Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tanpopo Noodle Shop

All of us have places we return to again and again. Sometimes it depends on what you're craving. If you want a burger and a beer, go to The Nook (I'm serious. Right now. Go.). Sometimes it depends on the mood you're in. If I'm already depressed, I'll find something vegetarian. Trust me, that's a story for another time. If you've had a stressful or just not-really-great day, and you need a meal to make you feel warm and easy again, it would be hard to beat Tanpopo. This lovely noodle shop is tucked away in downtown Saint Paul, down by the farmers' market, on that little tail of 4th street where it stops really being anything. My friend Keith, who grew up as the child of missionaries in Japan, tells me that if you pop into a noodle shop there, this is what you get. I grew up in Ohio. Other than some really weird regional chili, I don't know from authentic. But I know yummy, and this is it.

Tanpopo is not a sushi joint, but there are two nightly sushi specials (get there early, they typically run out), and occasional sashimi. Don't think for a minute that these are an afterthought. They are expertly prepared. The restaurant even offers sushi classes for those of you brave enough to try this at home. There is also a special teishoku. Teishoku are complete meals, home-style (if your home is in Japan): entrée, rice, miso soup, salad, and vegetables. The presentation is beautiful, typically in an enameled, segmented tray. If TV dinners dreamed, this is what they would dream.

Starters are varied and wonderful. Get the Edamame, 'cause it's good, and more fun than you ever really get to have with beans. The Spinach with Sesame is also wonderful, fresh and nutty and good for you. Can you stand it?

The reason you go to a noodle shop, however, is the noodles, and this is where you should start, at least your first time here. There are several preparations, and most come with either udon (wheat flour) or soba (buckwheat flour) noodles. Choose your noodles, choose your broth, and then choose what you'd like on top. Miss J's favorite is the Nabeyaki Udon, which includes shrimp tempura, chicken, shiitake mushrooms, fish cake, Japanese omelet and wakame. All of the toppings are excellent, although unless soggy fried shrimp is your thing, ask for this on the side. Tonight I went for the Shrimp Tempura Soba. This of course involves shrimp, but also wakame and shiitake. Wakame, by the way, is seaweed. I don't really like seaweed, but I eat it because I figure it's good for me, and I don't get much in the way of vegetables. Miss J seems to like it just fine.

For dessert, I'd recommend the Green Tea Tempura Ice Cream. I mean really, where else are you going to get to try such a thing? The ice cream, by the way, is from Sonny's, and the tea is from the Tea Source. Full marks for supporting local treasures.

The building is open and airy, the service friendly and calm, and the whole experience will make you feel better about your day. Money-wise, plan on $20-$25 a person with appetizers, unless you're drinking, and then, well, you know...

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