My kids have a portable plastic keyboard that lets them plunk out the notes to a song, which the machine automatically accompanies with a rhythmic backbeat of the kids' choosing. That's not to say that the music emanating from the battery-operated instrument is on a par with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on a vintage Steinway. But when my petite Paderewskis tire of "Twinkle, Twinkle" with a Latin beat, they can switch over to a jazz tempo. Or hip-hop. Or swing. They never seem to tire of it. And the music can be surprisingly good.
It's kind of the same deal with Noodles & Company, the Colorado-based nameplate that recently filled the Green Hills vacancy left by Baja Fresh. That's not to say the fast-casual eatery is churning out the most artistic, authentic or locally sourced cuisine. (Don't expect to see gastronomic globetrotter Tony Bourdain slurping pho under the drum lampshades in the strip-mall dining room.) But the base melody of noodles — played to the culinary rhythms of Italy, Asia and the good ole U.S. of A. — will wet the whistle of anyone trying to please a panel of different appetites.
If dinnertime democracy leaves your family and friends lobbying against each other for Japanese over Italian or Thai over mac-and-cheese, look no farther than the chain's tricameral menu, which succinctly silos some of the world's most popular noodle dishes — along with a few soups, salads and sandwiches — into three geographic categories.
In the American column, there's Wisconsin mac-and-cheese with elbow macaroni; buttered noodles; and chicken soup. With floppy egg noodles floating in a transparent golden broth over colorful detritus of chopped carrots and celery and cracked black pepper, this soothing elixir wins an immediate spot on the list of go-to takeout foods to buy for sick friends.
Peculiarly enough, spaghetti with meatballs falls under the American heading, along with Russian-inspired stroganoff and a Caesar salad. Then again, we do pride ourselves on being a melting pot. The limited dessert list of cookies and Rice Krispie treats also hearkens from the bake-sale culture of America.
Moving east to the Mediterranean roster, there's whole-wheat linguine in a white wine cream sauce and cavatappi (tubular spirals) in creamy basil pesto with mushrooms, tomatoes, parsley and shredded parmesan. So-called penne rosa marries ridged pasta tubes with mushrooms, tomatoes and spinach in spicy tomato cream sauce. In a similar but lighter vein, penne fresca trades cream for balsamic vinegar and olive oil tossed with roasted garlic, onion, tomato, spinach and shredded parmesan.
During our visits, the room buzzed with lively conversation, the ordering line pushed its way out the door, and the efficient staff constantly circled the room, delivering trays of sleek white bowls brimming with fresh ingredients. As a result, we had the opportunity to look at a lot of different plates as they traveled to their tables. To our appetites, dishes from the Asian repertoire were consistently the most appealing, stir-fried with colorful medleys of thick-cut carrots and crisp broccoli florets, and garnished with generous bunches of bean sprouts and cilantro and fresh lime wedges. While we might have expected a heavy hand with intense soy flavor or overly thick-and-sweet sauces in the noodle stir-fries, the dishes actually leaned toward fresh vegetable ingredients. Furthermore, when we invariably cleaned our saucers of pad Thai, Bangkok curry with coconut milk, and pan-fried Japanese udon, the white bowls were virtually bare on the bottom, proving a practically perfect ratio of noodles to sauce.
In each regional culinary column, there is a salad, including the Med (romaine, mixed greens, tomato, cucumber, onion, olives, curly pasta, spicy yogurt dressing and feta) and the Caesar. Chinese chop salad echoed the bountiful freshness of the Asian noodle dishes, tossed with mixed greens, sprouts, cabbage, red peppers, carrots, wonton strips and black sesame seeds in a light ginger-soy dressing.
All dishes are available with tofu or meat (including shrimp, sliced grilled chicken and beef) for an additional $2.25. The upcharge for protein brings the price of a small bowl to $6.50 and a large bowl to $7.50. There aren't many restaurant meals in Green Hills for that price — outside of a drive-through. But consider this: When we forgot to order meat on the Indonesian peanut sauté, we worked our way through the boldly spiced tangle of noodles with broccoli, cabbage, sprouts, cilantro, peanuts and lime without ever thinking that something was missing. When we did finally figure out our omission, it was only because the pre-tax bill for an excellent meatless lunch was less than $5. That kind of value proposition for fresh, flavorful cuisine — of any ethnic variety — doesn't come around often. When it does, it is music to our ears.
Noodles & Company serves lunch and dinner daily.