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We Can’t Believe Udon Know About Taro San

Previously published in The Mark 

With its hard opening in February, Taro San Udon Bar is a newcomer to the Palo Alto food scene. With a casual sit-down vibe, and a unique take on Japanese udon – a thick, wheat flour noodle– to match, Taro San is on its way to establishing itself as a staple of the area.

However, to trivialize Taro San to yet another attempt to cash in on the chic Asian noodle trend would be a disservice to those looking for something more interesting. Simply put, Taro San is so much more than that. It is a venture into a creative space in noodles that has remained conspicuously empty up to this point, at least locally; an escapade into ramen and soba’s lesser known, straighter-laced brother. For Jerome Ito, head chef, creative force, and proprietor behind Taro San, it remains clearly one thing: a passion project.

Ito, a fourth-generation Japanese immigrant, grew up in Los Angeles, and “on Japanese food.” For him, cooking Japanese began early in his life, although this arose more out of necessity than anything else. Ito said, “my mom– don’t tell her this– was not always the best cook, and while she did certain things well, they were often not Japanese. Cooking, for me, was a way to fill that void.”

Ito, growing up, often felt estranged from his ancestral home. In his words, his daily life felt “Americanized.” He went on to say, “I ate as much [Japanese food] as possible; it was an easy way to connect. I just didn’t want to lose any of my Japanese heritage.”

If this wasn’t reason enough to constitute a career in Japanese food, other qualities, besides its cultural significance, drew Ito to it as well. “It is very light and refreshing, and something that I could eat every day. I love Italian food, and I love French food, but I just can’t eat them like that. Japanese is just different in that way.”

Through college, cooking remained more of a hobby than a career path for Ito. In fact, he originally went to college as an art major before he went to culinary school. But this interest in art too played a role in his interest in Japanese food. After getting his grounds at culinary school, he began to focus on developing his sushi skillset. Ito described sushi as “one food which truly has capacity for creativity. You can be creative with any food, but the plating of sushi is truly on another level. For me, it was a way of combining cooking and art.”

As a result, Ito’s first real escapades into the world of restaurants were by way of sushi. After working as a sushi caterer in Los Angeles, Ito made the move up to the Bay Area, where he initially worked as Head Chef of Google’s first full sushi bar, the Kitchen Sync. In 2014, he started his own poke restaurant/catering service, Go Fish, which now has five locations across the Bay Area. Despite this success, Ito still felt unfulfilled as a chef. “At that point, while I enjoyed doing poke, I wanted to do more. It was pretty limiting, and I knew I had a lot more to offer.”

“My first child, my daughter, really loves noodles. She just always wanted noodles, and udon, and we ended up trying more places that had them. So, I ended up eating a lot of noodles, and after trying some marugame udon in Hawaii, meaning fast and casual, we realized that model was genius,” said Ito. Thus, the idea for Taro San was born.

“Building this was not nearly as easy as with Go Fish. I know sushi, but this is entirely new. There are so many things that have to be done right just for the system to work. At the same time, though, it is kind of great, because I get to create this new atmosphere with interesting, quality, and most importantly tasty food,” said Ito.

One thing to get right, for Ito, was a noodle authentic in both flavor and texture. He said, “I needed a much deeper understanding of how to make udon. For that, I went to the Yamato Udon School in Japan and Singapore, which brought me up to a whole different level.”

“Doing noodles at Yamato was very much like baking, which was an unusual experience as a regular chef. Bakers are very precise, because they have to be, versus a chef like me, where you leave much more up to feeling. At the school, they really force you to be exact, in both ingredients and timing, which results in not only a better, but more consistent noodle,” said Ito.

Taro San opened the ninth of February, offering a menu rich with variety, from sea urchin-oriented udon, to panko-fried oysters.“I didn’t want to just do udon. I like to get a lot of different things when I go out to eat,” said Ito. This meant, for him, adding izakaya, or Japanese pub food, to the menu in addition to the udon. “This could be our salmon on crispy rice, or really panko fried anything. It is like Japanese tapas, if you think about it,” said Ito.

As unorthodox as it is, Taro San also varies the sizes of the actual udon noodle, which they make in-house. Ito said, “We can do a ramen-sized noodle, or like a fettuccine-sized noodle. It really just depends on what size lends itself to the broth.”

The broths used by Taro San, too, do not conform to traditional style. “Udon is traditionally in a soy-based broth, which is really basic. There’s nothing that said you can’t combine the udon noodle you love with a ramen broth or some other base,” said Ito. Currently, they offer udon with the traditional dashi, vegetarian, curry, and ramen-style tori paitan broth.

“For me,” said Ito, “this is my way of being creative. […] Poke, you can get anywhere. I wanted this to be something people would travel for. I get people who say things like ‘I came all the way down from Berkeley to eat this, ’ and that is what is truly rewarding for me.”

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