WE went with the best intentions to explore the vegan/veggie options (they have separate menus for both) at David Fox’s basement celebration of South East Asian cuisine but couldn’t resist the allure of old favourites enlisting beef and prawns.
Still the stand-out dish in a spice-laden long lunch was plant-based – mushroom-filled lettuce wraps with a chilli kick and the inevitable peanuts (£4.95). Fellow vegan starter lightly fried spring rolls (£4.95) came with an addictive hoisin and peanut dip. Must be tricky being a Thai with a nut allergy.
The tropical fruit hit of a couple of Kiwi Sauvignons took on the spice as we settled into the cosiest of the Tampopos in the bowels of the generally less than cosy Corn Exchange. Intense blue and green shutters and banquettes plus a plethora of Bangkok neon do their best to convince you’ll be walking out into searing midday sun (outside it was muggy enough, gently spitting).
By our third starter, a new one to us, Balinese Pork Belly (£5.75) we were rekindling our affection for this Manchester indie stalwart, too often taken for granted bu a cut above Wagamama, say.
OK, the pork belly is no more than bowl of comfort food, doused in further hoisin after being slow-roasted with cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, but we’re OK with that. And in this instance there’s no standard vegan version substituting tofu or jackfruit for animal protein or prawn.
We settled for mainlining on both in our trio of big plates. Sloppy laksas and ramens will have to wait another day. We tackled two wok-fried mains, Pad Krapow with prawns (£11.95) and Tamarind Duck (£14.75), alongside Indonesian classic Beef Rendang (£13.95), all three accompanied by an ample mound of Jasmine rice.
The Pad is about as fiery as it gets at Tampopo. We’re not talking Siam Smiles levels of heat but this red-chilli and Thai basil dominated stir-fry does have you reaching for the water glass.
Sticky tamarind definitely has a dark fruit vinegary affinity with duck the way morello cherries do. Served with a tangle of bok choi, the fanned out pink breast had initially been cooked sous vide, we were told, to avoid toughness.
No such problem with the beef in the Rendang, slow braised in coconut milk with a parade of aromatics – star anise galangal and lemongrass all evident. Tampopo serve it with all the trimmings you’d get in downtown Jakarta, soy-seasoned egg, roti triangles, cucumber and a punchy chilli sambal. Oh, yes, and a scattering of peanuts.
I wonder how many kilos the group has go through during its impressive 22 years in existence. There are flashier oriental dining experiences around but like some trusty old tuk-tuk Tampopo keeps on delivering.
Tampopo, Corn Exchange, Manchester M4 3TR, 0161 839 6484. Reached off Exchange Square. The original Tampopo is Albert Square and there’s also one in the Trafford Centre, which also boasts Tampopo’s food-to-go shack, East, a sibling of East in Piccadilly Gardens.