Since last we wrote about it, the deli in United Noodles has had a remodel and a changing of the guard. The layout hasn’t changed dramatically, but gone are the spare white tables, the laminated poster of numbered plates, the red bursts advertising the day’s specials, and the line of iconic ducks, roasted to a lacquer and strung up by their wings.
In their place, we have the cheerful UniDeli, painted in warm eggplant and orange tones and outfitted with abundant seating. A low, curving wall and ornamental ceiling frames — hung with a giant paper dragon; a leftover from Chinese New Year — give the space a more official and welcoming feeling. The new signage is infinitely more contemporary: three widescreen TVs feature appealing photos of the cafe’s signature dishes with short descriptions and prices.
In its current incarnation, the menu features more Japanese dishes, courtesy of chef Kosuke Zaworski. Last year, he replaced Judy Yen, who retired. She is owner Eric Fung’s aunt and, as a chef, had earned the deli a loyal following with her Taiwanese home cooking. (If you visit the deli, she’s the one on the wall, grinning out of a photo that also features celebrity chef Rachael Ray.) Many of her dishes still remain on the menu and, for his part, Zaworski has several noodle and rice dishes and a handful of sushi rolls and nigiri.
Unfortunately, the sushi bar was closed during one of our visits, but we did manage to get in a Seven Samurai roll ($9), spicy tuna wrapped in rice and draped with tuna and avocado. Although we prefer our spicy tuna with a bit more kick, it was very fresh and beautifully rolled.
From the noodle menu, we happily devoured a bowl of Miso Ramen ($8.50), which included bok choy, bean sprouts, barbecued pork, kamaboko, and tea egg. The broth was a rich miso flavored with sea weed, delicious in its own right but well complemented by the thin slices of pork and tender little bok choys. The tea egg was gorgeous, almost batiked, and tasted of soy and cinnamon.
The Tonkotsu Ramen ($8) also featured slices of the same pork, but they were buried in a very successful combination of pickled ginger, sprouts, and bok choy in a pork and coconut broth. However, once we had eaten all of the noodles, meat, and veggies, the broth tasted thin and we weren’t as tempted to tip the bowl to our lips as we had been with the miso broth. That said, we were also quite full.
A leftover from the old menu, the Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup ($7) was just thing to chase away a bad day or a cold. A smaller bowl, filled with a wonderfully clear, simple beef broth, udon noodles, chunks of stewed beef, bok choy, and the bright notes of green onion and cilantro, it was warm and soothing.
The only dish that failed to please was a Shirataki Vegan Sukiyaki ($8.50) that featured a mirin and seaweed broth, bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, green onions, and giant blocks of plain tofu. The broth was flavorful — slightly sweet, not too salty — but the veggies and tofu were just not interesting enough to support it.
From the steam trays, we sampled a dish of eggplant and ground pork ($3) that looked slightly suspect but turned out to be drowned in garlic, scallions, and chile and was quite succulent. The Szechuan Mapu Doufu ($3) was also popular. It featured a saucy combination of marinated pork, chile peppers, black beans, and bean curd — spicy hot and well nigh addictive. The star of the rice side of things, however, was a charming square of pork belly ($3), tied up in kitchen twine and, we think, braised. Encased in thick sheets of fat, the pork fell apart on the chopstick and tasted, well, like very rich, very tender pork tenderloin meets lovely fat. (Note: Any three dishes can be combined on a plate for $6.49.)
So, as one reader recently asked, how does UniDeli compare to a Masu or Obento-ya? UniDeli doesn’t have the ambitious flavor profiles of the dishes one might find at either of those restaurants — nor does it have the prices. Overall, the food at UniDeli is still true to great home cooking: simple, flavorful, fresh, and not too greasy or salty. It reminded us favorably of the neighborhood spots we used to frequent in San Francisco; and, similarly, it was filled with young Asian families and bachelors.
This may not always be the case. Lucy Schneeman, marketing manager for United Noodles, tells us that Zaworski is working with chef Masaru Nishijima at Saji-Ya, in St. Paul, to develop new dishes that will incorporate more seasonal ingredients and brighter flavors for spring and summer. The new dishes will start rolling out next month, one or two at a time, and diners can also look forward to more Szechuan dishes.
Best bet: Among noodles, the Tonkotsu Ramen ($8), but don’t miss an opportunity to try the braised pork belly ($3) or eggplant and ground pork ($3).
2015 E 24th St
Minneapolis, MN 55404
Chef: Kosuke Zaworski
ENTREE RANGE: $5.25-$9
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes (limited)