If I had to describe Noodles & Company in three words, they would be "Panera with noodles." In fact, the Noodles & Company at the Village at Orange—the first and, so far, only OC location of this Denver-based chain—is actually connected to a Panera. If only the Chipotle across the parking lot were in the same building, the triumvirate would form the fast-casual incarnation of the mythical three-headed beast, Cerberus.
Yet the reason I equate Noodles & Company with Panera isn't because it shares much in common with the soup-and-sandwich giant, but because it has that familiar fast-casual corporate polish that suggests every detail—from the light fixtures to the Coca-Cola Freestyle machines—was strategized by a CEO (who is, by the way, an ex-Chipotle exec).
And if you actually read through Noodles & Company's annual report, as I did, you'd find out other interesting tidbits about the firm. For instance, it's proud there aren't any visible trash cans in the dining room. Also, it refers to its cashiers as "noodle ambassadors," which "is intended to highlight their role in helping [its] customers explore [its] global menu," the report says.
In practice, I think what it really means is they're programmed to ask if you'd like to upgrade that noodle bowl with a protein or add a soup or salad for an additional fee. And to that end, these "ambassadors" are worthy of the State Department—okay, at least the Department of Commerce. I've not had a visit in which I didn't end up ordering more than I originally intended.
Along with being upsellers, the young, affable staff are also servers. They deliver the food on real china, check on you midmeal and offer drink refills. After you finish, they even ask if you'd like to order dessert. I declined the offer, but I could've selected something without getting up from my seat. And because there aren't any trash cans in the dining room, the staff take away your empty plates and bus tables. As some full-service restaurants now mull over the abolishment of tipping, I realized Noodles & Company's employees offer more service than what's expected of them, without the expectation of any sort of gratuity.
This is, after all, still a fast-casual restaurant at which you order and pay up-front. To help you, a menu board gleams with professionally groomed and photographed bowls of every dish, each posted with its calorie count underneath. On the counter, there's a jar of cookies and a wicker basket of Rice Krispies treats I've not yet seen anyone buy. Are they there just to give the impression that the place isn't an impersonal and sterile corporate outfit? Maybe. But for sure, the containers of vegetables stored behind the see-through refrigerators are meant to show that the kitchen staff does, in fact, make things from scratch.
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That said, the food can be uneven. The pad Thai lacked the color and just about every flavor one would expect of the token takeout dish. I watched with curious amusement as a tablemate poured a few spoonfuls of his tomato basil bisque over the noodles to help it along. And it worked—sort of. A Thai curry noodle soup I upgraded with shreds of pork resembling carnitas needed no further embellishment. It was actually punchy and complex. Never mind that it seemed as though it were cooked by someone who jotted down the recipe from Rachael Ray, lost the notes, then decided to wing it.
No one at my table had any complaints about the mac and cheese except to say it tasted like Kraft's, which should always be taken as a compliment. The steak Stroganoff, on the other hand, was a disaster. The sherry cream sauce had broken, leaving the wavy egg noodles sitting in puddles of grease. And then there was the steak, whose strange and spongy texture made one tablemate quip, "Did the menu board have quotation marks around the word steak?"
Despite an oversalted marinara sauce and meatballs that reminded me of the ones at IKEA, the spaghetti accompanying them was cooked perfectly. Potstickers, here smashed as flat as raviolis, were served with a good, ponzu-like dipping sauce adulterated with what I guess is sambal. And when I tried the Indonesian peanut sauté noodles, it tasted like no food any of my relatives would recognize as Indonesian. But it was tangy, saucy and so spicy it left my outer lips throbbing for an hour. To me, the dish was the equivalent of watching a Miyazaki movie dubbed into English. Yes, it's stilted and out-of-sync, and I knew something must've gotten lost in the translation, but I got the gist and liked it anyway.
Noodles & Company, 2214 N. Tustin St., Orange, (714) 685-1700; www.noodles.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $20-$30, food only. Beer and wine.