BEST NEIGHBORHOOD CAFÉ (ST. PAUL)
Tanpopo Noodle Shop
Having recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, Tanpopo Noodle Shop has been a St. Paul favorite since long before local Japanese restaurants started serving poisonous puffer fish and raw-fish buffets laid out on naked women. Tanpopo's chef-owner, Koshiki Yonemura, skipped the strobe lights and sake bombs of raucous sushi bars in favor of spare, loft-like digs and home-style cuisine. That means bowls of soup arrive sans a side of techno beats, their heady broths steaming and flush with chewy soba or udon noodles. And the teishoku, or set meals, are as meticulous as they are delicious. One of the cute, rectangular trays might contain, for example, a few buttery bites of mackerel surrounded by bowls of rice, miso soup, salad, and Japanese pickles, along with a pot of soy sauce and a few lemon wedges. As diners pour themselves cups of genmai tea or tip their bowls to spoon up the last sips of broth, their quiet conversation mixes with the kitchen clatter to create a soothing white noise. Lowertown can sometimes feel more ghost town than neighborhood, which makes Tanpopo even more of an asset.