Udon Utopia

Tanpopo Noodle Shop
367 Selby Ave., St. Paul; (651) 228-9967
Hours: Lunch: Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday noon-2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday 5 p.m.-8:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5 p.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday 5 p.m.-8:30 p.m. No credit cards, cash or check only.

 

"I can't believe people are standing out in the rain waiting," I observed to my friend one hot and cold Saturday afternoon during a downpour, sitting near the window at the new Japanese noodle shop Tanpopo. My friend shot me a look: "They've got an awning." She waved dismissively at the damp outsiders, and I was taken aback by her sudden, uncharacteristic flair of Marie Antoinettish indifference. But then I realized she had seen what I hadn't: Our steaming bowls of noodles approaching from the kitchen. There are times a girl wants to think about the misfortunes of others, but that time is not when a bowl of hot, chewy noodles is landing.

Tony Nelson

Those noodles were excellent: The udon noodles, made from wheat flour and resembling familiar Italian pasta, as light and springy as could be; the soba noodles, made from heartier, dark brown, purple-tinged buckwheat flour, chewy and resilient. The noodles are most likely what the outsiders were waiting for, since Tanpopo is a noodle shop, and the majority of the very modest menu showcases udon or soba served with various toppings, such as vegetable or shrimp tempura, beef, mushrooms, chicken, or all of the above, for between $5.50 and $8. From the combinations I tried, I can particularly recommend the vegetable tempura with soba noodles ($7.50) since the frothy, fried cap of sweet onions contrasted beautifully with the iron-tasting noodles and salty broth; and also the wild mushroom udon ($7), as the mushrooms are the perfect foil for the tender udon noodles. I was less happy with the beef noodle dishes ($7), since I found the soup--which bears a family resemblance to sweet and salty sukiyaki--to be too salty, though a liberal addition of shichimi, the seven-spice red-chili-based spice mixture served to every table, gave it a new dimension. The nabeyaki udon ($8), the most deluxe offering, arrives in a covered tureen; lift the lid to reveal noodles adorned with shrimp tempura, slices of chicken, various mushrooms, fresh-cut vegetables, a few slices of tamago (the sweet Japanese omelet) and bright pink slices of fish-cake balls.

It's a beautiful sight, and an enormous meal, but perhaps not as refined as the purer preparations of noodle. In fact, partaking of the plainest meal at Tanpopo, such as an order of plain noodles with scallions ($5.50) paired with a pot of green tea ($1.50), feels like a cleansing feast, or a moment out of time--perhaps in some far-off spa. The soothing dusty-lemon walls and attractive crockery and serving dishes only add to this luxuriously spare aesthetic.

Perhaps this is why this little storefront across from W.A. Frost & Company is generating surprising crowds. The rush of popularity is troubling to owner and chef Koshiki Yonemura: A native of Kyushu, in southern Japan, she has worked at a number of restaurants in Japan and is also a veteran of local Japanese spots Kikugawa and Origami. Yonemura was hoping to have a quiet, unpublicized start to her restaurant when she opened her doors in March but instead was flooded with unwanted limelight, and waiting crowds, nearly from the moment she opened. "It's been sort of crazy," she says. "People are waiting and waiting, I feel bad, I feel terrible. I hate to have people waiting outside. Is there any way you could not write about us?"

What, and deny local vegetarians, vegans, and health-foodies the chance to dine at a new restaurant? No way. For that is one of the ways that Tanpopo most distinguishes itself: Lax vegetarians, which is to say those willing to eat stock made with bonito (or dried tuna flakes) will find much to eat here, and there are quite a few options for vegans, including simply having the noodles and toppings without broth, or ordering the tofu-teishoku meal ($7), a platter of fried tofu, rice, miso soup, a green salad, and little side of spinach salad. Of course, vegans will have to hand off their miso soup, made, again, with bonito, to a local omnivore--but no one ever said being a vegan was easy. To ease the pain, I recommend the all-vegetable sushi roll ($5) made, on my visits, with cucumber and avocado, which might not sound exciting, except that the roll is made fresh to order, is the perfect room temperature, and is thoroughly addictive. A California roll, made with surimi--that sweet, pink, processed fish cake, and avocado ($5)--was equally good. Either roll makes a fine appetizer to share. The two other appetizers are both vegan: Edamame, the boiled soybeans ($2.50), and a salad of sesame-dressed spinach ($2.50).

Unfortunately, I grow weary of edamame without a beer or sake to break up the saltiness, but when I asked Yonemura whether she plans to get a beer and wine license for her new, tiny, 30-seat restaurant, she made an unforgettable noise that made me feel terrifically guilty--it was a noise I recognize from long ago, when I once asked a sword-juggling tightrope acrobat if she would throw her swords up higher, the better to help me open a particularly annoying pickle jar. I felt just terrible as Yonemura, whose hands have been full as oceans since she opened her spot in March, explained all the physical modifications to the building, such as adding restrooms, she would have to make to qualify for a beer and wine license. But I didn't feel bad for long: She'll work it out, I thought. After all, she's got lots of good noodles, a scrupulous control of the deceptively simple dishes that emerge from her tiny kitchen and, of course, that sheltering awning.

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