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NOODLING AROUND

Ever since Yankee Doodle stuck that feather somewhere and called it macaroni, this country has been in love with the noodle. What's not to love? It goes with everything--dripping with butter, buried in cheese, smothered in any kind of sauce--and it's cheap, filling and fast-cooking.

Still, it wasn't until last year that two local restaurants really started using the old noodle.

Billy Lam opened his Chef's Noodle House in Aurora five months ago. This tiny fast-food eatery is a far cry from Lam's previous effort, the now-defunct China Cowboy, which offered innovative East-meets-West dishes--some weird, some wonderful--in a spot by the State Capitol that might have done better business as a parking lot. Alas, location may be a problem again for Lam, unless someone decides real quick what to do with the former Lowry Air Force Base. Until then, Noodle House sits sadly at the edge of a residential section, with little commercial company beyond the 7-Eleven next door. At least the convenience store has an ATM machine--which may come in handy, since Noodle House takes no checks or plastic.

Not that you need much cash to get a good, square meal at the Noodle House. The menu here is as spare as it is economical: choice of meat with rice noodles, choice of meat with soft noodles, choice of meat with steamed or fried rice, and five chef's specialties--prepared by one of the state's best Asian chefs. Even these, however, are relatively austere: meat in a special sauce, served with soft noodles or rice and a few spears of steamed broccoli.

But what sounds so simple actually tastes anything but. For his sesame pork loin with lemon sauce ($4.85), Lam encased strips of pork in a tempura-light batter and deep-fried them, then laced the meat with a mild sweet lemon sauce and sprinkled it with black and white sesame seeds. A nest of soft wheat-flour noodles (studded with scallions and a few strips of julienne carrot) and broccoli completed the plate. The portion was generous, and the dish was certainly deserving of its designation as a specialty. A second specialty, the Vietnamese curried chicken ($4.85), stir-fried chicken strips in a curry-style sauce nicely heavy with garlic and paprika. Lam's flavor savvy was further displayed in a soup-bowl special ($3.95) whose complex sweet-and-sour broth was teeming with shrimp and pork-filled dumplings, as well as angel-hair pasta "because it keeps better in soup," he says.

On our second visit we eschewed the specials in favor of the basic noodle offerings and a few appetizers. Regular-size orders (we saw someone go by with an enormous "large" order and hoped he had an appetite to match) of grilled beef with rice noodles ($3.95) and grilled chicken with soft noodles ($3.95) brought plenty of tender chunks of meat and hot, steamy noodles. Both noodle dishes had been doused with Lam's "Chef's Special House Sauce," a vinegary concoction that went well with the sweet marinade used on both the grilled beef and chicken. But the non-noodle starters, which we ate as side dishes, were the real stars. The Vietnamese egg rolls (two for $2.25) had been stuffed with carrots, scallions and finely chopped seasoned chicken, then deep-fried; the sweet-and-sour nuoc cham was the ideal dipping sauce for these superb rice-paper packages. The Malaysian peanut chicken ($2.25) was another winner: long strips of chicken coated with a thick, spicy, peanutty curry sauce, then sprinkled with chopped peanuts. Even better were the broiled baby-back ribs (four for $2.95), with plenty of sticky, chewy meat that had soaked up a sweet-and-spicy barbecue sauce. Be sure you order enough ribs for each diner: Fighting over one of these bones could result in a mob scene.

I just hope the folks who live in the neighborhood of the Noodle House know how lucky they are. Lam's new restaurant is a Yankee Doodle dandy.

A few miles away, another noodle joint is a dud. When Aaron Kennedy and Ross Camen opened their Noodles & Company in Cherry Creek last October (in the spot long occupied by the venerable Hummel's), they must have thought they had an idea whose time had come. Too bad it had to come like this.

Granted, there's nothing wrong with the basic concept: noodles, and nothing but noodles, except for a selection of sauces. These are supposed to be representative of noodle-using countries around the globe--Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Italy, Russia and the United States--but after trying these lame takes on traditional favorites, no one's going to want to spring for plane fare.

The concept may be fine, but the execution isn't. After placing our order, we watched as a basket of noodles was dropped into a murky water bath where, supposedly, the noodles were reheated before being ladled with our sauces of choice. The sauces themselves came from a steam table filled with metal pans, a setup that looked as appetizing as a Pizza Hut salad bar. Equally unsavory was the realization that, in order to withstand a few hours of lounging about, these sauces couldn't have been created from the fragile, quality ingredients that make the original versions so appealing.

Sampling the dishes bore out this observation. Two domestic offerings clearly suffered from cheap parts--not to mention tepid temperatures. For instance, an enormous bowl of Wisconsin macaroni and cheese ($3.50) ostensibly contained three cheeses, but the one that commanded the most attention was a Cheez Whiz-y slick on the bottom that left a coating on our tongues--a sort of dairy motor oil that we had a hard time changing. At least the lowest layer was hot. In the middle was a grated cheddar that might have worked if the macaroni had been warm enough to melt it; as it was, the cheese seemed like day-old pizza toppings, all hard and cold and chewy. And the smattering of grated parmesan on top of the bowl disappeared, both visually and flavor-wise, as soon as we dug a spoon into the mix. The chicken noodle soup ($3.50) was a sadder story, since it had such a promising beginning: a hearty, comforting, flu-soothing stock, potent with chicken and celery tones. To this, however, had been added a mass of just-cooked egg noodles and little else: I counted four strips of carrot, seven kernels of corn and three chunks of chicken in about a quart of broth. And soup noodles shouldn't be al dente, either.

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