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Food Review: Tenka Ramen Brings the Noodles Downtown

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For anyone not yet aboard the ramen train, I suggest viewing “Tampopo,” the Japanese movie that delivers an ode to the art of this classic soup.

In the film, an old master advises a student of eating ramen the way it should be done — a lengthy process that moves from observing the bowl to appreciate its gestalt, to caressing the surface with chopstick tips to express affection, and finally to slurping the noodles first while apologizing to the pork.

A master knows that even though ramen is a quick, one-pot meal, it doesn’t lend itself to takeout because the noodles get soggy after 10 minutes in the broth, making speed slurping of the essence.

Slurping skills of all levels abound at Tenka Ramen, a hip and modern restaurant in Monroe Ward. It features booths, high tables and a small bar in the rear that affords a view of the kitchen, the better to be a ramen voyeur, as well as walls of corrugated metal adorned by embellishments such as a “Godzilla” movie poster.

Japanese-language magazines sit in a pile at the pastel, underlit bar offering canned beer ($4-$7), Sapporo and Kirin on tap ($5-$6) and five kinds of canned sake ($8-$12). Standing guard next to the door is a figure clad in a crested kabuto helmet with a vibrantly contrasting sash and battle-ready leg plates, while chill wave is the sound du jour on all three of my visits.

Service ranges from lightning-fast to slow-paced and can be a bit brusque. This isn’t a staff eager to educate you about ramen or other menu particulars, so newbies are left to wade in solo. A question about a dish results in a fact-finding mission to the kitchen, yet our server returns with no further intelligence.

Four of the six ramens are combinations of chicken and pork broth, while their signature soup, Tenka ramen ($10.75), boasts tonkotsu broth — 60 percent pork bone and 40 percent chicken, making for a thicker, heartier offering with deeper flavor. It’s a fine place to begin exploring the wonderful world of noodles at Tenka.

The much lighter-tasting veggie ramen ($10.25) is kelp- and sea-salt-based, and far more slurp-worthy than it might sound to a carnivore. But when I dig in to discover the broccoli and bamboo shoots that are noticeably cold despite resting atop hot ramen, it feels like a rookie mistake.

’Tis the season when few things satisfy on a chilly afternoon or evening as much as a good bowl of steaming noodles, but after tasting five of the six offerings, I have a few bones to pick, all of which are easily resolvable. Broths slanted to the salty side and the chasu pork listed to the tough, but the noodles are cooked perfectly al dente, the boiled egg halves have obscenely runny yolks to add richness, and the broth adheres to the ramen so each bite tastes of the full recipe as the master dictated it must.

You can add extras to your bowl — nori seaweed, corn, bamboo shoots, egg, pork and spicy sauce for 50 cents to $1.50 — for additional bursts of flavor, although you may not know you need them until your bowl arrives.

Of the nine options available, several appetizers we try are perfunctory at best. Chicken karaage ($4.95), billed as Japanese fried chicken seasoned with garlic and ginger, tastes like nothing more than bland chicken tenders without even the aid of a dipping sauce. Pass.

If the veggie spring rolls ($2.95) weren’t the frozen pre-made variety, their thick wrappers and gummy interiors gave a fairly good approximation of it, and while it’s rare that dumplings disappoint, gyoza ($4.50) unexpectedly underperform, even when dripping in soy sauce.

Teriyaki-sauced pork is the star of pork buns ($5.95), and chashu donburi ($8.95), a deep bowl of pork over rice and salad greens, is one of two nonramen entrees that will appeal to heartier appetites.

One dish I can’t wait to repeat is aji fry ($4.50), golden-brown, lightly fried Japanese horse mackerel eaten by holding the tiny unbattered tails and biting off the succulent white flesh, much the way sugar toads are eaten. Don’t miss them.

No matter the day of the week or time of day, booths fill up quickly, but ramen is fast food and that means rapid turnover, so no stomach growls for long. Tenka has brought the slurp to Monroe Ward. S

Tenka Ramen
Mondays-Fridays noon-9 p.m.;
Saturdays 5:30-9:30 p.m.;
Sundays noon-3.
110 N. Fifth St.
788-8177
facebook.com/tenkaramen

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