Mar 20, 2010

Limp Noodles (& Company)

The McDonald's on the corner of Jefferson and Nichols on the Plaza recently closed down and some time later, a new chain boasted its upcoming opening. Noodles & Company was its name.

I wasn't familiar with the place and when remarking to Elizabeth that I had found out its name, I distinctly remember adding, "I sure hope it's an Asian noodle place and not some kind of one-noodle-fits-all joint."

"Ew," she added. "I bet they just have a huge vat of overcooked spaghetti in the back and they just throw in some kind of sauce or topping depending on what you get."

Alas. We were pretty much right.

Elizabeth had to work late the other night and we didn't have any leftovers on hand for me to make. So I decided to find out what Noodles & Co was really all about and get some takeout. The menu boasts all types of noodles, not just one nationality. Choose from Asian, Mediterranean, American or "Customize-it".

I honed in on the "American" section for investigatory reasons, skeptical that America had made contributions to the noodle world noteworthy enough to warrant its own section on the menu. What would this be? Tuna noodle casserole? Close.

The only noodle dish on the American list that was actually what I would call American was Wisconsin Mac 'n Cheese. Noodles & Co, though, would like to credit the US of A for Stroganoff (Russian), Marinara and good ol' Spaghetti and Meatballs (Italian). Maybe even more ridiculous was the fact that "buttered noodles" was also listed on the menu. I mean - really? Do you even need to put that on the menu? If people want buttered noodles, they'll just ask if they can get plain buttered noodles. Listing it on the menu, though, conveys the idea that buttered noodles are some great recipe idea the restaurant came up with. As if they're saying, "we specialize in stroganoff, marinara and, oh, you should really try our house special - buttered noodles! You've never had anything like them." But, of course, you have. Everyone has.

Getting down to business, I jumped over to the Asian menu. I was in the mood for Asian and fearing their pad thai may be horrendous (bad pad thai can be really bad - too sweet, often), I opted for the Indonesian Peanut Saute. Let's start with the positives: the carryout packaging was sturdy and convenient, the portion was large but not ridiculously so, fresh lime wedges were provided as a garnish, to spritz over the top of the noodles, which I love.

Moving on. The bad: the lime was utterly and completely without juice. When I squeezed it over the top, it frayed and shredded, disintegrating into a pathetic rind with a strange explosion of fibrous pulp hanging from it and immediately reminding me of Clark Griswold cutting into the Christmas turkey which immediately deflated on the dining room table. Sick.

The toppings were a melange of the usual suspects: bean sprouts, broccoli and carrot sticks, which I am happy to say were all nice and crisp. Not overcooked. Lots of shredded cabbage was mixed through, and due to the terrarium effect caused by the tight lid trapping steam, its deep purple color washed out and spread itself into the noodles in a disconcerting way that made me wonder if it had been painted purple for faux freshness. The peanut sauce was detectable, but a little thin. I was given no condiments, and due to a low salt content, I felt it needed a little soy sauce. No hot sauce either, so I hit it with a few dollops of my own sambal oelek when I opened it up at home.

Peanuts were non-existent. None whatsoever. Luckily, I had those on hand, as well. So once I had incorporated my own peanuts, my own lime, my own sambal and my own soy sauce, it was ready to be eaten (oh, and I employed my own chopsticks, too - none provided).

The rice sticks (noodles) were overcooked. Quite mushy and falling apart. And the peanut sauce lacked depth, severely. Tasted like they had just mixed some peanut butter into the noodles which, when heated, became thin enough to coat the noodles like a sauce.

I'd opted to add chicken to mine, to test the quality of their meats. It was all-white meat, apparently pounded thin and then pan seared with a little flour dusting on it (I'm guessing this preparation is done because it works better with the Italian-style menu items and they're not into the idea of having to prepare chicken in more ways than one). There were no bad bites, but it was very bland, adding nothing but some protein to the dish. The fried tofu chunks I also found in my noodles were spongy and flavorless, as well, but that's kind of how fried tofu is.

Eventually I choked down the whole bowl, so apparently it wasn't the worst thing I'd ever eaten. But in the end I wish I had made the effort to run by the grocery store and pick up a few ingredients to make it myself instead of taking the lazy route and settling for mass-produced garbage.

While picking up, I also grabbed one of the large cookies sitting next to the register. Forced to choose between chocolate chip or snicker doodle, I went with snicker doodle just because I don't come across them as often, and I usually find them hugely delicious.

Shame on me for not noticing the specs of apple before arriving back at home. I was willing to keep an open mind about the apple, but one bite in, the disappoint swept over me. A snicker doodle isn't a snicker doodle with fruit in it. It's got to be simpler than that. Cookie batter, cinnamon and sugar on top. That's it. The apple made it taste like coffee cake - not what I wanted after my meal.

Pretty easy to rate this place. I won't go back unless forced to as a work lunch outing or something. If a McDonald's couldn't make it in this location, I don't expect that Noodles & Co. will. It's less convenient than McDonald's, has a higher cost of operation (they even have a liquor license!?!), and, despite trying to cover every type of noodle dish under the sun, probably has less mass-appeal as well. Those looking for any measure of quality would do better to walk a block east to Brio. Or buy a pack of Ramen Noodles - more authentic, more tasty, less expensive and you have the ability to ensure your noodles don't just turn into a big clump of mush.

Rating: zero napkins

Noodles and Company on Urbanspoon


Christy said...

Apples in a snickerdoodle? That is just plain weird. What makes a snickerdoodle so good is the simplicity of the cookie.

abruce said...

Thanks for the advice! I'll steer clear of this place.

Jmeg said...

I think this location is having some "new kid on the block" pains. I normally like this place - at the other locations in town - but I went for lunch today and it was subpair as well. I hope they can work out their kinks.

Foodie32 said...

I dunno, Jmeg. I'm pretty sure I'm just against the whole concept. I have some pretty stringent rules when it comes to noodles and pasta, most of which just can't be followed by a chain... But thanks for sharing! Great second opinion!

Anonymous said...

I went to the Lee's Summit location and was disappointed with the extremely thin and flavorless sauce in my bowl of Wisconsin mac & cheese. I don't know if they just didn't make it right or if that's the way it is at all locations. My guest had spaghetti & meatballs and I couldn't help but notice how basic the dish was. Overall, my experience was fair. I expected something more unique, more flavorful and more exciting than the pasta dishes I easily make at home. The portion sizes were great and the noodles in both meals were fresh, but I wonder about the meatballs because they were a little tough, as if they had maybe been reheated. I hope to have a better review at a different location.

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