It's a Noodle World
Noodles & Company
3040 Excelsior Blvd., Mpls., (612) 915-6440
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.; Sunday noon-8:00 p.m.
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.]
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.
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.
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.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.