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Tampopo & Cafe Japonaise, Porter Sq Exchange, Cambridge

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At the Khao Sarn dinner, several hounds pointed me out to the Japanese food court in the Porter Sq. Exchange. Sis had also suggested it a while ago, and so I ate there this evening.

Given the non-stop action next to the deep fryer tempura and other batter-coated stuff seemed to be the focus at Tampopo, the 2nd from the last of the tiny Japanese joints. So I got their matsu bento, which allowed me to sample a sweet corn croquet (pretty good, although I've had creamier versions with sweeter nibs of corn), chicken kaarage (not much of a crust outside, but the chicken itself was satisfactory) and a basic panko coated prawn tempura.

On the side, short thin strips of hijiki (dark seaweed), broccoli dabbed on the crown with a sesame (and maybe peanut) paste, a soft and nearly liquid carrot stewed in a sweet soy broth of some kind (my favorite!), cool white cuts of cucumber, and a cube of amber gello suspending sweet chunks of orange.

Also provided: a serving of salad with a nice sesame dressing, and the standard miso soup.

On the whole, it wasn't a bad deal at $7.90 (not counting tip), but it wasn't the best either. Next time I'm going to try the una don at the busy stall next door in the far end.

On the way out, I stopped by an outpost of Cafe Japonaise. Zeb and I both had queries about the mothership in Brookline, and I figured this was worth trying.

The adzuki filled dount ($1.45) was a mixture of delight and disappointment. The filling was willing but the dough was weak. The bready shell itself was flat and compressed, missing the full bodied fluff. The rich adzuki filling, however, was lovely, with the finery of its texture unmistakable. It's perfectly smooth and without the least trace of graininess form the bean coats that can result if the beans are not ground finely enough. I suspect that the weakness of t he dough could be a freshness issue. Intriguing enough for me to hop on the T to Brookline to try it one of these mornings.

Also got a slice of well flavored green tea cake. This seem to fit the prototype of a Japanese confection. Pristine and clean lines of impeccable neatness separate the layers of cake and custard; it is cute and fussy at the same time. The cake layer isn't the most spongy around but the custard is thick and slightly resilent. Together they speak to the merits of composite materials in the realm of textural interplay.

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  1. Try the mothership in Brookline for a larger and fresher selection. You might find the adzuki donut there more satisfying.

    2 Replies
    1. re: chuck s

      I may have given the Limster bad advice..While I enthusiastically advocated a foray into Japantown, I've never been wild over Cafe Japonaise(I know, must be a chow-failing on my behalf!) and I suggested he try the place in the middle of the Porter Exchange, not realizing the relationship...

      1. re: galleygirl

        Actually, it wasn't bad advice at all. While it was not the best I've had, it was still satisfactory. I'm fence sitting and figure that the main branch might settle the issue. I won't rush out there to grab something, but I might probably stop by the next time I'm exploring that nabe.

        Thanks to Eric's guidelines, I'm planning to go back sample the rest of the stalls and will definitely be buyuing a couple of things from the grocery store. Looked like they had fresh tofu too.

    2. I am a big fan of the una don at that end stall. Please let us know what you think of it.

      -Psmith

      1. While I was living in Boston, I found myself at Porter Exchange a lot, as it was the only place to find homestyle japanese food at decent prices, and it was somewhere I could practice speaking japanese. Granted, none of it was really great, but it provided something familiar, perhaps the way McD's provides a familiar taste to those traveling just about anywhere. Each of the stalls serves its own niche. The first stall you get things like kimchee-pork itame (sautee) and ginger beef, ramen and noodles in the second stall, fried stuff and donburis in the third (Tampopo, as you mention--get the soboro tofu donburi, or the sukiyaki donburi with an egg), and grilled items in the last (my usual was the sanma or saba shioyaki--salt grilled mackerel or pike mackerel, or the curry). The sushi and korean stall obviously serve those niches. I became friends with one of the waiters at Tampopo (I'm not sure he's still there) and even played baseball with some of those guys working in the stalls. One thing I learned from my experience with them is that while the youngish (20-something) guy who cooks at Tampopo has a pretty decent throwing arm, he's not the best cook--if you see the older guy who runs the stall cooking, that's a better time to eat there. The atmosphere is much more youth oriented, but one that is authentically japanese.

        I'm resurrecting an old japanese food thread (link below) with some comments on the Porter Exchange among other places, that may provide you with some more ideas where to look for some leads (search up and down the thread). As my critical comments indicate, I was at a loss while I lived in Boston. Hopefully you'll find improvements. Otherwise, you're only a few hours away from NYC, or even Montreal (a 5-hour drive and worth the chow miles if you've never been) as Alan H has told us elsewhere that he's had the best japanese food ever there.

        Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

        1 Reply
        1. re: Eric Eto

          Cool -- thanks so much for the pointers and links. That's really very useful, because prior to that, I spent almost half an hour deciding on which place to try. I settled on Tampopo, simply by virtue of the fact that I noticed the deep-fryer working full time (older guy was there) and that suggested that the fried stuff wasn't going to be bad.

          I did find the Japanese grocery store really interesting though. I think I'll buy a stack of shiso leaves to season chicken or pork for grilling one of these days.

        2. i have to add here that i was pleased to find tako yaki (at tampopo, i'm fairly certain) on one of my many trips to the porter exchage food court. not as quite as good as the real deal from those street carts in osaka, but tasty anyhow.

          1 Reply
          1. re: winnie

            Good to hear your take on tako yaki. I was this close (hold thumb and finger about a centimeter apart) to ordering it, but I wasn't sure how big the matsu bento was going to be. So I didn't get it in the end because I wanted to save space for dessert. :)