Four months ago, New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood got its first ramen shop — Tampopo Ramen (1 Bennett Avenue; 212-923-0575). The owners aren’t quite whom you might expect to bring onigiri rice balls or donburi bowls to the historically Dominican neighborhood that flanks the George Washington Bridge, but sometimes inspiration comes from unexpected places. And in Tampopo owner Josh Frank’s case, it was the trumpet.
“Freelancing is tough. It’s a grind,” Frank begins. He’s referring to his work as a classical musician, having played trumpet professionally around the world over the last decade since he first moved to Washington Heights. He still lives there with his wife and business partner, Nanae Mamuedi-Frank, and their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. “You have to be entrepreneurial as an artist,” he continues. “And I wanted to apply skills I had collected to a business model, for a bit more stability… something where the challenge is even higher than showing up for a gig, and something with a high level of reward for your work.”
Frank had spent a good chunk of time touring regularly throughout Japan (where his wife is from), playing with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Sufjan Stevens, Boys II Men, and Béla Fleck. He buried himself in learning about various regions’ food cultures, and continually came home with a great appreciation for the high level of hospitality he found across the board, everywhere from divey ramen shops to high-end sushi restaurants. The Franks are self-professed “food geeks,” having fallen in love over their shared obsession with Alton Brown and habits of fiddling with ramen and fried chicken recipes at home. And so, after realizing their beloved Washington Heights neighborhood didn’t have a shop serving up the ramen they often made for themselves and craved on a regular basis, their business was born.
In 2013, the pair started running the café at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, preparing general sustenance platters like fruit and bagel spreads or doing full three-meal menus for recording or performing musicians. That lead to catering for celebrities like Sting, which allowed them to save enough money to open official Tampopo Ramen booths with Urbanspace. They operated two years running at the Broadway Bites and Garment District pop-up markets for the spring and fall seasons. Craving their own brick-and-mortar shop, they started searching for spaces… and found themselves circling closer and closer to home.
When the Franks landed on their Bennett Avenue space — a five-minute walk from their apartment — Frank looked at the former bar and thought, “Great, we probably don’t have to do a lot of work to it.” But that wasn’t entirely true. “We kind of knew nothing about the build-out process,” he says. “Eventually, the only thing we kept was the floor. So… yeah. That happened. We were novices.”
Rolling up their sleeves and talking to anyone who would offer advice, they soon learned that the other small food business owners in the neighborhood would be incredibly generous with their own experiences and expertise. Tampopo Ramen now has about fifteen employees, lines out the door, and plans for lunch, delivery, and a potential sidewalk-seating expansion. The Franks continue to mix with their growing circle of patrons, spanning professionals who work downtown, Columbia students who come a bit farther uptown, and the dynamic mix of local families who now know them by name.
“Our place has entered into the lives of our locals, which is kind of what we wanted,” Frank says. “The idea of creating the next great ramen shop was silly to me. We want to create a place that people love, and that’s going to be part of their daily lives.”
There are plenty of special spots that make up his own daily life, so we start walking.
Just a few blocks from Tampopo, Frank was introduced to “the deli” by a fellow musician and now returns regularly for his breakfast sandwich. “They make amazing stuff here,” he says, nodding at the pastry and lunch counter of Fort Washington Bakery & Deli (808 West 181st street between Fort Washington Avenue and Pinehurst Avenue). “It’s blue-collar, functional food, but they do what they do on a really high level. Making a great breakfast sandwich is not that hard, but the ingredients have to be good.”
His order of “torta, chorizo, egg, no cheese” is an unexpected work of genius when he opens it up. The eggs and sausage are almost hidden beneath fresh avocado, bean paste, tomatoes, red onions, and peppers with the mingling aromas wafting up spicy and warm. “It’s just awesome,” he claims. “It’s no joke. This is not your average bacon-egg-and-cheese situation. I could not have survived opening our restaurant without this place.”
Crossing east to Broadway, the neighborhood feel is obvious at Green Juice Café (4316 Broadway at 184th Street). Within minutes, Frank has an almond latte in hand and has already caught up with the owner. A local real estate agent he often runs into joins to chat about how much the area has changed and how much it’s stayed the same. Green Juice opened about sixteen months ago — it’s another family-owned, self-built shop. They expanded their menu offerings last October, we’re told, with more pressed sandwiches and pastries on the menu in addition to the scrumptious beverage offerings. The Lox of Love sandwich is a customer favorite. But while Frank admits he sometimes stops in twice a day to refuel, we still have blocks to tread.
Our next stop is La Cabana Salvadorena Restaurant (4384 Broadway at 187th Street). “I’ve definitely gotten the lunch special here,” Frank says, referring to the daily offerings of broiled, stewed, or grilled chicken and beef that come with rice, beans, plantains, and salad for $6.50. But the real gem, Frank admits, are the papusas. “The pupusas are so good. Because of the area, we eat a lot of Dominican food… but the Salvadorian papupsas have thicker tortillas, and they sort of combine the rice and beans somehow. We found this place through the woman who painted the mural in our restaurant. She was shocked we didn’t know this place, but now we’re hooked. It’s a gem.”
As we continue north, Frank fills me in on how other referrals from locals came about. “We’re always trying to reach out to other owners, and everyone has been so cool,” he says. “We met the owner of Locksmith Wine & Burger Bar (4463 Broadway by 192nd Street) through mutual friends when our daughters started playing together on the playground. She’s helped us with ordering and such.”
As we make our way across the street to Buddha Beer Bar (4476 Broadway), Frank recalls how the owner, James Lee, helped him before Tampopo Ramen’s pre-opening inspection. “He ended up popping in the night before our inspection with the Department of Health and basically asked us if we wanted him to tell us where we’d be getting fined, and what we had to make sure we had out and presentable,” Frank explains. “He was generous with his time. Now, when we have issues or questions about whether or not we should open for lunch or ponder a sidewalk café in the summertime, I feel like we have a network of people we can talk to.”
It being lunchtime on an unseasonably warm, sunny day, we sink into a table at the empty beer bar and order a pint — because the flip side of freelancing and business ownership is, drinking at noon now and then won’t kill you. Buddha Beer Bar’s menu is standard bar food, with a full-time chef putting out variations of craft burgers like the Ham Solo (Berkshire pulled pork, chipotle mayo, spicy coleslaw, and cucumber), the Bean Me Up Scotty (black bean veggie patty with guacamole and chipotle mayo), or the Little Swiss Sunshine (Swiss cheese, thick-cut bacon, fried egg, and grilled onion). “We totally come here after shifts because they’re open really late. I’m a big fan of the wings here,” Frank says. He’s referring to the bar’s “all-natural wings,” which are fried or grilled with a choice of eleven sauces including garlic parmesan and chipotle blueberry.
Lee also owns 181 Cabrini (854 West 181st Street), back by Tampopo, serving breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner almost daily. That spot offers a slightly more upscale menu that ranges from burgers and hummus to grilled salmon and steak.
As the alcohol-and-sunlight haze kicks in, Frank talks about where Tampopo started and where the future might bring him. He recognizes that their fits and starts — not knowing how hard the build-out was going to be, working with the local board to get their liquor license, and learning that a small space doesn’t necessarily mean a small staff can handle putting out quality food — were only possible because they didn’t attempt a concept anywhere close to fine dining. “We knew what kind of experience we wanted to create for our customers: something utilitarian and liberating,” he explains. “Having realistic expectations was key.”
While expanding to another neighborhood — somewhere just as intimate and comfortable as what Frank has found outside his door — isn’t completely off the table, he says he’s happy with the challenges of only owning one restaurant. “One thing that’s hard about the industry,” he admits, “is that you have a slow fifteen minutes and are like, ‘Is this the end?’ We’re only four months in, so we have no idea what our coming year is going to be like. And I can handle that.”