The name Tampopo (Japanese for “dandelion”) conjures up for me images of a movie I saw in the 80s and have on DVD – the Japanese western about food and sex, notably a strange group of men trying to help the lady named Tampopo to run the best noodle house in town. How apt then that the name Tampopo was co-opted by a small company for their Wagamama-esque small chain (7 outlets) of South East Asian noodle restaurants. In Manchester alone there are three Tampopos plus the HQ.
We chanced upon the outlet at Hanging Ditch in the Corn Exchange building next door to Pizza Express, a short hop across Arndale Square from Selfridges, and advanced into a sizeable basement room with cheerful and decidedly western waitresses. Indeed, one proved to originate from Richmond, Virginia, prompting a conversation about my time working in that state in 1980. The table appeared to be solid, with an inbuilt sunken condiment rack containing two different soy sauces, chilli and fish sauce.
The menu is a compilation of renowned dishes from Thailand, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam, heavily biased towards street food. It is not cheap, but then neither is Wagamama when you add up all the various bits and pieces you ordered. In this case it was easier for mum and I to order a shared platter to start, separate main courses and a plate of greens, then a couple of desserts, though strangely the final bill came to less than expected – primarily because we steered clear of alcohol in favour of green tea and water to drink.
Choosing the sharing platter (Goi Cuon, Gyoza, Bulgogi, Coconut Prawns, Satay & Tod Man Khao Pod) proved to be an excellent idea. It arrived on a large slate, accompanied by various dips and sauces. Not a bad word to be said about any of it, other perhaps than that more would have been very welcome. I could especially eat those coconut prawns by the sackful, though at £6.75 for 5 it would cost a bit to fill a sack, and bulgogi is always a pleasure with a fiery sauce.
For main courses we went our separate ways. Mum chose Char Kway Teow (Malaysia):
The hawker stall classic: ho fun noodles with prawns, clams, char siu pork & squid in a chilli, garlic & dark soy sauce
While I plumped for Bo Luc Lac (Shaking Beef):
Diced rump steak infused with sesame oil, dark soy and oyster sauce, wok-fried and served with a tomato, red onion and watercress salad and steamed jasmine rice.
In truth, neither looked much for the money, though clams in the shell helped mum’s dish to stand out. My small pile of steak was tasty enough, though as steak goes it was a small sample. The salad proved well dressed and flavoursome, but as a whole it did not live up to the high standards set by the whizzy starter plate.
Mum pressed on with the desserts, selecting a deep fried banana with caramel sauce and cinnamon ice cream to my sliced mango, rice pudding and coconut cream. All very delicious but again perhaps overpriced for what it was.
I like Tampopo as an alternative to Wagamama, but there is undoubtedly an element of London pricing hitting central Manchester these days. If this were fine dining and the food cooked fresh to order you could understand it, though these are still chains at heart. Ironic, since the hawkers, pedlars and authentic noodle shops on which they are based very much do cook food from scratch, usually to order. Not seen any real life noodle makers around Manchester lately, but then that is a dying skill when mass-produced noodles are available for pennies. Such is life.