Monday, October 27, 2014

Noodles & Company

A few months ago, I was walking by the Metreon and saw a new casual dining establishment about to open: Noodles & Company.  Perhaps Noodles & Company is not novel to you, as they apparently exist all over the US (400+ locations), but, it was new to me.  The Metreon location was their first San Francisco branch.  I kept meaning to swing by after they opened to learn more, but, I uh, tend to avoid that area, and totally forgot about it.  But a few months later, I saw that they were opening a second location, just a few blocks away on Market Street, only a few months later.  Strange to put both locations so close to each other, but, the second one is in a much nicer location for those of us who don't want to get trampled my conference-goers.

As you may have guessed, the menu features noodles, from all over the world.  The menu ranges from standard "American" noodle dishes such as Mac & Cheese, Spaghetti & Meatballs, and Steak Stroganoff to Italian inspired dishes like Penne Rosa, Pesto Cavatappi, and Alfredo, to Asian dishes like Pad Thai, Bangkok Curry, and Japanese Pan Noodles.  The options don't stop there however, for every dish, you can add a protein option, from a selection including tofu, pork, chicken breast (parmesan-crusted or grilled), steak, shrimp, or meatballs.  Suggestions for the best pairing are given on the menu, but really, you can do whatever you want; if you want meatballs on your pad thai, no one will stop you.  You can customize your dish further as much as you want, removing the normally included vegetables, swapping out the pasta shape (or opting for gluten-free pasta), etc.  If noodles aren't your thing, the menu also includes soups, salads, sandwiches, and flatbreads.

The style is the ever trendy fast-casual: order at a register and get a number to bring back to a table.  Not too long after (about 5 minutes is what they claim), your meal is delivered directly to you by servers, who also swing by along the way and pick up dirty plates.  The format reminded me a lot of Rubio's, which I've reviewed many times, in that it had quasi-table service, food somewhat cooked to order, and is easily customizable.  However, Noodles & Company goes a few steps past Rubio's and provides real silverware, ceramic bowls, and real glasses.  It may be fast-casual, but using real tableware really does change the feel.

Overall, I was fairly surprised, and not just by the real dinnerware.  The food was much higher quality than I expected given the price point and the casual nature, and in particular, the ingredients really did seem fresh, and care was even given to the plating of the dishes.  The staff were all incredibly friendly on my visit, very eager to explain all the options.

I didn't actually like my dish, but I'd like to return to try one of their other selections, perhaps one of the Italian pastas, or the spinach and fruit salad (I know, this sounds crazy, but it has bacon, pecans, blue cheese, and it looked really, really good!)
Inside Seating.
The main dining area has regular tables with chairs and an area with slightly taller communal tables with stools.
Inside-Outside Seating. 
There is also a rather strange hybrid indoor-outdoor area, which is where I ended up sitting.  It is furnished as if outside, with patio tables and umbrellas, except it is completely indoors.  Yes, there are glass walls on 3 sides, so it gets plenty of light, but there is a regular ceiling above.  Certainly a strange design decision, but, it did almost sorta make me feel like I was eating on a patio somewhere, and most of the time, I wouldn't actually want to be on the San Francisco sidewalk anyway.
Cola-Cola Freestyle Soft Drink Machine.
The soft drink machine was particularly notable, a Coca-Cola Freestyle, which I'd heard about, but never encountered before.  I couldn't even tell you how many options it had, all Coca-Cola brand, but not just including soda.  I was thrilled to discover that it had Dasani Sensations (flavored sparkling water).   It uses a touch screen, and you drill down by categories to select your flavor of choice.  Or mix and match as you please.  I ended up trying a few different flavors, and was quite thrilled by my drink experience.

When dining in, you are provided with a real glass.  Not plastic, but actual glass.  I realized that I'm pretty sure I've never used a soda fountain with a real glass, always a standard fast food paper one, or perhaps a plastic one, but never glass.  This was also novel to me.

Next to the soft drink machine is condiments (soy sauce, sriracha), along with napkins (thicker and higher quality than is standard at fast food restaurants), chopsticks (NOT the cheap kind you need to break apart, rather, round wooden ones, still disposable, but far higher quality than I was expecting), and, togo boxes.  I loved the fact that they just had boxes available to pack up your own leftovers.
Pad Thai + Brocoli. $5.99.
"Rice noodle stir-fry with scrambled egg, carrots, cabbage, sweet chili, citrus, peanuts, Asian sprouts and cilantro."

I was incredibly indecisive about what dish to get (I know, imagine that).  Of the Italian options, the Penne Rosa was the top contender, with a creamy tomato sauce plus mushrooms and spinach.  But so was the spicy Indonesian Peanut Sauté from the Asian section.  And strangely, I also wanted the Spinach & Fresh Fruit Salad (come on, it has bacon and blue cheese!).  While I was waiting in line, I asked an employee what her favorite was, and she told me the pad thai, and warned against the Indonesian Peanut Sauté, saying it was really spicy.

So, I took her recommendation, as I do like pad thai, and it had been a long time since I had any.  None of the protein options sounded appealing though, besides meatballs, but um, I knew meatballs didn't go with pad thai.  I wanted to add a little something to my pad thai though, so I asked if I could have broccoli added.  I know broccoli doesn't normally go in pad thai, but they have it for other dishes, and I thought it would soak up the sauce nicely.  It was no problem to customize in this way.

After about 8 minutes, my dish was delivered to my table, piping hot, along with real silverware.  Seriously, seriously hot.  Every time I dug back in, steam would come out.  They clearly do prepare dishes fresh to order and serve them immediately.  Points for that.

Points also for the presentation, served in a modern style bowl.  I wasn't expecting, at this price point, to have a dish plated so well.  My noodles were garnished with crushed peanuts, sprigs of fresh cilantro, crispy bean sprouts, and a lime wedge to squeeze over the dish.  The toppings in particular all seemed higher quality than I expected, the cilantro wasn't limp or wilted, the bean sprouts still crispy.

I dug in further.

Mixed with the rice noodles were julienned carrots, that were actually cooked really well.  They were not mushy, as happens so often with carrots, but they also weren't undercooked.  Just a bit al dente, how I like them.  The noodles were unremarkable, but not mushy, not stuck together.  There was a good amount of scrambled egg too, which I appreciated since I didn't add other protein.  The egg wasn't rubbery or tough.  The broccoli I added did indeed soak up some sauce, as I was hoping.

This all sounds successful, right?  Except ... I really didn't like the sauce.  It was sweet and very one-dimensional.  The amount of sauce was correct, it wasn't overdressed or anything, but, I just really didn't like the flavor, so it ruined the dish for me.

So, I didn't like my pad thai.  But, I really did appreciate how well done it was, and my experience makes me curious to try their other dishes.  The quality was much higher than I was expecting.  Did I mention that this entire giant bowl was only $5.99?
Noodles & Company on Urbanspoon
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