Japanese ramen, like Mexican street tacos and American regional barbecue, has in recent years become the object of intense connoisseurship. Ramen lends itself well to this sort of obsession because it offers a nearly endless variety of regional styles and preparation methods to ponder and study and argue over. You could spend a lifetime studying the intricacies of ramen, dissecting the differences between classic Tokyo-style varieties made with a shoyu (soy sauce) base, for example, versus the rich miso broth of a Sapporo-style ramen. And if you've spent any amount of time slurping down ramen in the noodle bars of Japan, it's easy to become jaded about the quality of the ramen you'll find in the States; none of it will seem quite as good as what you had in Tokyo or Sapporo or Kyoto.
In any case, whether you're a longtime ramen aficionado, or weaned on the cheap yet highly comforting Styrofoam cup stuff, there is probably something for you to enjoy at Tampopo Ramen, the Tempe restaurant whose name evokes Jiruzu Itami's wonderful 1985 Japanese comedy of the same name, a movie that depicts, perhaps not coincidentally, the quest for a perfect bowl of ramen.
Tampopo is a simple, bright strip-mall restaurant, sandwiched between a Starbucks and a hair salon, with a narrow dining room that feels cramped at full capacity — and it's nearly always at full capacity. A long communal table with shiny red metal stools cuts through the middle of the space, and a handful of small tables along the room's perimeter offer additional seating. But probably the best seat in the house is the restaurant's two-seater nook, tucked neatly into a quiet corner, which offers an arresting view of the well-oiled apparatus that is the Tampopo kitchen. No matter where you sit, though, service is likely to be pleasant and efficient.
The specialty here is Hakata-style ramen, a regional ramen variety whose hallmark is tonkotsu, an intensely flavored pork broth that is most commonly paired with very thin, straight noodles. All the noodles at Tampopo are house-made — you can get a glimpse of the restaurant's elaborate-looking noodle-making machine, along with stacks of fresh, uncooked noodles on their drying trays, in the small, enclosed room situated near the front of the restaurant.
But before the ramen-slurping commences, you'd be remiss to skip the Tampopo appetizer menu, which includes Japanese street snacks like takoyaki, which are sort of like sweet-and-savory, griddle-cooked hush puppies — that is, if hush puppies were stuffed with chewy slivers of grilled octopus. The nicely browned dumplings are crisp on the outside, with a soft, nearly liquid center, and brightened up with a drizzle of slightly sweet takoyaki sauce and mayonnaise. Plus, there's the slightly surreal garnish of katsuobushi, also known as bonito fish flakes, which resemble something like thin scraps of brownish onion skin. When the papery flakes make contact with hot food, they seem to come alive and "dance" atop your plate.
From here, you might move on to takowasa, a Japanese bar snack that is essentially chopped bits of raw octopus smothered in a bright wasabi relish. Slightly gummy, partly slimy, the dish is also exceedingly briny and spicy. If you happen to be in possession of the sort of palate that doesn't flinch at the sight of wasabi and raw seafood, this is a pleasing and refreshing dish.
Pork-stuffed gyoza, meanwhile, are good, the dumplings nicely crisp on the outside with a moist, flavorful filling. But, in the end, these are not much different than any number of other gyoza that might linger only faintly in your memory. You probably won't soon forget gesoyaki, however, otherwise known as grilled squid legs and tentacles. The squid bits look somewhat rubbery and wan on the plate, but they're nicely marinated with soy and ginger and pleasantly chewy — as easy to devour as a bowl of complimentary bar peanuts.
But you came to Tampopo seeking the singular pleasure that is a well-made bowl of ramen. Your best bet, and the most popular bowl on the menu, is Tampopo's signature tonkotsu ramen. The light, pork-scented broth may not be quite as thick and creamy as traditionally fattier versions of the dish, but it's well-seasoned and nicely apportioned with the characteristic slice of roasted pork, plus bean sprouts, a soft-boiled egg, scallions, and, best of all, wood ear mushrooms, whose earthiness seeps into the broth the longer you let them soak in your bowl. The noodles are quite good, too: springy, fresh, and sturdy enough to remain firm long after being submerged in the steaming broth.
Every bowl of ramen is fully customizable with your choice of toppings. The thing to add to a standard tonkotsu ramen is the spicy cod roe — the bright-red fish eggs add a nice blast of flavor and salt to the broth. For an extra buck, you can also request "rich soup," a sort of double-strength concentrated broth that has simmered for at least 12 hours in the kitchen. If you're a ramen purist, the upgrade is worth the splurge. You'll get a broth that's deeper, saltier, and richer, with the flavor of pork marrow bones that have been simmered to bare scrap.
Seafood ramen, made with a blend of the double-strength pork broth and the standard addition of seafood broth, is excellent. It's lush, complex, and pleasingly fishy, made with a generous helping of shrimp, scallops, squid, and savory tendrils of seaweed. Aromatics, including fresh scallions and crunchy slivers of white onion, add sweetness and depth, plus the soft, pleasing crunch of onion in every bite.
If you're already inclined toward miso soup, the miso ramen here is also pretty good. The house pork broth, enriched with a helping of soybean paste, rounds out the broth and gives it some salty and slightly spicy depth. Less successful, however, is the soymilk ramen, which features a vegetarian-friendly broth that leans toward being too milky and bland.
At some point during the course of a meal at Tampopo, your curiosity will probably be piqued by the so-called curry ramen, which you'll find listed on the ramen menu. The dish is made without soup, which means it's unequivocally not a true ramen. But the dish is very good just the same, the brown curry paste — salty and slightly spicy and gingery — served over a tasty heap of chile-stained, pink-red noodles.
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For dessert, there's the usual assortment of mochi and green tea ice cream offerings. Or, you can plan on skipping dessert altogether, pacing yourself instead for replenishment via kae-dama. Tampopo offers the kae-dama refill system, wherein uttering the phrase to your server results in an extra serving of noodles being added, like magic, to the leftover broth in your bowl. The noodle refill will set you back about $1.50, which in the end, is a pretty small price to pay for a decent bowl of ramen.
3223 South McClintock Drive, Tempe
Hours: Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (lunch) and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. (dinner); Saturdays and Sundays 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Takoyaki (octopus stuffed balls) $6
Grilled squid legs and tentacles $7
Tonkotsu ramen $8
Seafood ramen $12