One of the most difficult parts of visiting the Asian food court within the Sears Building/University Hall/Porter Exchange building in Cambridge's Porter Square is deciding exactly where to eat. All of the eateries here are well worth going to, and many serve similar dishes--most of the spots focus on Japanese fare--but there are perhaps a few that seem to be just a little better than the others depending on whom you talk to. And one place called Tampopo indeed seems to get noticed a bit more by food critics and food lovers alike, as its varied menu has some truly outstanding items that aren't just among the best in the food court, but also some of the best in all of Cambridge.
Because it resides in a food court, you might expect Tampopo to be a small spot--and you would certainly be correct. Like most of the other dining places in this section of the building, Tampopo is about the size of a walk-in closet, though like most of its neighbors, it is also full-service and has a handful of tables within its space. And because the restaurant is in the middle of the food court, it is a bit less hectic-feeling than, say, the spots by the entrances and the corners, and definitely less crazed than the adjacent Sapporo Ramen, which often has lines that wrap around the food court.
The menu at Tampopo has several main sections (plus sides, drinks, and desserts), with an array of items within each. The rice bowls--also known as donburi--are tremendous, with such options as katsu don (a must if you like the combination of fried eggs and meat), curry (warming and comforting, making these perfect for the winter months), tofu for those looking for vegetarian options, tampopo don pork, which includes spicy mayo, and another dish with a bit of heat called tentama spicy chicken which includes plenty of broccoli. The tempura items are every bit as good as the rice bowls, with the veggie tempura being a not-so-healthy but delicious option here. An option that could either be an appetizer or a light dinner is the fried octopus balls, with the fritters being stuffed with chunks of tentacle meat and coming with a mild Japanese mayo. Another option for a lighter meal or a starter is the shumai, which is a type of dumpling with two excellent options for here being the pork and the crab shumai. For those looking for a full dinner, the agemono combo options come with miso soup, salad, and rice and include such items as fried seafood, pork and chicken cutlets, and some savory croquettes, including veggie croquettes that seem to be heavy on potatoes. Finally, the soup dishes really shine at Tampopo, with udon or soba noodles offered and meat, tofu, and veggie options available to add to the soup (the chicken and egg with noodles in curry soup and the pork curry udon noodle soup are both marvelous). Sides include spring rolls, gyoza, Japanese pickles, and more, while drinks and desserts include tea and mochi ice cream, respectively. Prices for meals at Tampopo are very reasonable, with most items being $10 or less. (Please note that the place is cash-only, so make sure you have some bills on you or an ATM card.)
The Asian food court near Porter Square is one of the most interesting spaces for dining out in the Boston area, and Tampopo is one place that really helps put it over the top. While not exactly a spot for quiet conversation or relaxing over food and drink, this tiny Japanese restaurant is a true gem that lovers of Asian cuisine should surely put on their short lists of places to eat.
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