Tampopo expands the ramen empire

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Pork broth graced with miso, fresh herbs and vegetables, the telltale egg and pork chashu round out the finest bowl at Tampopo Ramen & Hibachi. (photo by Rob Paquette)

They laughed at me, five years ago, when I told them what I really wanted for lunch was a great bowl of ramen. Jordan Green rolled his eyes and Eric Ginsburg gave a great guffaw.

Ramen?! Clarey wants ramen noodles for lunch!

But after I shook my head in pity for these poor fools, I showed them the Insta shots my friends from New York City, San Francisco and other civilized climes posted of their bountiful servings of ramen, nestled gently in large bowls with fresh herbs, braised porkbelly, soft-cooked eggs and other delectables.

Immediately, Ginsburg and Green wanted ramen for lunch, too — but there was nowhere in this pho-heavy town to acquire a proper bowl.

And now, like cupcakes, nitro coffee and the Cheesecake Factory, we have it too. There are at least four places in the Triad to score a proper ramen feast, and that’s not counting pop-ups, food trucks and late-night menus, which happen with some regularity.

The latest brick-and-mortar, Tampopo Ramen & Hibachi, makes its home — where else — in FantaCity on West Market Street, where Mongolian barbecue, local tofu and the exotic riches inside the Super G Mart have been drawing Triad foodies for a decade.

The décor fits the bill: paper, bamboo and black lacquer, small enough at 35 seats to qualify as a noodle joint but nice enough for a first date.

The menu features some basic apps, a couple essential salads and a hibachi selection of chicken, steak, shrimp and tofu, which is fine, I’m sure, but not really my thing.

Otherwise, there is very little to distract from the noodles. No bao-bun sliders, no bang-bang chicken, just some basic dumplings and tempura, but a sweet-and-spicy chicken with Korean sweet potato looks to be the pick of the litter. I regret not ordering it on my visit in the same way I regret not eating two muffalettas the last time I was in New Orleans.

The ramen menu takes up an entire page, describing choices between broths — pork, chicken or vegetable — with variations that include miso and a toned-down version of spicy that can easily be remedied with add-ins and pepper paste. Diners can choose between two types of noodles as well: yellow or white.

Stock is made in house every morning, our server assured us, and there is an authenticity to the base that cannot be denied. The noodles, too, are the real thing.

Where Tampopo falls short, perhaps, is in its ambition. With everything else on point, Tampopo’s signature dishes are somewhat pedestrian: tofu blocks and fried chicken nuggets anchor two-thirds of the menu, with your best bet being the pork chashu, rolled porkbellies prepared in-house in the traditional manner — meaning, not just a big chunk of porkbelly.

Pair that with the miso broth, and it puts me back in New York City, at Totto ramen, where a friend and I performed an amazing feat of gastric ability, or Japantown in San Francisco, where a bowl of ramen is as easy to find as white tuna sashimi.

In the years since I schooled the guys, I have had plenty of ramen for lunch. Ginsburg has become something of an aficionado of the dish; in his new home of Brooklyn ramen places are as ubiquitous as delis and bagel joints. And Green will forever have powerful sense memory associated with the dish.

It was at Ramen Tatsu-ya in Austin, Texas, just hours after receiving an award for political writing at the Association of Alternative Newsmedia convention in July. It was Triad City Beat’s first national award. And it was his first bowl of real ramen. Though now, a couple years later, he’ll tell you that the ramen is its own reward.

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