Tanpopo: Your Neighborhood Noodle Shop

Lowertown’s Tanpopo brings traditional Japanese dishes to the city.
Benjamin and Koshiki Smith at Tanpopo in Lowertown.

If you do something long enough, you can easily forget how you got started in the first place. That’s how Koshiki Yonemura Smith and her husband, Benjamin Smith, feel about their Lowertown establishment, Tanpopo.

“It almost feels like a blur back then,” Benjamin says. “It’s so long ago.”

It was 2000 when the couple opened Tanpopo on Selby Avenue, and their motivation was pretty simple: There was a culinary gap.

“I grew up in Japan and moved here when I was in high school,” Koshiki says. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in psychology, she spent some time working in the few Japanese and sushi restaurants in the Twin Cities.

Throughout the late ’80s and ’90s, there weren’t too many Japanese restaurants, Koshiki recalls. “There were a few grocery stores, but not like now. You couldn’t get a lot of things. I always kind of wanted [a restaurant] that was more casual and homey. So that was the making of it.”

The restaurant on Selby held just 25 seats. “It was seven tables,” Benjamin says. “Yeah. It was pretty small.”

“At the time, we were living in Uptown [Minneapolis] and would go out to these cool restaurants,” he says, adding that he would regularly say to Koshiki, “ ‘Maybe we should open a restaurant …’ Everybody has that train of thought, I think, at one time in their lives. We just ended up doing it.”

Thirteen years ago, they moved into Lowertown, and they’ve been serving up classic Japanese eats ever since.

Customer favorites include ramen Mondays. “That’s been drawing a lot of people in. On Mondays, 70 percent of people order ramen. It’s a lot of ramen,” Koshiki says. But they only make it on Mondays, making it a treat for ramen enthusiasts from all over the Twin Cities.

“The nabeyaki ($13.95) is probably what we’re most known for,” Benjamin says. “It’s really hot, so during the winter it’s really popular. A lot of people come here just for that.” The hot noodle soup is made with udon noodles, shrimp tempura, chicken, shiitake, fish cake, tamago-yaki, wakame and scallions.

“It’s cooked on the stovetop with the cover, so we bring it out to the table and take the cover off,” creating a mouthwatering presentation, Koshiki says.

But, she says, “not everyone is big on noodles.” And not everyone is familiar with Japanese cuisine. “So then we suggest the teishoku-style [entrée-style]. That way you have five different things on your plate. It’s not one bowl.” This is similar to a bento box, which they also offer, Koshiki says, but these are individual dishes. Of these, the tonkatsu ($14.50) is the best-seller: Locally raised pork breaded with panko with a tonkatsu sauce, served with rice, miso soup, salad and pickles.

For those who want to try the noodles but are new to the cuisine, most of the dishes are made with either soba or udon noodles. Udon noodles are thick wheat noodles, “almost like a pasta noodle – like a linguini noodle,” Benjamin says. The soba noodles are thinner, buckwheat and wheat noodles that are darker with a bit more of their own earthy flavor. “They’re uniquely Japanese,” he says.

When the couple moved Tanpopo to Lowertown 13 years ago, the restaurant space was pretty empty. “But it didn’t need a lot, just a few accents,” Benjamin says. “It’s reflective of the food. Simplicity.” And they took notes from the art community that surrounds them and did most of the interior work themselves.

The tables, counter and podium were built by Benjamin and one of their friends. “My brother did some of the artwork, our staff did the artwork. It’s just really homemade.”

That homemade atmosphere is one of the main reasons they moved the restaurant here in the first place. “We just like the feel down here,” Benjamin says. “There’s a leathermaker upstairs, a shoemaker behind us. A lot of interesting people trying different paths.”

But, the couple admits, a lot has changed. With the light rail opening in the last two years (and the five years of construction before that), and now the St. Paul Saints at CHS Stadium just down the block, Koshiki says, “There’s a lot of still ‘testing the waters,’ with the new environment.”

The Saints are bringing people to Lowertown (and to Tanpopo) who wouldn’t otherwise be there, says Benjamin, but even with all this change, “the building feels the same. It feels like everything around us has changed a bit, but the building has stayed the same.”

With all the change, and with diners becoming more and more familiar with Japanese cuisine, Koshiki says the restaurant changes, too: “Every year we’re a little bit stronger.”