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Cheap Eats

Great tempura and more

(Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Ike DeLorenzo
Globe Correspondent / July 14, 2010

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“There’s already a 30-minute wait on weekends,’’ my friend Vaughn argues. Another friend is more direct: “You just can’t write about it.’’ May God, the cognoscenti, and the residents of Porter Square have mercy on me: Welcome, readers, to Tampopo.

Tampopo is a tiny, inexpensive Japanese restaurant with great food, in a city where good Japanese dining options are scant. As such, it constitutes a Holy Grail of fooderati (and perhaps this column): the out-of-the-way hole-in-the-wall where the owner makes the food, and one charming waitress takes care of everyone. For 16 years, Tampopo has been hidden inside the Porter Exchange building, where it’s tucked among three other small Japanese restaurants.

What distinguishes this 12-seat eatery is the excellence of the tempura, the lightness of the crispy katsus (breaded, fried cutlets of pork or chicken), and appealing plating and service.

A bite of the vegetable tempura ($7.95) starts crisp: it’s satisfyingly fried, and pleasantly salty. The vegetables inside remain firm and flavorful — never overfried or oily — and include thin-sliced acorn squash and rounds of perfect sweet potato (which can absorb oil if incorrectly fried). The fish tempura plate (pictured, $8.95) stars all your favorites from the vegetable tempura plate and adds thick pieces of tender, flaky white fish (it’s pollock).

Here’s how Tampopo supports a menu of almost 100 dishes. The chef takes the expertly prepared tempura and katsu ($8.95), and uses them as the star ingredient in another dish. Spicy crispy pork rolls ($8.95) are a seaweed-wrapped futomaki (“big’’ roll) of sushi rice with a generous center of sliced pork katsu, chopped haricots verts, pickled seaweed bits, and minced carrot. The slices are excellent as served, and spectacular dipped in sriracha red pepper sauce (ask for it).

Most dinners come with a fresh salad whose chief role is as a vehicle for the dressing, a marvelous and — for habitues of Japanese restaurants — familiar blend of rice vinegar, soy sauce, ground sesame, sugar, black pepper, ginger, and sesame oil.

If there can be a best dish here, it’s the chicken kara-age ($8.45). The meat is marinated in garlic, ginger, and soy sauce, deep-fried to crisp-dry perfection, then tossed with a bit of rice wine vinegar, softened red pepper flakes, and “other spices that are secret,’’ according to chef-owner Yasu Itoh. Itoh also owns a nearby karate studio so I do not pursue the matter further.

For dessert, Tampopo suggests some “petit’’ options (mochi, jelly rolls), or stay at the table and enjoy coffee and pastry from the adjoining, excellent, Japonaise Bakery.

After a dozen visits, I have yet to find an unappealing dish on the menu (except perhaps the ambitious “Italian Cheese Katsu’’). You’ll be back to sample others. Just try to space out your visits, and give everyone else a chance.

Ike DeLorenzo can be reached at ike@theideassection.com.

TAMPOPO 1815 Massachusetts Ave. (Porter Exchange), Porter Square, Cambridge, 617-868-5457. Cash only. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $5.25-$12.95. Entrees $6.45-$9.75. Desserts $1.25-$3.75.

Hours Daily 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.

Liquor None.

May we suggest Chicken kara-age, fish tempura, spicy crispy pork roll, pork curry.