In the astronomy of Japanese noodles, three stars shine the brightest: ramen, soba and udon. Having dealt at length with Chicago's ramen, I was overdue for an exploration of the latter two. Enter Rodan; at this Wicker Park restaurant and bar, the kitchen serves a mash-up of Asian dishes, from Vietnamese bánh mì to Korean tacos. Rodan also has a soba and an udon soup, both of which happen to be vegan. (Why that slacker over at the Vegetarian Option column isn't on top of this place is beyond me.) A great time to try Rodan's noodles in on Mondays when you can take advantage of the restaurant's special "vegan night" pricing.
Think of udon noodles like ramen on steroids. Udon is a thicker-gauge and heavier wheat noodle that, when cooked right, occupies a pillowy sweet spot between dense and doughy, springy and fluffy. A good udon noodle should cling onto broth or curry well, and biting in should be an event—a distinct experience that registers deeply with the senses.
I'm pleased to report that the udon noodles (regularly $11; $8 on Mondays) at Rodan are indeed an event to consume. (Successfully corralling these slippery strands in the well of your spoon can be an event in itself, as well.) Visually, Rodan's udon is robust and slightly curly. Texturally, the noodles are tender, doughy, and fresh. They hold up well over time in aromatic vegetable broth, which is gingery and herbaceous with hints of citrus and green vegetables. There's a just-perceptible sweetness to it, as well.
On the side comes a handful of pieces of hot, crunchy mushroom tempura studded with black sesame seeds. The tempura is a nice touch, adding a new texture into the mix. You may have the urge to dip your tempura in the broth. I say go with it.
Soba is a far wispier noodle made from buckwheat that the Japanese have found dozens of applications for, perhaps most notably yakisoba. The noodle typically has a deep, sandy-brown color and a nutty, raw-starch flavor. Rodan's soba noodles ($10; $8 Mondays)—served in a mushroom broth with shiitake mushrooms, scallions, bok choy and yuzu oil—fall short of greatness for me; but despite their shortcomings, I'd still turn to them to satisfy that occasional hunger for a hearty, earthy, and warming bowl of soba noodles.
With noodles of any kind, mouthfeel is important. And my trouble with this noodle is how, after just a couple of chews, its structure devolves into mush. Rodan's soba starts off toothsome and tender but quickly turns gloppy. On the other hand, the toasted flavors of buckwheat get more intense as you chew, which is a welcome. Likewise, the broth was good but not great. Big and savory without being overly salty, the broth had the earthiness you want out of a mushroom base, but it also betrayed a mineral flavor I didn't like. And all that earthiness made it hard to pick up any acidic kick potentially coming from the yuzu oil.
Considering Rodan's border-hopping menu, I approached its Japanese noodles with a caution that, upon inspection, seems only partially justified. The udon, not to mention the side of tempura, was surprisingly good. Given how scarce udon is in Chicago to begin with—Japanese food here still predominantly means sushi—stumbling upon a great one is all the more cause for celebration.