Situated next to a Starbucks in a strip mall parking lot, Tampopo Ramen is easy to miss. The only reason I knew of its existence was because of a recommendation given by one of my best friends, Hannah, a native of the nearby Phoenix suburb of Mesa. At that point, my most memorable ramen experience had been at Momofuku Noodle Bar, owned by legendary chef David Chang, in New York City. In my mind, it was a tall order for any other version of the dish to top it. Yet, the second our birdbath-sized bowls appeared on the table, I knew Momofuku would have to make some room at the top of the list.
Like I said, the exterior of Tampopo is unassuming. The glass-fronted restaurant is long and narrow, with communal seating running down the center of the dining room. Viewing windows put the kitchen on display for customers, but most of everyone’s attention is focused on conversation, or on navigating the hefty bowls of noodles once they arrive at the table. Oddly enough, the restaurant takes the same name as a 1985 Japanese comedy about a man’s quest to find the perfect bowl of ramen. With that realization, everything about Tampopo’s atmosphere starts to make a lot of sense; unpretentious, but with a heck of a delicious punchline.
Opened in 2015, Tampopo specializes in Hakata-style ramen, with a focus on tonkotsu, a very intense pork broth often served with long, thin noodles. The restaurant makes it all in-house; the machine and racks of drying noodles can be seen in an enclosed room to your right just after you enter. Of the several variations of ramen on the menu, my go-to is the spicy miso, heavily flavored with ginger and chili, and topped with a generous slice of roasted pork. It’s just enough heat to warm you through, but not enough to overpower your tastebuds. (However, that’s not going to stop me from trying Tampopo’s ultra spicy ramen one day. I have a reputation as a chili head to uphold.) Additionally, a bowl is fairly budget-friendly. For $9, I always end up taking half of the bowl home to eat the next day… or for dinner.
Hannah also recommended adorning our ramen extravaganza with a few side dishes. We started off with the yaki gyoza, pan-seared Japanese dumplings served with a soy-based dipping sauce. With six to an order, it’s an easy dish to split between two or three people. They’re well-executed, delicious, light, and arrive to the table quickly. They make a perfect appetizer, although they’re classified as a side on the menu.
The second side we ordered was the yaki oniguri, Japanese-style rice balls stuffed with fish, and served with a spicy dipping sauce. A personal favorite of my friend’s, it’s another easy dish to split, with two rice balls in each order. Tampopo was my first experience with oniguri, and it’s safe to say their rendition got me hooked. As a quick note to those who’ve never tried the dish before, they’re are very filling. Unless you have a tremendous appetite, I suggest picking either the oniguri or ramen as a main. Otherwise, you’ll end up taking a lot home at the end of the meal. (That’s not to say I’ve ever had an issue with that!)
Tampopo is a classic tale in the importance of not judging a book by its cover. Some of the best restaurant experiences I’ve had have been in small, family-run places in out-of-the-way locations. I could easily imagine a ramen shop like Tampopo thriving in Lower Manhattan just like Momofuku, but it doesn’t, and there’s nothing wrong with that. For amazing ramen, handmade sides, and a lively atmosphere, I highly recommend checking it out. I can’t wait to go back!