process to observe, as Yushu fires up the noodle maker that does everything from mixing the flour and saltwater mixture to kneading, rolling and cutting the noodles.

In less than 5 minutes, three balls of rested dough (they rest about 18 hours after kneading) have gone through rollers with increasing pressure to get just the right thickness. The dough is carefully folded, then fed through a chopper, where ribbons of udon noodles fall onto a tray.
They’re almost immediately tossed into a vat of boiling water, where Yushu stirs the noodles constantly with a large wooden roller. Watching the noodles twist and turn in the boiling pot is hypnotic.

Udon and Tempura at Ippinn Udon and Tempura in Santa Rosa. Heather Irwin/PD
Udon and Tempura at Ippinn Udon and Tempura in Santa Rosa. Heather Irwin/PD

After about six minutes, he scoops the noodles into a cloth net, shocks them with cold water, swirling the noodles to release starch.

They’re shocked in ice, and twisted into small ropes to later be portioned into bowls.

Wu is carefully monitoring what udon dishes work, like the spicy beef, and which are less approachable. Like California rolls, which are a uniquely American invention, giving traditional recipes a little wiggle room tends to bring more folks to the table.

As the weather warms, they will be serving cold udon noodle dishes as well.

Overall: It’s best to approach Ippinn with a sense of curiosity and enthusiasm because there are things on the menu even seasoned foodies won’t immediately recognize. A welcoming and explanatory staff make the adventure fun, and student-friendly prices make it a quick grub stop that almost anyone can appreciate. Slurping welcome!

Best Bets

Curry Udon, $6.99: A creamy coconut milk broth with bits of beef, noodles and (optional) cilantro. It’s an easy introduction to udon that marries Indian and Japanese cuisine. A favorite.

Kama-Age, $4.99: Served in wooden noodle bowls (kama), this is the most classic udon dish. Noodles, clear broth, grated daikon and a soy-based dipping sauce. Light, bright flavors and super simple.

Tofu udon at Ippinn Udon and Tempura in Santa Rosa. Heather Irwin/PD

Tofu Udon $5.49: Sweet fried tofu skin, fish cakes, egg and a dashi base. A great lunch bowl.
Tonkatsu Udon, $7.99: Pork belly chashu with pork broth. The most popular udon, it’s super rich and hearty.

Tempura: Udon’s best friend, tempura are frequently dipped into the broth. Selections change daily, but expect things like panko-breaded and fried pumpkin, fish cakes, prawns, potato croquettes, and vegetable nests. They range from .60 to $1.70 for each piece. Pumpkin is our favorite.

Ippinn Udon and Tempura, 1880 Mendocino Ave #D, (near Mombo’s Pizza) Santa Rosa, 707-521-9911, ippinnllc.com

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Comments

9 thoughts on “Slurp All You Want at Ippinn Udon in Santa Rosa

  1. Ate there yesterday. I had the curry udon. It was good in spite of the two very small chunks of beef and the broth was only lukewarm. Very good flavor. The young man at the end of the line by the condiments was way too hovering. Very nice atmosphere. Prices very reasonable.

  2. Asia Mart on Guernville Road near Fulton has Udon noodles for 59 cents and the liquid soup base (16 oz bottle), a dashi concentrated soup base, brand name Mizkan if you want to easily make your own at home.

  3. Sounds like a great new restaurant to try but if I’m not mistaken, I noticed that there are 3 locations! Your article states 1800 Mendocino Ave. Their website claims 1180 Mendocino Ave near their business hours and 1880 Mendocino Ave on Google map at the bottom of their website.

  4. I ate there yesterday, April 30th, and was very impressed with the quality of food, customer service, and prices.

    A bowl of really good, right-now fresh, udon noodles costs only $6.50? I’m not sure how they can do that.

    I chose the beef ramen, and thought it was a real good deal and of high quality. There’s not a lot of beef, but a big bowl of noodles for $6.50 explains that. You can add tempura, at a small price, to “beef up” you udon selection if you are really hungry. I added a fried fish cake tempura ($1.50) and a potato croquette ($1.00, great texture), and left feeling really full.

    The experience was better then a lot of other noodle places in Santa Rosa, and at about 1/2 the price of a bowl of pho, or Fourth Street ramen. SRJC students are going to swamp this place.

    1. In Japan ramen & udon are very inexpensive (and delicious)… In fact in many places you will find ramen stands late in the evening, and the perfect thing after a night of drinking… I laughed when I visited two of the recent ramen restaurants here in Sonoma County charging $15 for a bowl of ramen…

    1. Both elements of your comment are untrue:

      1) The food is very high-quality, and made right on the spot; and,
      2) The price is very low, $6.50 for a bowl of noodles makes it cheaper than any other bowl of noodles in Santa Rosa.

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