Meiji Seimen has so many styles of udon I’ve caught waiters staring at the wall during down times, trying to memorize all the specials. There are 12 on the menu, all of them classics: zaru (chilled noodles that you dip in a tangy sauce), kake (udon in a delicious dashi broth) and a fried chicken curry udon whose unctuousness keeps the soup scalding a good 20 minutes after you gamely tried to cool it down but whose sweetness is worth the burn. There’s also the monthly special udon, available only during dinner and currently a mushroom one. And then there are the udons advertised on fliers pinned to the wall, usually accompanied by kawaii cartoons that have some relationship to the specials they’re pushing: the duck-and-green-onion udon, for instance, has an illustration of the bird holding the vegetable à la Farfetch’d from Pokémon. Like the Pokémon, it’s not the best, but it’s charming.
Meiji is one of the few restaurants in Orange County that specializes in udon, a noodle that’ll never get the cult following of ramen because it’s rubbery and gut-sticking when made bad and too many spots buy them premade. Thankfully, this 4-year-old dive makes the noodles every day (along with soba, the other underrated Japanese noodle). Its lunchtime crowd is inevitably immigrant because what it ultimately serves is Japanese comfort food. Daily specials come and go and are better suited for an izakaya—charred octopus one day, pickled burdock root the other, and the notoriously smelly natto (fermented soy beans) a constant. But the place ain’t impenetrable to non-Japanese: It sells fried pork and chicken bowls, along with the Japanese version of poke; all are simple, filling and cheap.
Lunch is when I usually visit, but dinner is when Meiji really pops thanks to happy hour specials and Japanese businessmen and students unwinding after a long day. The chairs outside hint at how busy things can get, so call ahead. And when you sit down and you’re asked what you want, just point at something at the wall—it’s all good!
Meiji Seimen, 1113 Baker St., Ste. E, Costa Mesa, (714) 545-5175.