It's a Noodle World

Noodles & Company
Calhoun Commons
3040 Excelsior Blvd., Mpls., (612) 915-6440
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.; Sunday noon-8:00 p.m.

Chipotle Grill
3040 Excelsior Blvd., Mpls., (612) 922-6662
2082 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul, (651) 699-1000
800 Washington Ave. SE, Mpls., (612) 378-7078
Hours: Daily 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]

Teddy Maki

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Noodles & Company

3040 Excelsior Blvd.
Minneapolis, MN 55416

Category: Restaurant > Fusion

Region: Golden Valley

Chipotle Mexican Grill

3040 Excelsior Blvd., #104
Minneapolis, MN 55416

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Golden Valley

I am positively fascinated with the two new chain restaurants that recently sprang up in Minneapolis's newest strip mall, Calhoun Commons. And when I say sprang up, I mean it in the most active sense. I mean: Blew in, geysered up, sprang forth as if by magic, like Athena from Zeus's head, fully formed and formidable. One day the split to the west of Lake and Excelsior was home to nothing but a pile of dirt, the next it held a pair of buzzing restaurants complete with regulars, lines curling out onto the sidewalk, and rolled eyeballs when a neophyte garbles menu pronunciations.

And by fascinated I don't mean delighted, I mean enrapt in the 19th-century, Frankenstein-and-fainting-spells sense: I am spellbound, captivated, simultaneously horrified and enthralled. This, I think, this is It, this is what our consumer geography will look like for the next ten years. Interiors will be bold, light, airy, glibly futuristic and largely derivative of the designs of Frank Gehry, the architect who gave us the Weisman Museum and is indirectly responsible for the trend toward mannered and supple use of raw construction materials like bent plywood and brushed metal. Long, thin menus will be confidently global: Confident enough, in the case of the Chipotle Grill, to assume that people know what tomatillos are, that people like cilantro (remember when food magazines all carried a caveat after mentioning the herb: The mature leaf of Chinese coriander, this soapy herb is not for everyone!) and, most basic, that everyone will know how to pronounce the name of the smoked jalapeño from which the restaurant takes its name (chi-POAT-lay). Confident enough, in the case of Noodles & Company, to think that diners will like caesar salad with their Thai coconut-curry soup, and that they will not find a restaurant that serves both mac and cheese and Japanese udon noodles terribly disconcerting.

And so, goodbye to eatertainment in its various incarnations; to nostalgia blocked by crippling irony; to the desperate, faux ethnicity of Tucci Benucch et al.; to the wink and pomp of Planet Hollywood with its neon howl for a crumb of fame, and to the Capital Grille's mahogany fantasy of birth to privilege. Maybe we're done wallowing in the past and fretting about the present, maybe we embrace a nonchalantly global future: Take a little of what you like about whatever culture, present it with a flash of Frank Gehry, add a couple of microbrews, throw in a dash of Old Country Buffet: Voilà! Crowds. Voilà! Profit.

The Old Country Buffet dig is aimed at Noodles & Company, whose chief virtues are cheapness and diversity. The restaurant offers 14 basic noodle dishes and three salads, and only three items on the menu cost more than five dollars. Now, five dollars is the contemporary psychic dividing line between the dirt-cheap and the extravagant; five dollars is the magic border fast-food value meals seek never to cross, and "best meal under five dollars" is the only price-based category City Pages ever awarded in its Best of the Twin Cities issue. Five dollars is what makes Boulder-based Noodles & Company one of the fastest-growing restaurant chains in the nation, with seven more Twin Cities locations slated to open in the coming months. And five dollars is what makes sesame-seared lo mein ($4.95) a force to be reckoned with in the cheap-eats category. It's a big bowl of resilient wheat noodles tossed with a sweet and salty soy sauce made with a bit of ginger and garlic, and jazzed up with marinated shiitake mushrooms, onions, peas, and julienne carrots and topped with a sprinkle of those crunchy deep-fried noodles and a smattering of black sesame seeds. As in nearly all the restaurant's dishes, you can add tofu, chicken, or beef, for $1.45 more, or shrimp for an extra $1.95.

Simply put, this lo mein is good junk food: salty, sweet, savory, not particularly good but definitely gratifying. It's more successful than the very similar Japanese pan noodles ($4.95) whose short, thick, pencil-wide rice noodles can't stand up to the restaurant's method of boiling first, then reheating them just prior to serving. In fact, all the rice noodles have a somewhat squishy texture, so consider yourself forewarned about the Thai noodles ($4.95), which bear a passing resemblance to pad thai; the spicy peanut salad ($4.95); and the Thai curry soup ($4.50).

I didn't think much of most of the Italian dishes I tried at Noodles & Company. The roma-tomato marinara ($4.75) tasted like weeknight-desperation dinner with sauce from a jar and was crowned with the pre-shredded, anti-caking-agent coated parmesan that is my mortal enemy. The pesto linguini ($5.75), however, was awfully good, again in a junk-food sort of way: It was garlicky, olive-oily, basil-packed, and puzzlingly studded with mushrooms, but once the parmesan melted it wasn't bad at all--better, in fact, than many pesto dishes I've had in town at twice the price.

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