‘Tampopo’ means ‘Dandelion,’ but also damn good ramen!
Tampopo is the title of a 1985 Japanese comedy directed by Juzo Itami and starring Nobuko Miyamoto that I consider the best “food movie” ever made. It’s also the name of the new restaurant at the FantaCity International Shopping Center at 4925 W. Market St. that serves the best ramen in Greensboro.
Tampopo is the favorite film of the like-named restaurant’s proprietor Sun Ja Lim, who also owns Sushi Republic on Tate Street. If she is reluctant to talk about the movie she loves or the food that she makes, it’s only because she would rather leave all talking to her manager Andy Russell, who is very good at it, and whom Sushi Republic customers will recognize as the voluble cap-wearing public face of her other restaurant.
As I sipped the exquisite broth on my Wasabi Shoyu ramen, Russell explained why “Mama,” as he calls her, prefers him to speak for her. Her English is fine, but she’s not so naturally gregarious.
“She joked that I should pretend to be the owner, so she could just stay in the back and cook,” he told me. “She doesn’t like the public spotlight and doesn’t care whether you know she’s the one making the food; she just wants you to enjoy it.”
He also said she chose the restaurant’s name. “Like the recipes is all her.” He admitted she’d made him a fan of her beloved “ramen Western,” as Tampopo was billed back in those days when foreign language films were common in US arthouses. “She even got me to buy a copy of it,” he said. “They’ve done a 4K master, so I was able to get a Blu-ray.”
The name isn’t the only thing that’s all her. “If you look into the kitchen,” Russell said, “you’ll generally see a stockpot steaming with one of the three main broths we are constantly making from scratch.”
One of those broths is Tonkotsu, made traditionally with pork bones and fat that’s boiled for over a day (ton = pig, kotsu = bones). It is thick, creamy and nearly white in color, due to the marrow. It’s been called the Holy Grail of noodle soup bases; Google “Tonkotsu,” and that phrase and you’ll get dozens of hits.
For those who are vegetarian or just not down with the swine, another delicious broth Tampopo offers is Shio. Russell explained that word, which means “salt,” refers to a traditional Japanese soup base that doesn’t receive much seasoning beyond that ingredient and what the vegetables give to it.
“That’s one of the original ramen styles,” he said, adding that it’s clearer than and not as thick as the creamy Tonkotsu that originated in Kyushu. Tampopo offers vegetarian Shio ramen with either “tofu char siu” (the term char siu is borrowed from Cantonese and means roasted or barbecued pork) or autumn squash, with both varieties also containing bok choy, green onions, enoki mushrooms, and bamboo shoots.
Another vegetarian broth, which despite my being staunchly carnivorous, was my favorite, is the Wasabi Shoyu, with the second word referring to its soy base. I thought the spicy Tonkotsu ramen with the pork char siu I had on my first visit delicious, but on my second, I requested pork char siu as an additional ingredient to Wasabi Shoyu, and both my friend Christine Catania and I immediately fell in love with the broth.
Besides being offered either regular or spicy, the Tonkotsu also includes a miso variant that I intend to return and try as soon as possible. And Russell says that the kitchen is still perfecting its chicken ramen, which will be available in both Ichiraku Shio and Spicy Miso varieties.
Another entrée he said Tampopo will be offering soon is Korean, rather than Japanese. Dakgangjeong, or Sweet Crispy Chicken, will be served with a tangy sauce that derives a subtle but spicy kick from gochujang, or Korean red chili pepper paste. I enjoyed some of that paste with my third entrée in two visits, an unusually good hibachi chicken plate. Tampopo offers hibachi and teriyaki plates with chicken, steak, shrimp, salmon, tofu, vegetables and various combinations.
Prices range from $8.95 for Shiomaru or Wasabi Shoyu vegetarian ramen and $6.95 for tofu or teriyaki plate, to $9.95 for Tonkotsu ramen, and top out at $15.95 for a chicken, steak, and shrimp hibachi or Teriyaki combo.