West Side Satori

Maru is proof that Tucson can never get enough ramen

When I walked into Maru Japanese Noodle Shop, I was immediately greeted by a familiar face: Yoshimi Tashima, owner of the long-standing midtown sushi staple Yoshimatsu, who told me this was a new venture strictly focused on Japanese-style noodles.

Maru, which means "circle" (and is not a nod to the cute cat video that went viral), reminds me of Japanese eateries I've seen on food shows. It's sparse, extremely clean and efficient, small but not cramped. If you're familiar with Yoshimatsu, you'll remember the whimsical artwork and knickknacks that decorate the space. Yoshimi's trademark style is also on display here.

It's no surprise that she harnesses such creative talent, even outside of her own cooking and twists on traditional Japanese recipes. Yoshimi married her husband Hirotsune—a professor of ceramics at Pima College who also has sculpture installations across the world—back in their hometown of Osaka before they moved to Tucson. As Hirotsune began his teaching career, Yoshimi needed her own creative outlet, so she launched Yoshimatsu. With the success of her first restaurant endeavor, Yoshimi knew that she wanted to expand, but with a relatively simple concept that didn't require lengthy prep lists and expensive food costs. With the volcanic rise in demand for ramen in this town, Yoshimi (and her longtime chef Takayuki) is gambling that the west side is ready to embrace a noodle shop.

On the northeast corner of Silverbell and Speedway, Maru is a bit hidden in a plaza that includes the usual grocery store, bank and mobile phone shop. But the huge bowls of handcrafted noodles in delicious broth are worth seeking out.

I've never been to Japan, but Yoshimi told me that the noodle style at Maru is the most authentic she can create in Southern Arizona. Still, she does have to treat the American palate a bit. She presents most udon and ramen dishes as expected in the states; flush with half a perfect soft-boiled egg, spiral radish, fishcake, vegetables and the like. Traditional ramen bowls have maybe one or two toppings to allow those flavors to shine and Yoshimi does offer an opportunity to go full Japanese: just noodles and broth, with the option to add extra elements at your preference. After you order at the counter, a server will bring the bowl of broth and noodles, which you take to a "toppings bar" to add bean sprouts, cilantro, hot chili oil and such to your liking.

Either way you want to go, Maru does not disappoint. The fish (bonito) broth for the udon is light with subtle complexities, with a touch of kelp giving it a briny flavor not found in the dashi broth used in miso soup. The chicken broth used for the ramen is richly resonant but it doesn't overpower the handmade noodles. The Tantan ($10.95)—spicy ground pork ramen—brought some delightful heat.

Maru offers donburi rice bowls as well. For the vegans in the house, the Curry Don ($6) killed it with an uncomplicated combination of sushi sticky rice and a rich brown sauce of carrot, onion and potato.

The onigiri—or rice ball—ranges from vegan ume plum to shrimp tempura. It will come wrapped in plastic because, Yoshimi tells me, that's how they are served in Japan, either dine in or take out, so that's how they are served at Maru. If she doesn't want to mess with tradition, then neither should we.

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