I was introduced to Noodles & Company when F was a consultant working in Madison, WI and would eat there often. The concept is made to order pasta dishes served in a setting that is almost like a cafe: you order at the counter, customizing with extra proteins, veggies, or cheese if you wish, and they hand you a glass to get your own beverage and a table number. They bring the dish to your table but there is no other table service. Recently, they have been adding seasonal specials such as “Grown-Up Mac and Cheeses” (I believe one of them, the cheeseburger mac and cheese, is still there) , salads, and sandwiches as well.
I am on the mailing list for Noodles & Company (which they call Noodlegrams), which means they keep me updated on their seasonal dishes and specials. And, for my birthday every year I am sent an email for a free noodle dish. During that visit to the Pearl District location at 10th Ave & Couch, I dropped my business card into their bowl, and got a call that I had won a “tasting meal with friends”- yay I’m a winner!
This is what we had during that dinner. We started out with their Ciabatta rolls, which were still wonderfuly warm from the oven. They brought out three of their salads, and then two pasta dishes each from the three categories of American, Mediterranean, and Asian (each category has six offerings of types of dishes). This was followed by three desserts. We shared everything family style. Each of the salads and pastas pictured here are the size of their regular serving if you order from the menu and altogether were more than enough to leave 8 people super stuffed at the end of the meal.
Everyone was pleasantly surprised by the The Med Salad with romaine, mixed greens, tomato, cucumbers, red onion, olives, cavatappi pasta, spicy yogurt dressing and feta… that spicy yogurt dressing definitely has a kick. The Med Salad is a regular offering on their menu, but they are also featuring two new summer salads, both of which we got to try. All were great salads. Whenever I visit I get noodles, but now I realize that salad is quite a viable option here that rivals other salads you can get in sit-down restaurants all around. At only 310 calories for this Med Salad (or 150 for the smaller version) this is definitely something I will keep in mind.
One of the new Summer Salads they have is the Very Berry Spinach Salad with strawberries, pecans, house made croutons, crumbled bacon and blue cheese atop spinach and a drizzle of balsalmic fig. The blue cheese may look scary to some but just is a way to add a bit of creamy salt- it’s not too pungent. The other summer salad is the Backyard Barbecue Chicken Salad with pulled chicken breast with fresh cut corn, roma tomatoes, and red cabbed over mixed greens with a smoky coleslaw dressing. The bbq salad was a surprising hit to me too- I’m ok with salads but not usually a craver of them, but I could crave this.
The American Tasting included “Wisconsin Mac & Cheese”, a blend of cheddar and jack cheeses, cream, over elbow macaroni – supposedly their number one seller, recommended with meatballs, very cheesy and creamy. They provided the meatballs, and all the meat for the entire dinner, all on the side because we had a vegetarian as part of our group, but usually it is on the dish if you order it there. This mac & cheese was my favorite of the two. Also, we got to try the Mushroom Stroganoff, composed of mushroom sherry cream sauce, fresh herbs, cracked pepper, sautéed mushrooms, egg noodles and parmesan. This serving also has tofu in it. I liked the addition of the seared tofu, and this was more of a cream then mushroomy sauce. Both of these creamy dishes IMHO are better in the smaller entree size because they are so rich so sharing them at the table this way worked out great.
The Mediterranean Tasting included somewhat similar dishes, both pennes with chicken on the side. There was a Penne Rosa with a tomato cream sauce (it is described as spicy but isn’t) with penne pasta, mushrooms, tomato, spinach and wine, and feta or parmesan (our dish has feta- it too is a very light tasting version of the cheese compared to what you may normally think of for feta). Also, there was a Pasta Fresca Penne with balsamic, olive oil, white wine and roasted garlic, red onion, tomato and spinach, parmesan or feta (this is with parmesan). Both chickens were good, but the parmesan-crusted chicken is much tastier at the cost of 60 more calories and 5.5 g of fat. I’ve never ordered chicken as a protein here, and didn’t know they had a parmesan-crusted one until it was on the table.
The Asian Tasting included Japanese Pan Noodles and Bangkok Curry Noodles. The Japanese Pan Noodles are caramelized udon noodles in a sweet soy sauce topped with broccoli, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, crunchy bean sprouts, black sesame and cilantro, but had a bit of a spicy undertone to it. The Bangkok Curry are rice noodles with sweet coconut curry, broccoli, carrots, red pepper, onion, mushrooms served on cabbage with black sesame and was overall sweet tasting- you really need to mix up all the ingredients together by stirring before eating, especially to distribute the bean sprouts which offer texture but not any flavor.
Desserts- Chocolate chunk cookie, their version of a Snickerdoodle which they call a Snoodledoodle (heh… but it has toffee in it and is better then a normal Snickerdoodle so hey), and freshly made Rice Krispy treats- still gooey soft when brought to the table!
The favorites that F and I have when we visit were not present in that dinner. Usually he gets the Indonesian Peanut Saute with spicy peanut sauce and rice noodle stir-fry, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, Asian sprouts, cilantro, crushed peanuts and lime and tofu. I usually shy from Asian dishes at non-Asian family restaurants (sorry!) and wouldn’t recommend those to other Asians unless you don’t care that it is an “Americanized” version of an Asian noodle dish. Instead, I almost always get the Pesto Cavatappi with curly pasta, basil pesto, garlic, mushrooms, tomato, wine, cream, parmesan and Italian parsley. I have tried a few other offerings of pasta, but not this many ever before. Overall, it was interesting to try new things in such a risk-free way. Since they have the small entree size, you could even mix and match a few different types for your dinner to have a similar experience.
Each location of Noodles & Company sources its ingredients locally, and everything is prepared to order and is fresh. It is geared to be very affordable and fast without being cheap fast food or sacrificing too much quality though obviously it’s not a tablecloth restaurant. I see it as a noodle equivalent to the burritos and tacos of Chipotle or soup and sandwiches of Panera (or locally here, the rice bowl concept of Cafe Yumm). They are also health-conscious even as they aim to be convenient and fast, such as having a mapping of the various ways you can create a 400 calorie meal from their options. I’ve visited Noodles in WI, IL, and VA and OR, and at each place the staff were friendly and cheerful and the decor simple, bright (but not flourescent) and clean. Even though they are a chain, reading their blog still gives off a community conscious small business feel too. I think there definitely is a place in the market between dining and being waited upon and then cheap convenient fast food, and I’d like to see these types of concepts become a much more popular alternative.
Thanks to the manager (Jeffrey) and the “waiter” (sorry… forgot but another “J” name) for taking care of us.