Tanpopo Noodle Shop (St. Paul, MN)
Japan's noodle shops tend to be tiny, crowded and noisy. Slurp up noodles with audible satisfaction while on your way to somewhere else: that's what noodle shops are for. Translate that to Minnesota, and you don't get the rush, the tiny space or the noisy slurping businessmen with neckties thrown over their shoulders. Instead, you get Tanpopo. And that's a good thing. Tanpopo's noodles are nearly as good as we've had in Tokyo, and the atmosphere is much more serene. It's a big, spare space, without overcrowded tables. The staff is pleasant and efficient, but in no particular rush.
The basics of Japanese noodles: Soba noodles are made from a mixture of buckwheat flour and wheat flour. They're brown in color, and roughly as thick as spaghetti. Udon noodles are made from wheat flour. They are white and thicker and heartier than soba. Both can be served either hot or cold and with a variety of toppings.
Ordering hot noodles gets you soup. Tanpopo's broth is traditional, made from fish stock with kelp and bonito. You can also order nontraditional vegetarian mushroom broth. And the toppings are interesting. Kitsune noodles come with seasoned deep-fried tofu and organic spinach. Tempura noodles come with either shrimp or vegetable tempura. You can also order beef noodles, served with onions and soy, or wild mushroom noodles. Remember, you always have your choice of either soba or udon.
Nabeyaki noodles come with a little bit of everything in your soup. This is a larger bowl of noodles and comes with shrimp tempura, chicken, mushrooms, spinach, pressed eggs and fish cakes. It's a huge meal and tasty.
Tanpopo's cold noodles come with a variety of toppings: shiitake mushrooms, seaweed flakes, cucumber slices, seasoned tofu, green onion, egg and wasabi. Ignore the menu's suggestion to "pour traditional cold sauce over it." The proper way to eat cold noodles is to dip them in the sauce and slurp them up. Order this dish with tempura, if you like.
Try the teishoku dishes. Many Japanese dictionaries translate that as "blue plate special," but it really means "several things served together on a tray." Teishoku dishes come with rice, miso soup, salad and Japanese pickles. Tokatsu is a breaded pork cutlet served with a special sweet sauce. We liked this. Saba is salted mackerel, good here, though the portion is small. You can also order tofu, deep-fried or cold with sesame sauce.
Many dishes can be ordered as appetizers. We suggest the cold spinach with sesame seeds and the chicken wings in a soy-ginger sauce. The latter isn't traditional, but it is very tasty.
Check the specials board. On one of our visits, Tanpopo offered a delicious dish of fried oysters, either alone as an appetizer or with an entire teishoku dinner.
Everything is reasonably priced. Even the teishoku dinners cost $9 or less.
Tanpopo serves wine, Japanese beer and sake. The beer selection is okay; the sake choices are embarrassingly scant. If you go, nicely suggest to the hostess that you'd prefer a more extensive choice of sakes. If enough of us ask, they're more likely to do it.
Tanpopo Noodle Shop
308 Prince St., St. Paul
Cuisine Type: Japanese
Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday -- Saturday. Call for times. Reservations for large parties only.
Attire: Come as you are
Diet Choices: Most dishes have vegetarian options. Not very Atkins-friendly.
Handicap Access: Yes