I became convinced of the efficacy of low-carb diets way back in the early 90's sometime. Unfortunately for Dr. Atkins and his carb-eschewing brethren, though, I was a devotee of carbs for too long before that to be able to permanently change my ways.
So when the lovely Lisa O'Neill emailed me to ask whether I'd be interested in doing a complimentary media tasting at Noodles & Company, well, I couldn't resist.
Noodles & Company is a chain that started in Colorado, and that has newly expanded to the Austin market. They opened two locations in rapid succession - one on Anderson Lane and one on the Drag - and have a third, Arboretum location on the way early next month. They serve made-to-order pasta dishes, sandwiches, salads and soups from three different genres: Asian, Mediterranean, and American. I'm typically skeptical of places that offer more than one specific type of cuisine, but the tie that binds here is a proficiency at cooking pasta just right and using that as a springboard for a variety of different sauces and styles.
While I don't typically consider large chain restaurants a part of my "beat" as a food blogger, I ultimately decided to cover it for two reasons: first, because it's new to the scene; and second, because - let's face it - sometimes we need food quickly and on a budget, and I don't know of any local business occupying the pasta-as-fast-food niche. Below is the little tour of the Noodles & Company menu that I received. While you look at these photos, please keep in mind that every single one of the dishes pictured below was served to me and one other person. When Lisa said I was getting a tour, I didn't realize that she actually meant a smorgasbord.
They started us with a couple of salads and an order of their chicken potstickers:
Mediterranean salad - romaine, mixed greens, tomato, cucumbers, red onion, olives, cavatappi pasta, and feta, topped with a spicy yogurt dressing. Loved the dressing - it had a nice little kick to it!
Spinach salad with homemade croutons, pecans, strawberries, blue cheese, red onions, bacon, and a balsamic fig glaze. If you like strawberry spinach salads, this one is an very nice example at this price point ($4.25 for a small; $5.35 for a regular).
Chicken potstickers $2.95 for three; $4.95 for six) - I knew they'd have to do the most convincing with me on the Asian dishes, and I was right. These potstickers were good enough, but they were oddly flat instead of round, and they definitely were not my mom's potstickers.
Then came a couple of sandwiches with soups:
Mmmeatball sandwich, served with chicken noodle soup. I would never in a million years have chosen this from the menu, but I was surprised at how much I liked it. The sandwiches are all served with your choice of any soup or salad, and ring in at $6.99 - very affordable when you consider the portion size.
Mediterranean sandwich (chicken, mushrooms, spinach, red bell peppers, cucumber, red onion, cilantro, feta, and that same spicy dressing from the Mediterranean salad, served on flatbread). Very fresh and bright, and loaded with juicy cucumber. This one came with a side of their Thai curry soup, which had a lovely, comforting sweet note to it. I'm not sure I would have put this combination together, but it wasn't objectionable, either, and I would absolutely order either one (and maybe even both together) on a return visit.
Japanese pan noodles - carmelized udon noodles in a sweet soy sauce, with broccoli, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, bean sprouts, black sesame, and cilantro. This dish had a stick-to-your-ribs quality to it that would be great in cold weather. I'd love to try it with beef (ours came with tofu, which had a nice, sautéed finish).
Pad thai with shrimp. This is a dish that I almost can never bring myself to order in restaurants, because I so prefer my own interpretation, which is heavy on spice (read: garlic) and probably nothing like what pad thai is really supposed to taste like. Restaurant pad thai is invariably way too sweet for me. This version was no exception, although I'd say it held its own in the restaurant pad thai universe.
This was right about the time that Jason, our host, told us we were half done.
I went and picked up a large stack of to-go boxes.
Pasta Fresca - penne with balsamic, olive oil, white wine and roasted garlic, tossed with tomato, spinach, red onion, and feta. I think this was my least favorite of all the dishes we ate that day - the balsamic was a little overpowering, and made the dish taste like it was a salad as opposed to an entrée.
Penne Rosa - penne in a spicy tomato cream sauce with mushrooms, tomato, spinach, wine, and parmesan.
Wisconsin mac 'n' cheese. Doesn't really require any explanation, does it? This one was served with a really lovely parmesan-crusted chicken breast.
One of their seasonal specials, the chili mac. Mac 'n' cheese smothered in chili.
Aaaaand my hands-down favorite of the day, their truffle mac. Mac 'n' cheese topped with baby portabellas, white truffle oil (purrrrrrr!) and parmesan. YES. I loved this so much that I ordered some huge bowls of it with the cavatappi pasta (the curly pasta from the first salad) and served it to my Wine Club. Two of my friends who are excellent chefs took doggie bags home with them...a strong endorsement, indeed.
Jason topped us off with the largest wedge of rice crispie treat I have ever seen in my life, and two huge cookies, both of which were delicious when I ate them much, much, much later. The rice crispie treat was soft and delightful - they make these twice a day to ensure that you get them while they're still gooey.
We had a week's worth of lunches to spare.
Stuff you should know:
• Everything is prepared to order. Substitutions are totally okay. You want stroganoff, only with udon noodles? No problem (but just know that you're weird).
• LOTS of vegetarian-friendly options. All the dishes, with one exception (the pad thai, which has fish sauce in the sauce) are prepared vegetarian. You choose your own protein (or no protein).
• Unfortunately, the only dish that is gluten-free is the pad thai. You can substitute GF rice noodles in any dish, but most of the sauces have at least some gluten in them.
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If you made it this far, you deserve to WIN SOMETHING. Noodles & Company very generously gave me some coupons for free entrées so you can come in and try their offerings for yourselves. Four lucky winners will each get a pair of coupons so they can treat a friend to a meal, too! Or use them both yourself - I won't tell. Coupons expire on December 31, 2011, so you'll need to use them before the end of the year.
To enter, please leave a comment below telling me which of Noodles & Co's entrées you'd most like to try. So many pastabilities to choose from! (groan). Please be sure I have some way of contacting you if you win.
For a second entry, "Like" this blog's Facebook page and leave a comment here letting me know you've done so (if you've already "Liked" it, you can just let me know that in your first comment).
Entries close at 5:00 p.m. CST on Sunday, December 4th. I'll choose a winner using random.org sometime that night. Even if you don't live in Austin, feel free to enter if there is a Noodles & Company in your city! The coupons do not restrict use to Austin.