Noodles & Co. is the brainchild of one Aaron Kennedy, who came up with the idea in 1993 after realizing that noodles are a staple food in cuisines all over the world. The first Noodles & Co. opened in Boulder, Colorado in 1995, and there are now Noodles & Co. (hereafter "Noodles") restaurants in 11 of the continental United States.
The Noodles web site describes the atmosphere as "quick casual." Customers walk in the door, stand in line and/or ponder the menu for anywhere from zero to twenty minutes, place an order and pay at the register, and then either take a number and a seat or wait in the lobby; either way, Noodles employees bring their food out to them in two to ten minutes, depending on how busy it is. Usually we shoot for under six minutes.
Oops, did I say "we?"
Right, I guess it's out now. I've been working at Noodles -- doing food service for $7/hr, bachelor's degree notwithstanding -- for almost a month now. That's why I'm uniquely qualified to write the place up!
I've told you the basic facts. The juicy stuff follows.
So what's it like, huh?
Pleasant, pleasant, pleasant. I have had such an overall positive experience so far at Noodles that I feel perfectly comfortable giving it a fairly glowing recommendation. It's clean, the service is (if I may say so myself) quick and friendly, and if you don't like a dish, we'll replace it, no questions asked. It says so in the restaurant; no fair, it adds, waiting until you've licked the plate clean.
Okay, so maybe the company's attempts at humor leave something to be desired. But at least they try. Noodles is a fun place to work, and it tries to be a fun place to eat; in my mind it succeeds far more often than comparable places like Chipotle do. The decor is trendy but not obnoxiously so. More importantly, though, I find that the work environment makes me far more inclined to be cheerful and helpful toward the customers; this should be common sense, but Noodles does it exceptionally well and everyone is better off for it.
The prices are resonable. They're not low, but this ain't McDonald's. To discourage people from thinking that the prices are higher than they are, tipping is, basically, forbidden. As an employee I'm lukewarm on this, but I can see where they're coming from, and they pay enough that tips aren't necessary for survival.
Prices1 on dishes (at my location in St. Paul, anyway) range from around $2.50 to $5.95 for noodle dishes and salads, going as high as $7.75 for the "noodle-less" low-carb dishes introduced recently to satisfy the Atkins crowd. The dishes range from the ridiculously simple, such as the I-can't-believe-they-charge-for-this Buttered Noodles & Parmesan" (one of the most popular dishes), to the complex Japanese Pan Noodles&tm; and Pasta Fresca.
Further, it's possible to customize the dishes nearly endlessly: in addition to adding grilled chicken, grilled steak, tofu or shrimp to any dish, there are an endless variety of ingredient additions, removals and substitutions available. Any available vegetable2, cheese3 or garnish can be added to or removed from any dish. This sometimes leads to the character of a dish being changed entirely (i.e. the addition of lots of veggies and meat to Mac & Cheese) or possibly questionable culinary decisions (feta cheese on Pad Thai?) but it helps people get what they want from the fairly limited menu and lets the frequent customers fine-tune their favorites. Unless there's some ingredient that you hate or are allergic to, I recommend trying dishes as they come before changing them. The recipes are presumably the way they are for a reason; once I tried adding broccoli, which I love, to my favorite dish. It just didn't work very well. I think the Noodles people know what they're doing.
How's the food, then?
Depends on what you get.
I've tried many (but not all) of the dishes at Noodles & Co., and most of them are pretty good. There are one or two, however, that I find myself coming back to again and again, which is why I haven't tried all of them yet. Comments and ratings (using HTML hearts because I love special characters) of each dish follow; I'll add more information as I try more dishes.
- Japanese Pan Noodles - I tried to like the Japanese Pan Noodles. I had them once, and when I didn't like them that much, I assumed it was a fluke and tried them again a few days later. I still didn't like them that much, and it's not that I'm not a fan of Asian cuisine. It's just that the noodles were too thick and chewy, the sauce a little too sweet. The carrots didn't seem to go well with the noodles, and neither did the sprouts. Maybe some cabbage instead? In any case, it's decent but I was disappointed. ♥♥½
Redux! I tried the Pan Noodles again and really liked them, enough to have them again the next day. The noodles seemed better, the sauce seemed better, and I swapped out the carrots for extra broccoli. Maybe the first time I just wasn't in the mood for them, maybe the noodles actually weren't done quite right. Either way, my revised rating is ♥♥♥♥ but be advised that a secret shopper echoed my first rating. So this dish may be a bit hit and miss.
- Pasta Fresca - It took me a while to get around to trying this, thanks to my love for the Penne Rosa and the fact that the Pasta Fresca, in the words of one of my co-workers, "smells like feet." That's a little harsh, but the vinegar and wine certainly give it an edgy aroma. The taste, paradoxically, is one of the subtlest of any of the Noodles dishes; it's present but not strong, and brings out the flavor of the pasta itself in an interesting way. Not one of my favorites, and a bit oily, but definitely a quality dish. ♥♥♥½
- Bangkok Curry - Not fantastic but certainly good. The vegetables go together well and the curry sauce, while possibly a bit sweet for some people's tastes, is appropriate too. Rice noodles and cabbage help round it out nicely. For all that, it's still not all that remarkable; it's just a straightforward vegetable curry dish done fairly well. ♥♥♥½
- Indonesian Peanut Sauté - I tried this a while ago and I can't remember a thing about it. It very strongly resembles the Pad Thai in appearance, but I think it was better. It's the spiciest thing on the menu, and it does come with broccoli. But the fact that I can't remember anything else about it means it can't have been that remarkable. I'll have to try it again. ♥♥♥
- Thai Curry Soup - I have to admit right off the bat that I am a huge soup fan; my writeup under the node of that name will make that readily apparent. Whether or not that has anything to do with the fact that I think this is one of Noodles' best dishes is debatable. In any case, the broth is delicious, there's enough "stuff" in it to make it a good meal, and it's cheaper than many of the, um, brothless noodle dishes. ♥♥♥♥½
- Penne Rosa - Best thing on the menu, bar none, and several of my co-workers agree. The cream sauce probably makes it the unhealthiest, but those two things do seem to go hand in hand, don't they? Spicy but not too spicy, and the sauce is exquisite. Also, surprisingly good with tofu. Of all things! Try it with a roll so you can mop up the rest of the sauce after you're done stuffing your face. ♥♥♥♥♥
- Pesto Cavatappi - Pesto done well. My mother's cooking is the standard by which all cooking should be judged, and it's not as good as hers, nor even as good as the pesto my friends and I managed to make one night with decent ingredients and a good recipe. Nevertheless, it won't disappoint, and apparently it hasn't; it's one of the most popular dishes. The addition of mushrooms and tomatoes certainly doesn't hurt either. ♥♥♥½
- Pad Thai - Having had Pad Thai at a few different actual Thai restaurants, I found Noodles' version somewhat disappointing. It wasn't quite bad, but it was too dry and the flavor was nothing to write home about. All in all, you'd be better off trying some other dishes at Noodles and having Pad Thai at a real Thai restaurant. ♥♥
- Mushroom Stroganoff - An old standby done very well. Not sour like some renditions of mushroom stroganoff that I've had, but extremely creamy and flavorful. If you prefer the sour taste which I assume comes from the sherry, you may not find this terribly authentic, but it is still very good. Be advised that it does not come with any kind of meat, and that it's very rich -- perhaps a bit too so. In any case, though, one of the best stroganoffs I've ever tasted. ♥♥♥♥
- Chicken Noodle Soup - Huge fan of soup that I am, I still haven't managed to bring myself to try this. Like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I'm just tired of it. For those who need some information about it, though, I can tell you that it's very popular, and it's certainly no Campbell's. And I mean that in a good way. There's a lot of broth. I'd recommend having some bread with it. N/A
- Tomato Marinara - Not bad, but wholly unremarkable. The marinara sauce is no better than decent sauce from a jar at a supermarket, and pound for pound that will certainly be a better deal and not much more effort. And there are far more interesting and tasty things to be had here. Noodles doesn't do anything new or interesting with this, which is probably a good idea for the kids, but you, esteemed reader, should try something else. ♥♥½
- Buttered Noodles and Parmesan - After my comments on the previous two items, it should probably not come as a surprise that I haven't gotten around to trying this yet. It's one of Noodles' most popular dishes, which can be attributed either to a lack of culinary adventurousness in the general populace, or the fact that the price is lower than most anything else on the menu. In any case, if you want to try this, you probably don't need my review. N/A
- Wisconsin Mac & Cheese - After my comments on the previous three items, it may come as some surprise that I am enthusiastic about Noodles' Mac & Cheese. This is unlike, and better than, anything (anything I've tried, anyway) that you can get from a box, including the very good Annie's Mac & Cheese. It's creamy, not too salty, the cheddar on top gets all melty and delicious, and just oooh. Even if you don't normally like macaroni and cheese, you owe it to yourself to try this. Homemade casserole-style mac & cheese may be better, but no other kind is. ♥♥♥♥♥
I can't make any recommendations about the "Noodle-less" dishes, because I don't ever intend to try them. Having seen them prepared several times, I can say that they're basically meat-centric. I'm no vegetarian, but meat-centric dishes just don't interest me much; nevertheless, I'll provide descriptions and opinions here. I think it's safe to say that you should try the noodle dishes with meat added first; if you like the meat, then try the noodle-less dishes and you probably won't be disappointed. Otherwise, stick to the noodles. Coming to Noodles & Co. for meat dishes is like going to a coffee shop for a sandwich.
- Mediterranean Mixed Grill - This dish really seems like one of the stupidest ones Noodles offers; it's basically a chicken breast and a piece of steak over a rudimentary spinach salad, with mediterranean-style dressing on the side. I'd say you're better off getting a Med Salad with a side of steak and a side of chicken, but that's just me.
- Sweet Chili Chicken - Perhaps the second stupidest Noodles dish. One or two chicken breasts, with sautéed veggies almost identical to those you get with the Bangkok Curry and chili sauce on the side. If you like Noodles' chicken, go crazy. Otherwise, try putting the Veggie Trio4 on one of the noodle dishes; it's roughly equivalent to the sautéed veggies you get here.
- Chicken Rustica - The most interesting of the noodle-less dishes, if only because the sauce that comes with it isn't in any of the other dishes. If I were to try a noodle-less dish it would be this one; the sauce is tomato-based, sort of Mediterranean in style (I probably just say that because of the kalamata olives), and looks pretty good.
- Shrimp Curry Sauté - Bangkok Curry, sans noodles, with shrimp. Great if you're doing the Atkins thing, pointless otherwise; just spend the extra buck or so to add shrimp to the Bangkok Curry. The noodles really do make it that much better.
Reviewing the salads seems a bit weird for some reason. Nevertheless I'm going to review the few that I have tried and provide some sight- and preparation-based information about the others. I'm not normally a salad person, but a couple of the ones at Noodles & Co. have really grabbed me. And they really do go quite well with noodles.
- Chinese Chop Salad - The best of the salads, in my opinion. Everything works well together and I love the sesame soy dressing. My only complaint is that, at the end, I tend to get stuck with a lot of little bits and pieces, but I suspect this is a problem either with my eating technique or with salads in general. In any case, this is a great salad, great with tofu and probably with chicken too. ♥♥♥♥
- Caesar Salad - I haven't tried this, and I don't know if there's any difference whatsoever between it and any other Caesar salad on the face of the planet. I suspect that there is not. N/A
- Spicy Thai Caesar Salad - Here's the big secret about this salad: It's a Caesar salad with sriracha sauce in it. And a different garnish. That's all. I have tried one, but I made it myself, and I have reason to believe that I screwed it up. Nonetheless, it was pretty good, and certainly an interesting salad idea even if the execution is absurdly simple. Nothing spectacular, though. ♥♥♥
- The Med Salad - I haven't tried this, mostly because the dressing (the same as with the Mediterranean Mixed Grill) seems like something I wouldn't enjoy. Nevertheless, it looks like a good, unique salad, what with the feta, olives and cavatappi pasta, even though it's not particularly popular. N/A
- Spicy Peanut Noodle Salad - For some reason, I like the idea of salads with noodles in them. This one has rice noodles, and also a great peanut dressing. I can't complain about the taste, although it might be a little too sweet for some; the main problem is that the rice noodles tend to form a blob and resist being grabbed along with the leaves and veggies. I'm not sure if there's any way to overcome this, but it does make this salad a bit of a chore to eat. ♥♥♥½
- Market Salad - I think they would call this a "Garden Salad" at any other restaurant. Just a pile of generic veggies with one of a few dressings on the side. I haven't tried it, but I can't imagine there's much to say about it. N/A
1 If you want to save money, the best thing you can do is either drink water or bring your own beverage. Fountain drinks are way overpriced, just like they are in all restaurants, and they're pure profit. Oh, also, although the Potstickers are good, don't get them. They're overpriced.
2 Red pepper, tomato, snap pea, broccoli, carrot, kalamata olive, spinach, sautéed mushroom, cucumber, sprouts
3 Parmesan, cheddar-jack or feta
4 Snap pea, red pepper and broccoli.
Sources: Working at N & C for about a month; the N & C official Web site,