Hell has come to connote "hot." Countless generations of pop-culture references depict eternal damnation as one endless, torturous schvitz.
But if you consult Dante's Inferno, you'll find that the lowest circle of hell isn't an inferno, it's a frozen wasteland. "Then I saw a thousand faces made doglike by the cold," says Inferno's narrator as he recalls Cocytus, the zip code of Satan, Judas, and other unpopular dudes. It's a really nasty winter—the icy shackling of movement, the isolation from other people, from warmth, from shelter—that served as Dante's ultimate symbol of alienation from God. And it's what we go through here in Minnesota, every goddamned year, from somewhere in November until that merciful moment in early May when things finally start to turn around.
If we are to survive our five-plus hellish months each year, we would be wise to learn some coping strategies—ways to exercise despite the chill, soups and hot dishes, and safe places where we can regenerate our will to live.
St. Paul's Tanpopo is one such refuge. It couldn't be any more warming or restorative if it were a sauna. Tanpopo's approach to Japanese cuisine is disarmingly simple, far closer to the spirit of the home islands than the techno-blasting sushi bars that dish up avocado-wrapped, three-fish hybrid monstrosities.
When you enter Tanpopo, as harmonious and beautifully elegant a restaurant as exists in the state, the first thing to order is a pot of tea. Genmai tea is a great way to go. It's light and mellow, with just a hint of smoky gunpowder flavor to add interest and accentuate its warming properties. From there on in, the question is not whether you'll be warmed to the core but how. Chicken wings in soy-ginger sauce ($5.75) are a great way to go. Hot to the touch but delicately flavored, these are wings that balance salty soy, tart vinegar, and sweet ginger flavors with the skill of an acrobat. They are damn good. You're likely to devastate them in minutes. That's okay; the rest of the meal tends to lead to lingering.
Sushi rolls are a sideshow at Tanpopo, but make sure you order whatever the roll of the day happens to be. The freshness and simplicity of Tanpopo's sushi is startling. California rolls, for instance, tasted light enough to float off the plate.
Starters are all well and good, but it's the soups—big, hearty bowls of soba (buckwheat noodles) or udon (wheat noodles)—that make a frost-covered traveler take off his coat and sweater and remember what it feels like to be alive again. Nabeyaki Udon ($10.50) is a highlight. It's a rich broth covering a mass of noodles, topped with chicken, shiitake mushrooms, fish cakes, two small omelets, and a piece of shrimp tempura. Nothing too complicated, to be sure, but massively comforting and an invitation to a slow, convivial, relaxing forage.
Teishokus (home-style meals, $10 and up) vary wildly (from breaded pork cutlets served over rice to deep-fried tofu and bonito flakes) but share the spirit of the soups: elegance, a lack of pretense, and a tendency to melt the frozen core within us.