Many years ago I visited Japan. I was alone and on my own and one of the great pleasures and rewards of that trip was the warmth of plate and heart which was afforded me as I sampled cuisine in tiny restaurants filled with the intoxicating aromas of Japanese home cooking. This past week those sensations came rushing back at me in a déjà vu. That déjà vu is called Tampopo Ramen and it’s located on Bennett Ave a few feet north of west 181st Street, right here in Washington Heights.
Tampopo is the love child of Josh Frank and his wife Nanae Mameuda-Frank. The couple lives in Washington Heights and has a background in pop-up restaurants downtown. They wanted to bring a homey, authentic food experience to the neighborhood and they have hit their mark. Lines are already winding down the block.
Named for the classic 1985 Japanese cult film about seeking the perfect bowl of ramen, Tampopo has pretty much produced it. The welcoming and comforting nature of ramen permeates the décor, so much so that directions for savoring and enjoying a bowl of it grace the walls. The bar at which patrons sit is constructed of a beautiful wood counter reminiscent of the tiny restaurants I visited in Tokyo. The place settings and dishes further the feeling. The open kitchen makes the setting even more intimate, like someone is cooking for you right in their home.
Now to the food, in a word, fantastic. Keep in mind this is a small restaurant so the menu is limited. But you don’t need more. There are a variety of appetizers to suit every taste. My favorite is the pork buns. The pork is succulent and soft with tiny crunchy edges. It is slow cooked to perfection. Served on a delicious, soft, rice flour bun and dressed with both the sauce from the pork and a little spiced mayo I could make a meal of these alone. But then I would miss the main event, which I will return to shortly.
The chicken Kakaage, Japanese fried chicken, is boneless and skinless and completely different than Tempura. It is served with a spiced dipping sauce and is addictive in its crunchiness. The gyoza were excellent as well. Any of these serve as an excellent amuse bouche as you await your steaming bowl of ramen.
Now what can you rally say about a bowl of soup? A lot! Just watching the kitchen staff prepare the ramen is entrancing. And clearly the level of love that goes into each bowl is evident. The basic soup is a rich chicken broth (they do have a vegetarian option as well) both of which are flavored with shoyu and miso. The broth is creamy and flavorful and most of all comforting.
The four individual types of ramen are dressed with noodles and then various toppings. The basic comes with pork or chicken chashu, a braised miracle, half a marinated egg, which is in my opinion the best addition to soup ever, and bean sprouts, bamboo shoots and scallions. The spicy version comes with a powerful chili paste, which you add to taste. Both are excellent. The Shoyu ramen, which I sampled on my first visit, also has mushrooms, which were a very nice addition to the bowl. I haven’t yet samples the vegetarian alternatives but am sure they live up to the rest of the menu
Sorry Mom but the next time I have the flu it’s going to be Tampopo Ramen not your chicken soup. And her soup is pretty good!
Tampopo Ramen, 1 Bennett Ave, just north of West 181st Street is open seven days a week. They are open 5-10 Monday-Sunday. Weekends they are also open from 12-3
A J Sidransky is an award winning author and resident of Washington heights. His latest novel, Forgiving Mariela Camacho was released in October 2015. It can be purchased on Amazon.com or through his website, www.ajsidransky.com.