Flavor: Fresh Chinese, with a bit of fusion
Ambiance: Sparse but nice; great little patio
I don’t get sick that often, but every so often I get whacked upside the head with something fierce enough to rattle the sinuses practically out of my head. The bizarre fall weather, combined with a nasty allergy season, did me in – I felt like the four horsemen of the apocalypse were playing polo inside my head, or like I’d done a line of goldenrod pollen.
And so, I searched my brain to figure out what I could stomach, let alone taste.
The Noodle Shop came to mind in a hurry. When I’m sick, I want something spicy with noodles, with a ton of garlic and ginger thrown in for good measure. And what’s even better is that the restaurant offers free delivery – a most welcome service for the sickly.
I retrieved a battered paper Noodle Shop menu from the back of the kitchen drawer where the plastic wrap lives, zeroing in on the items with the little hot chili emblem emblazoned next to their names. If anything could relieve the pressure in my sinuses, I reasoned, it would be that little chili. I considered the Hot and Sour Soup, with its tofu, bamboo shoots and edible wood fungus (I’m not sure what that is, but it sounds medicinal) in a spicy broth.
However, the Spicy and Sour Chicken Potage Noodle sounded more my bag. What better dish for a nasty cold than chicken noodle soup – especially with the addition of baby bok choy and green onion. Kimchi seemed an appropriate accompaniment; pickled Napa cabbage with apples, ginger, scallions and Szechwan powder sounded like something I might be able to taste.
My meal arrived quite soon after I phoned it in. I cleared an opening in the drift of balled up tissues on the coffee table and got to work, a fresh packet of Kleenex at the ready and my trusty bottle of Sriracha by my side for extra sinus-whupping muscle.
For the Kimchi, I didn’t need it – it was strong as Mr. Clean. It was full of spice and brawn, though I could taste little other than onion. The flavor was garishly pungent, slightly overwhelming and oddly addictive. It was certainly a therapeutic dish, though I would most certainly avoid this one if I were on a date with someone sensitive.
The Chicken Potage Noodle was not nearly as spicy, though it carried a bit of a kick. The broth itself, described somewhat ambiguously on the menu as “meat-based,” was quite savory, though ever-so-slightly gelatinous. With my choice of mung bean noodles (for their zero wheat content) and an extra dash of Sriracha, the result was as invigoratingly cleansing as the Kimchi. Finally I could breathe, at least for a little while.
The next evening, I opted for the Noodle Shop once again. Gathering all the “poor me” I could muster into my voice, I asked my Picky Companion to stop by the restaurant on his way home to pick up an assortment of goodies. He arrived with two entrées that also carried the distinctive pepper on the menu – the Dan Dan Noodle and the Home Style Tofu – as well as an appetizer of pork dumplings.
The tofu dish was full of fresh vegetables and tofu cooked the way I like it (somewhat crispy). It was mildly spicy, but somewhat lacking in flavor. My companion confirmed this, so it wasn’t just my ailing olfactory senses. The cause was most likely the wealth of broad rice noodles, combined with a dearth of sauce, but I still liked it.
The Dan Dan Noodle was the favorite dish of the evening. Though the broth is vegetarian, it still is very flavorful and savory (I could have been fooled into thinking it was chicken-based). The vegetables – carrots, Napa cabbage, bean sprouts, squash, spinach and scallions – were extremely fresh, as was the cilantro and basil. Again, I could have handled a good deal more spice, but then again, my main goal was to punish my sinuses unmercifully.
The dumplings were a fine example of simplicity done right. With a simple, soy-based sauce and a bare minimum of extra seasoning, they were a solid and satisfying appetizer.
My third day of rest was spent consuming leftovers with hefty amounts of hot sauce and fresh ginger and garlic thrown into the mix, as well as copious amounts of various bitter teas from boxes promising good health.
The next day, I woke up feeling less like road kill, so I decided to venture out. I visited the Noodle Shop in person to get a feel for the place, having never actually dined on-site.
The atmosphere is decidedly minimalist, in a clean, unfettered way. Paper lamps dangle inside and over the patio, which overlooks Pack Square. A few lovely wood carvings hang on the walls, and white orchids sit in the front windows next to a shallow rectangular box filled with smooth pebbles.
We ordered a pot of green tea, which was brought in a delicate vessel with beautiful little ceramic cups. While we were waiting for our food on the breezy, somewhat crowded patio, our waiter presented us with a “house appetizer” of Sour Carrot, a tangy dish dressed with scallion, soy, garlic, and hot pepper and sesame oils. We polished it off in no time, only to have it replaced with a second house appetizer, the fabulous Silver Potato. The shredded raw potato is marinated with Chinese vinegar, garlic and very spicy elements to produce a surprisingly tasty and satisfying dish.
Our spring roll appetizer arrived moments after our last bite of potato. It was presented nicely, with (what I assumed to be) a Chinese character depicted in spicy mustard calligraphy and a pool of sweet and sour red sauce. The filling of cabbage, mung bean sprouts and carrot was savory, but not extraordinary. What was intriguing was the texture of the wrapper; it was billowy and soft, and not wet like the typical rice-paper wrapper.
Our entrées arrived with uncommon efficiency, given that it was a busy lunch hour. Ma la Tang for me, Kung Pao Chicken for my friend. While eating my exceptionally healthy vegan entrée of steamed mung bean noodles, broccoli, cabbage, sprouts and decidedly un-fried tofu, I couldn’t help but sniff wistfully at the meat fumes drifting tantalizingly through the air. I liked it and ate it with relish, but the accompanying sauce had a strange blend of seasonings that was somewhat off. The sauce was reminiscent of a Chinese five-spice with quite a bit of white pepper, but without enough heat for balance. My friend, for her part, enjoyed her dish.
Our bill for this sizable meal was only 20 dollars, which illustrates one of the best features of the Noodle Shop. Hearty, healthy home or street-style food can be had at minimal cost – the way it should be.
In my opinion, the restaurant falters only when it tries to “Americanize” the dishes. I wanted the sharp pungency of a fermented sauce, or a searing spiciness from chilies applied with a heavy hand. However, the formula seems to work, as the place has been around for quite a while, and with good reason. What’s even better is that, should you be incapacitated from illness, they’ll be happy to deliver some spicy chicken noodle soup.