At the Table: Schenectady’s Tanpopo offers newbies a plunge into ramen

Schenectady location provides flavorful intro to classic Japanese fare
A big bowl of Tanpopo Spicy Ramen at Tanpopo Ramen and Sake Bar. Inset: Pork belly buns.
A big bowl of Tanpopo Spicy Ramen at Tanpopo Ramen and Sake Bar. Inset: Pork belly buns.

Categories: Food, Life & Arts, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — As the transition to winter looms, the best consolation might be a big, hot bowl of soup.

Ramen — Japanese for “pulled noodles” — is served at an estimated 80,000 fast-paced shops in Japan. And it’s now served at one spot here in Schenectady, Tanpopo Ramen and Sake Bar, which opened this past spring.

A welcome divergence from the city’s plethora of parm nights, Tanpopo takes just a small step toward authentic Japanese noodle soup. Not a big step, but a good one. So if you’re up for experiencing something new — but not inaccessible — try a belly-warming bowl of bone broth and hearty toppings at owner David Zheng’s Union Street outpost.

The menu features a handful of authentic-style Japanese dishes, rounded out with more Americanized options such as dumplings, spring rolls, crab Rangoon, fried rice, teppanyaki steak, and even beef stew and curry-based ramen.

If you’ve never had ramen before (the $1 cup-o-noodles doesn’t count!), start with a bottle of cold or hot sake, a Japanese rice wine ($12-$22 per small bottle) to sip while you prep your palette for all-new flavors. Choose a sake that appeals to you, just like choosing a wine — whether that’s sweet, creamy or dry and refreshing.

Then sink your teeth into a set of steamed buns, pork belly ($8) or fried oyster ($10). The pork belly buns are very generous, with two thick slices of pork cushioned between soft, doughy bread. At more traditional shops, the pork belly would be less charred and more soft and fatty, but the meatiness of Zheng’s bite felt as familiar as BBQ — perfect for ramen rookies. Treat yourself to the fried oyster buns: a breaded, saline bite.

Tanpopo’s most popular ramen is made with a pork-based bone broth (tonkotsu), replete with the standard add-ins of sliced pork (chashu), kikarage mushrooms and fish cakes. The eponymous Tanpopo Spicy Ramen ($12) is a spice level of five out of 10, but spoonful after spoonful proved more addictive than expected. The Miso Ramen ($11) is much more layered with a creamy, umami broth made from a fermented soy paste. In either, the slivers of pork are generous, but unfortunately more tough than tender. Add a seasoned, hard-boiled egg ($2 extra), corn ($1), extra noodles ($2) or bamboo shoots ($2) to make the soup into a heartier meal (that’s easier to manage with chopsticks!).

The experience — the little square-cornered stools and wood-grain surfaces; the tiny ceramic mugs for hot sake; the salty, savory, slurpy, sloppy eating experience — is a mere gateway to the more authentic Japanese ramen. To be honest, I’m only familiar with this dish from the Ivan Orkin episode of “Chef’s Table” on Netflix. Seems to me that “true” ramen features buttery, fatty pork that squishes between your chopsticks for a hot second before melting amid the hot broth on your tongue. Tanpopo’s offering is the first step toward the vision. But for the grand total of $50 before tax and tip (for a carafe of hot sake, 4 buns as appetizers, and 2 big bowls of ramen), a meal at Tanpopo is money well spent to try something different.

The restaurant is the second location for owner Zheng, who opened his first Tanpopo in Albany in 2015 in a small trailer-type structure along the Hudson. The Schenectady version, along Union Street, is much more spacious and purposefully decorated to merge a free-flowing feng shui openness with the Electric City’s expected industrial modern.

If you’ve never explored ramen beyond the instant variety, definitely give Tanpopo a try on that inevitably cold night this winter. An accessible sliver of happiness is surely buoyant in these big hot bowls of soup.

Tanpopo Ramen and Sake Bar

Where: 1625 Union St., Schenectady; 518-347-8886;
When: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.
More info: Major credit cards accepted.

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