It's a Noodle World

But would you like it? And how much? Everyone I brought to Noodles & Company lives in Uptown, within spitting distance of Calhoun Square, and when I asked them if they would repeat the experience, they all said: Absolutely--but I wouldn't drive across the lake. Wouldn't drive across the lake? It's a quarter of a mile! And there's free parking. No, they wouldn't drive across the lake. There's apparently a difference between things you like and things you like enough to go a quarter of a mile and stand in line for, and for my sample Noodles & Company just didn't cross that threshold.

The same holds for the Chipotle Mexican Grill, another Denver-based chain, which I love when I'm on my way to or from the Oak Street Cinema, but like a lot less when I'm just standing in line at Calhoun Commons. My favorite Chipotle creation is the only one that prominently uses chipotle peppers, the Barbacoa ($5.25): It's beef pot-roasted in a smoky stew of chipotles, cumin, cloves, and garlic until it's pull-apart tender, then laid on a tortilla filled with the restaurant's signature orange-cilantro-lime rice, zingy white rice, and a ladle of fresh pinto beans. The whole thing is then topped with a delicious tomatillo sauce--my personal strategy is to convince the good counter folk to throw on an extra scoop, which makes the burrito a little drippy, but also tremendously good.

Much of the restaurant's menu is created from about a dozen key ingredients: tortillas, grilled beef, chicken, or pork, a sautéed-bell-pepper-and-onion mix, sour cream, cheese, romaine lettuce, a very nice fresh guacamole with a hint of garlic and a surprising gleam of green bell pepper ($1.25 for a good-sized minicup, or $1.65 with chips), plus two sorts of excellent house-made beans, and a trio of salsas.

Teddy Maki

Location Info


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

And while I have a linguistic quibble with the medium salsa (it's really more of a corn relish), those building blocks stack up into some extraordinary combinations. Add guacamole to an order of tacos ($4.55 to $4.95) and you've got one of the tastiest snacks in town--four crisp fried corn shells or three soft flour tortillas cradling sweet grilled marinated chicken, lime-touched carnitas (pork), or nicely gamey, chili-powder-accented steak. The burritos and fajitas ($4.55 to $4.95) differ only in that the burritos include beans, and both feature a nice contrast of flavors and textures.

Except when they don't. What I hadn't known about the Chipotle Grill before I decided to review it is how overwhelmingly popular the three current locations are (look for more soon), and how the need for speed affects the quality of what leaves the kitchen. On three visits at various hours there was always a line spilling out the door at both the Oak Street and Calhoun Commons location, and counter workers were scrambling triple-time to keep things moving. I couldn't fault the counter staff--they seemed to be valiantly trying to stage a burrito version of Modern Times--but items were being pulled off the grill and sliced, then thrown onto platforms of room-temperature rice and crowned with refrigerator-cold toppings, which on two occasions resulted in loaves of room-temperature food. Not a burrito's finest hour.

But it's a damn sight better than spending life in an endless progression from Helmut Helmutson's Herring Hut to Chaos O'Fundays to Famous People Get the Profits! and back again, which is what I feel like I've been doing for a while. Yeah, I know that's completely ridiculous praise: Thanks, say Twin Citizens to forward-looking Denver-based chains. Thanks for not sucking as much as experience has led us to believe you might! But that's not what I mean.

What I mean is that the geography of the consumer world we tread through is very interesting to me. There's fodder for anthropology in the way the two locations both accept credit cards for $5 purchases; there's a subtle shift in the world when all the restaurants stop plastering their walls with faux-antique advertising and get comfortable with a starker architecture.

The last time I noticed one of these subtle shifts came when the culture took a turn toward nesting: Some years ago I stopped immediately throwing out the Mall-Based Houseware Company catalogs that come every few weeks. Gradually, unexpectedly, I found myself pausing over the recycling bin, flipping through the glossy pages. Then I started taking them out of the bin and carrying them around the kitchen. Then I realized what I was doing and it appalled me. What was I to velvet pillows, or iron candle-holders to me? Must I now add faux-Deco furniture to my general longings for books and records? What fresh hell was this? But then I got used to it, and while I've never bought anything from the Mall-Based Houseware Company, I sort of enjoy noticing how the landscape is changing.

Correction published 11/3/1999:
Owing to a reporting error, this review incorrectly stated that Noodles & Company is based in Denver. The chain is headquartered in Boulder, Colorado. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.

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