Chef Billy Lam has his head down, and he's thinking.
"Hmmmm," he says, drawing it out as his finger touches the menu here and there and there. "Udon?" he asks.
"Definitely," I tell him. "Definitely udon."
Hunched over the counter, our heads almost touching, Lam and I study the laminated menu with its stains and its corners curled from years of rough treatment. Back in one of the simple, inelegant booths that line the walls at Chef's Noodle House, my dining companions are getting anxious. We're all hungry, but as we'd come through the doors, I'd told the chef that we wanted to eat noodles -- and no one takes noodles quite as seriously as Billy Lam does. There's no rushing the selection process.
"Chinese noodles?" I ask, touching the list of four noodle bowls at the heart of the menu.
"No," says Lam. "I don't have them anymore. I keep them on the menu, but no one order."
The Chinese noodles look intriguing -- made from potatoes and corn, according to the description, and topped with crispy dumplings in a black pepper sauce -- and I can't remember ever seeing a similar dish anywhere. Why would customers stay away from something so interesting?
"Pud Thai noodle?" asks Lam.
"Yes." And then Shanghai wonton soup, crispy Saigon dumplings, and Vietnamese bun with egg rolls. We run through everything, finalizing our stops on this noodle tour of Asia, and then Lam nods his head. "Good," he says, pleased with how things have shaped up, and he disappears into the kitchen to get to work.
Lam's been going to work at Chef's Noodle House for ten years now, and it shows. The converted Taco Bell is efficiently organized with a rounded, half-moon dining room set with plain tables and fronted by a covered patio that describes the same arc. There is bench seating, bar seating, room for to-go orders to be placed and picked up. The kitchen seems lived-in -- a line designed to be run with minimal fuss, with crowded shelving and everything just a reach away. The place is clean, but threadbare from a decade of use. I can see where it might have been all shiny once, but that day was a long time ago.
But that doesn't seem to bother Lam: He has an order on the rail, and that puts him in his element. Cooking is what he does -- what he's done for the past 27 years, without letup, ever since he came to the United States from his native Vietnam. And before that, he grew up in the restaurant industry. For forty years, his father owned a place in Can Tho called Hoi Ky, and it was there that Billy Lam (and his little brother Tuan, now chef/owner of the T-Wa Inn) first learned about food and picked up some of the recipes he's still using today. When he landed in Pittsburgh in 1978, he spoke no English but knew kitchens, so that's where he went.
"The only thing to do was work in restaurants," he says, his English now good but his accent still thick as sauce.
He cooked, he washed dishes, and in 1980, he found himself in Denver. His family owned, then lost, then regained the T-Wa Inn. Lam owned one of the first Panda Express restaurants, on Federal Boulevard, then the Panda Cafe, then the ambitious China Cowboy across from the Capitol that was a disaster and almost ruined him. In 1995 he moved into this old fast-food joint near Lowry, and he's been here ever since, always in the kitchen, always working, always learning.
While the past ten years may have taken the shine off Chef's Noodle House, Lam's cooking has only gotten better. He brings the first plates to the table himself: a square dish of wonderful, crisp, golden-brown dumplings filled with soft ground chicken, onion and scallions, their skins bubbled from the heat of the fryers, along with bowls of Shanghai soup. The soup is simply amazing, its broth as delicate as miso -- warm, dimly salty, faintly astringent -- then layered like a liquid napoleon with the sweetness of julienned carrots, the musk of Asian greens, the muscle of tender, verdant broccoli. The wontons -- handmade and stuffed again with a chicken paste, poached and set almost like a pâté -- are impossibly light, trailing streamers of wrapper like cirrus clouds through the consommé-clear broth.
Before we've finished cracking dumpling skins and slurping soup, Lam is back with the next course -- the noodles. He doesn't make his own, which is a shame but understandable: He knows that the best rice noodles, the best flat, Thai noodles, the best udon (especially udon, which are made from buckwheat flour that has no gluten and therefore require a special, rare magic to keep them together) need space and time and machinery that Lam doesn't have in his kitchen. Instead, he orders his noodles from the best makers on the Left Coast -- from Los Angeles, in particular -- and treats them as the works of art that they are.
The Thai noodles -- pud Thai, more or less, but fresher, less sweet, more savory and much more carefully constructed than most of the workhorse Thai bowls Denver is accustomed to -- are an egg-and-peanut cornucopia, spilling over with wok-tossed meats and vegetables in delicious excess. The Vietnamese bun is strangely plain -- just a bird's nest of white rice noodles surrounded by a battlement of sliced Vietnamese egg rolls -- but comes with a shooter of delicious nuoc cham so bittersweet and sharp that it hits like white lightning and lingers like a love affair. Wrapping the noodles and a slice of crisp egg roll in lettuce, then dipping it in the chile-lime-vinegar-fish sauce, points up the perfidiousness of most noodle lovers -- who, like me, think they love noodles when what they really love is sauce. This dish is noodles made plain, simply presented, merely dressed in the trappings of cuisine but not overwhelmed by them. And it works.
Finally, there's Lam's udon -- a dark, spicy-sweet tangle of thick noodles dressed with a pepper sauce and tossed with shrimp, sliced beef, chunks of chicken, snow peas and strings of white onion. It's intensely flavored with garlic, pieces of which cling to and balance the weighty bulk and taste of the noodles. The sweet, gentle spice of the sauce comes on slow, making you want more with every bite. The dish is strong, confident and fantastic, and, bastard that I am, I refuse to share. Lam's menu goes on for pages, offering everything from the beef-and-broccoli and sweet-and-sour-chicken benchmarks of any Amerasian eatery to Thai curries and teriyaki this and that, but the udon is where Chef's Noodle House earns its name.
I've brought only dedicated Asian food gourmands with me, and when we're done eating, we sit silent, stunned by how good the food was -- how well prepared, how ideally balanced in flavor and texture. There are no leftovers.
That was not the case after a visit to Noodles & Company.
"Are you actually going to eat any of that?" Laura asks, tilting her head at the bags of leftovers from the locally based chain on our kitchen counter.
"I don't know," I say. "Maybe."
"Then why did you bring them home? There's no room left in the refrigerator."
It's true. The bottom shelves are already packed with plastic bowls from various Noodles & Company outlets around town. I haven't gotten around to eating these, either. I haven't wanted to.
Noodles & Company is Romulus to the Remus of Chef's Noodle House: They're spiritual and physical twins, fraternal, far from identical but inexorably linked. Both not only do noodles, but focus on them as the one true path to success. Both started out in 1995 with a single location and the best of intentions: to cook good food fast for hungry people and send them away happy and healthy. They look sort of similar, having both come from that urban-modern fast-food mold, all curve and color and speed.
Like Lam, Noodles founder Aaron Kennedy has a food background, although his was not in kitchens, but in boardrooms and marketing offices, doing work for Pepsi-Cola, Oscar Mayer Foods and some of the biggest brands in the business. Kennedy got the idea for Noodles & Company after eating at an East Coast Asian noodle house; Lam got his ideas for Chef's Noodle House while working in noodle houses. Today, Noodles & Company has locations in eleven states (27 outlets -- one for every year that Lam has been cooking -- in Colorado alone, with six of those in the metro area) and roughly 2,500 employees serving 40,000 bowls of noodles a day.
And Chef's Noodle House has Billy Lam.
Noodles & Company is a business -- a successful business that just picked up a former Chipotle executive, Kevin Reddy, and put him in place as president, which can only help in its quest for world noodle domination. It has a well-planned international menu that borrows from every noodle-loving tradition, and all the dishes on that menu feature fresh vegetables and good-quality ingredients. But those good intentions don't always pay off with good taste.
Where Noodles & Company falls down is in the execution. As in any kitchen -- from those in the finest of the fine-dining restaurants to the dimmest of dives -- what matters is how the cooks handle themselves on the line, what kind of skill and dedication they display, what love they bring to every plate that passes through their hands. At Noodles & Company, I never felt the love.
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The Pad Thai at the Aurora outlet had been assembled by rote, with flavors prescribed to the most generic common denominator of taste. It tasted like perfect noodles sauced with candy, spiked with only the gentlest notion of spice, then topped with crushed peanuts -- not because of their flavor or texture or because crushed nuts are a traditional accompaniment to so many Asian dishes, but simply because the recipe said so. Downtown, the udon was glazed in soy and ginger that only made the noodles taste dirty, and shot through with broccoli, carrots and sprouts that seemed fractious next to the wise choice of shiitake mushrooms.
I did like the simple macaroni-and-cheese I tried in Aurora -- a heavyweight, fresh-cream-and-butter concoction that was exactly as gooey, warm and comforting as mac-and-cheese is supposed to be. And at the Colorado Boulevard outpost, my mushroom stroganoff was cooked, if not with love, then at least with some talent and an understanding of what you need to do with good ingredients. I'd already tried the potstickers in Aurora (fried in a pan that hadn't been wiped down, which made them taste like char and scorched butter) and downtown, where they were just plain burned. But the Colorado Boulevard cooks prepared them correctly, allowing me to taste, for the first time, how truly awful this company's potstickers were -- up from frozen, limp, gummy, and filled with a chickeny hash as uninspiring as paste.
There were other plates, other noodles, other locations. And every time a dish was bad -- which was most of the time -- it was bad for the most obvious reason. It was bad simply because no one in the kitchen cared enough to make it good. With every opportunity to do worthwhile things, the kitchens at the various Noodles & Company locations usually let those chances pass by.
And then there's Billy Lam. With every opportunity to throw up his hands, give up, surrender after years of scraping by, he never has. Instead, he continues to believe that every customer, every plate, every noodle matters. I've tried both the noodle machine and the noodle man, and I've made my choice. I'll take fast food made good over good food made fast every time.