When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: Tampopo Ramen
Location: 3223 S. McClintock Drive, Tempe
Open: About a month
Eats: Ramen, Japanese
America, we've come a long way from the days when "ramen" meant "Top Ramen" and was only an acceptable meal if you were sick, or broke, or both. These days, people get downright nasty about the differences between shio and shoyu broths and whether or not ramen noodles should be curly or straight or made by hand here in the U-S-of-A or only imported directly from Japan.
And that's all well and good. But today, we're here to tell you that you don't have to be a ramen connoisseur to appreciate the newly-opened Tampopo Ramen in Tempe.
For the ramen freaks — er, we mean, geeks — out there, we'll start by saying Tampopo serves Hakata-style ramen. If you want to get super technical about it, check out this Serious Eats Guide to Ramen, but what you really need to know is that Hakata ramen means two things: pork bone-based broth and, most often, straight noodles. The straight noodles, unlike their curly counterparts, tend to stick together better and thus, can stand up to the richness of the pork broth.
When you walk into Tampopo Ramen, located next to a Starbucks in a Tempe strip mall, you'll walk right past the little room where the shop's noodles are made. They aren't done by hand, but rather by a complicated looking contraption on which you might see several trays of fresh noodles waiting to be cooked. Otherwise, the long and narrow restaurant consists of an open kitchen with bar seating facing the chefs, a long community table, and a few two-tops running along the far wall.
But, of course, you're there for the ramen, and in that department you'll have six choices. (A seventh choice "curry ramen" doesn't come with soup, so we won't count that.)
The obvious choice is the tonkotsu ramen ($8) made with the shop's signature pork-based broth and topped with slices of roasted pork, wood ear mushrooms, bean sprouts, a soft boiled egg, scallions, and sesame seeds. After the first bite we were went silent as we busily slurpped up this bowl of broth and noodles — noodles with just the right amount of bounce and broth that tasted strongly of pork. The broth wasn't the creamiest tonkotsu broth we'd ever had (usually, the pork bone broth can be described as "milky"), but the fat left a pleasant coating in our mouth with each slurp. The toppings we also on par, with thick slices of well-seasoned pork and a perfectly-cooked soft boiled egg.
We also tried the spicy miso ramen ($10), made with the same pork bone broth but flavored with spicy soy bean paste. The bowl packed surprisingly amount of heat considering it's not the spiciest option on the menu (there's also an ultra spicy ramen on the list), but the spicy didn't overwhelm the notes of porky goodness that was nicely complemented by the addition of the miso.
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It shouldn't go without mention that although we ordered our ramen and appetizers at the same time, the apps arrived after our bowls of soup. On the upside, the yaki gyoza ($6.50), advertised on the menu as housemade, were delicious. Each of the six dumplings offered a thin wrapper around flavorful pork. The Hirata Bun ($3), however, was less of a success. A soggy-on-the-bottom bun came stuffed with fatty pork belly, spicy mayo, and iceberg lettuce.
The service throughout our lunch was eager, if somewhat awkward. Our server initially forgot we'd ordered the Hirata Bun at all, but delivered it almost immediately after he realized and with a smile. All said and done, we'll be back to the Valley's newest ramen shop. The housemade noodles bring a totally new experience to the current ramen options — and next time, we're looking forward to trying the "add rich soup" option (available for $1) and the noodle refill (or "kae dama"), which grants you an extra bowl of noodles for $1.50 more.