For the 10th straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee, presented by the restaurants of Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, dining guides, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as voting for your "Best of Dining 2016."
5191 S. 108th St.
Hales Corners, WI, 53130
For a seemingly quiet, low-key suburb, Hales Corners is full of surprises. When they're not gathering hundreds of people together to pull a century-old neighborhood bar and tavern to a new location, the village is apparently keeping its ear to the ground and keeping up with some of the kind of hip, cool foodie trends you'd expect to find 15 minutes away Downtown.
Case in point: Tanpopo, a Japanese restaurant bringing brimming bowls of authentic ramen to the world of Milwaukee suburbia – and cooking up a pleasantly sized following as a result.
From the outside, the ramen and sushi shop (named after the 1985 "Japanese noodle Western" of the same name – featuring a young Ken Watanabe!) may not look like much, oddly outfitted into what appears to be a former drive-thru restaurant building, and the inside isn't much more spectacular. But when it comes time to sit down and slurp up some noodles and broth, Tanpopo delivers above and beyond one's expectations walking in – and up to par with the fancy, slick, buzzy ramen joints a solid freeway ride away.
Type of food: Ramen and sushi.
Prices: Bowls of ramen go for about $9.50-$10, with the seafood noodle soup and Yakisoba on sizzling plate going for a few bucks more. As for the sushi, classic rolls go for $5-7, while plates of speciality Tanpopo rolls go for about $10-15. Rice dishes range from about $10-15 as well.
Vegetarian friendly: Almost all of the ramen bowls come complete with the customary pork belly, but there are plenty of rice dishes and rolls that come with fish or vegetables rather than meat.
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Parking: Free parking lot, so keep your change at home
Vibe/dress: Casual and laid back, with a mostly standard diner set-up save for a nice, especially warmly lit, somewhat closed-off sushi bar area.
Hits: Tanpopo's menu scans across many different categories, from ramen bowls to sizzling rice dishes to sushi rolls and more. There's something for almost all tastes – and all of it quite delectably made.
Starting in the appetizer category, the lettuce wraps – arriving in a quite enchanting boat-shaped plate – make for a perfect light pre-main course snack (or, if you really wanted to, a main course in itself). All of the lettuce was refreshingly crisp, and the chicken and water chestnuts made for a tantalizing, flavorful filling. It's a basic dish (one even the most Hot Pocket-loving of non-chefs could probably feel inspired to give a go at home without being intimidated) but a basic done right that reminds you how much it can sing – and, most importantly, makes you want to dig into more.
The hits kept coming during the appetizer course with the Niji Tempura, four slices of avocado-wrapped salmon fried in a tempura batter with a special sauce and sprouts drizzled on top for a rather lovely and inviting presentation (chipped black plate, not withstanding).
The morsels tasted as good as they looked, with the perfectly light tempura outside – finding that ideal balance of delicate crispiness and airy fluffiness – managing to steal the show without overshadowing or overwhelming the ingredients inside. As one who normally stands pretty apathetic on salmon at restaurants and avoids avocado overall, the starter overcame both of those mental blocks to register as a strong winner.
The lone point of controversy amongst the appetizers – and the meal overall – was the duo of pork belly buns, filled with braised, earthy pork and topped with some lettuce shreds. Pork belly buns, in general, can be a little rough for texture-focused eaters, with the combination of the tricky, sometimes overly gummy or fatty pork belly and the exceptionally pillowy steamed buns.
In Tanpopo's case, however, the scattering of lettuce on top helped add just enough crisp to the squishy app, and after messily battling some rather tenacious full pork belly slices in other restaurants' renditions of the dish, I very much appreciated that the meat came in easier to chew chunks and shreds. If you don't get enough lettuce in a bite, however, I can understand how the buns might be a bit overly mushy for some texture-testy palates.
There's no debate, however, over the bowls of ramen. The traditional tonkotsu ramen – complete with hard-boiled egg, bamboo shoots, scallions, kikurage, seaweed and sesame seeds – is a winner on-point with other bowls across the city, delivering a satisfyingly slurp-worthy dinner.
The broth (a product of simmering three types of pork bones for up to 26 hours) was smooth and layered with rich, savory flavor, and the condiments healthily portioned out in the bowl – the tender and fatty pork belly, the mild briny note of the seaweed, the soft crunch of the shoots – all added to the fulfilling, umami-happy meal-in-a-bowl experience.
There are other types of ramen on the menu as well that dish up a similarly satisfying soup sensation, including the chicken shoyu, featuring a light but still flavor-rich chicken broth with soy instead of the pork-based tonkotsu with succulent chicken breast fittingly taking the role as the dish's protein.
As mentioned, there's a substantial menu to choose from at Tampopo – and the odds are good you'll be eager to come back and sample some more of it.
Misses: While the food was almost universally a hit, some decor and minor details threatened to slightly dim the dining experience. As noted, the appearance inside and out of Tanpopo isn't exactly inspiring, and while the boat dishes are delightful, the chipped plate was less so.
Also, the server forgot about two of our appetizers, forcing us to remind him and making them arrive after the main courses reached the table. That being said, when we caught the error, the waiter – who was otherwise very attentive and helpful during the meal – was extremely apologetic, and the two apps were almost immediately brought out. And nothing helps erase a bad memory like good food – something Tanpopo provided in spades.
Insider tip: The pork belly in my bowl was quite thinly sliced, so if you're feeling particularly carnivorous during your visit, feel free to order some extra pieces. The restaurant also has a generous menu of Japanese beers and sakes – so much so, it hosted a sake tasting earlier this month. Keep an eye out for other events like that – especially newcomers to the cuisine hoping to learn more and expand the palate.
Also, for those wanting to slurp away at real ramen from the comfort of one's sofa, Tanpopo does low-key offer carryout orders.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.