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The nouvelle noodle bar is a fad that's been building for years among the trend-humping foodies — a business model built on the restaurant industry's love of all things Asian, on the passionate lust for getting ten or twenty dollars for two bucks' worth of noodles, on the same cook's fantasies of simplicity and purity and speed that make sushi bars such a perennial favorite and gourmet hamburger stands a parallel craze. In Manhattan, David Chang has elevated the noodle bar to celebrity status (and turned himself into a minor rock star in the process) with his Momofuku brand. In Denver, we have one of the originals — Oshima Ramen, straight outta Japan — and Frank Bonanno's Bones. And in Boulder, there's Dave Query's Happy Noodle House, which is where I began to wonder whether this fad (like California cuisine before it, like small-plates restaurants or World Food) was finally beginning to rub up against its point of diminishing returns.
The noodle bar, by its very nature, is a casual, come-as-you-are joint. Like the neighborhood bar, pub, osteria or izakaya, it's affable and welcoming (most of the time), cheap (most of the time), convenient, full of friends and fellow travelers, easy to like. And every neighborhood needs one, because splashy openings and popular elevation aside, it's ridiculous to go too far out of your way for a bowl of noodles, a plate of dumplings and a cold Kirin, no matter how fun the noodle bar.
And Happy Noodle is fun by design. Fun by lots and lots of design. Fun by ever-changing, ever-reorganizing design that's either admirable (attempting to remain constantly fresh and new and accommodating for its guests) or craven (trying to be all things to all people all the time) — and I'm not yet sure which. When it opened in February, Happy Noodle had handmade ice cream for dessert; now it's brought in from outside. Happy Noodle was originally community-seating only — long tables and benches, forcing anti-social misanthropes like me to mingle with kids and families and regulars — but now it has a mix of community tables and individual four-tops, which I like better if only because I prefer to stand a half-step back from the milling foodistas as I watch them go all to pieces over the plates of house-made pickled everything and fried Brussels sprout leaves. If only because, while eavesdropping on the young girl lecturing her patiently boiling waiter about how using disposable chopsticks is killing all the trees and how she would prefer plastic chopsticks, please (how is that better?), or plain metal silverware if any is available at all, I was happy to be a full table away so that she couldn't hear me laughing at her.
835 Walnut St.
Boulder, CO 80302
For more photos of Happy Noodle House, go to westword.com/slideshow.
Happy Noodle occupies an undeniably lovely space. It's mature and sparse and almost stark — and a surprising departure from Query's other, flashier Big Red F restaurants. The stonework on the outside, the bright-red Japanese arch and patio seating — they draw like a magnet. Even if you're not hungry (or thirsty), you want to stop in for a little something. Inside, there are flower arrangements at the host's stand; glowing, polished wood; a giant alien space octopus hung over the short bar to the left of the actual bar. That bar is lorded over by partner and "mixologist" James Lee, one of the first guys I've come across who truly deserves such a lofty title, who's done a boozy sociologist's work in unearthing classic, old-school cocktails and inventing new ones with the élan of a pure-science Doctor of Inebriation, mixing granddad-ancient Harvey Wallbangers and classical Sazeracs in (reasonably) strict accordance with recipes he dug out of god-only-knows which dusty bartending bible.
It all works and it all flows, and as a result, Happy Noodle has a kind of effortless feng shui that I find very charming.
And then the food arrives, and all the careful design and beauty begin to bend away from the mark.
The menu changes seasonally at Happy Noodle, though the kitchen appears to recognize more seasons than the traditional four. The specials, written in marker on a roll of butcher's paper hung on the wall, switch out every day or so. And new features are still being rolled out, even after several months of business: "Happy Time" — like happy hour, but more Asian-y, and a lunch menu added just last week, as well as kids' menus and to-go menus and that brilliant drinks menu. All of it seems very planned, very deliberate, very considered, so that even the reservation phone hung on one of the posts in the center of the floor doesn't ring, but kinda blorps with its own weird sound, much to the confusion of some of the waiters who I watched just stand there, staring at it, transfixed like cats.
Under the reaching tentacles of the space octopus, I sunk my face into a bowl of Happy Ramen with Berkshire cha siu pork and wonderful, perfectly cooked noodles twined into a nest, swimming in a dark-dark broth built up from a powerful brown stock, heavy on the spices, sweet and bitter and savory all at once, then studded with chopped pieces of braised and marinated mushrooms that tasted of pine sap and soy sauce, bits of roasted garlic, green onions and limp watercress leaves on the stem. On behalf of the cooks in the kitchen, I was exhausted just imagining all the prep. On behalf of my fellow diners, I was exhausted just trying to add up each flavor into a coherent whole.