There is no such thing as bad barbecue. Even bad cherry pie is better than no cherry pie at all. And I've never met a cheeseburger I didn't like. I've met plenty I didn't love, but when you're in a cheeseburger kind of mood, even a Mickey D's double is better than nothing. When it comes to chicken wings, I am a snob — but I am also a softie. I can find something to like in almost any order, even if it's only the idea of having chicken wings.
In the same way, there is no such thing as a bad noodle bar. There are bad noodle bowls, sure. During one of my review meals at the Happy Noodle House, I had an order of the kitchen's curry udon with duck meatballs and found it completely foul — muddled and sour and so unconscionably salty that I thought I was going to have a heart attack right there at the table. That was a bad noodle bowl, but Happy Noodle is not a bad noodle bar.
In general, it's tough to fuck up a bowl of noodles — and that's one of the reasons for the sudden glut of noodle bars opening across the country, brought to us by chefs known for doing completely other things. If I were still cooking and running kitchens, I would be sorely tempted to open one myself.
Mine certainly wouldn't be the only noodle bar in town. Denver — with its multiple Asian quarters and long history of Mysterious East influences — has never exactly suffered from a shortage of places to eat noodles. Off the top of my head, I can think of about a dozen joints where a boy of particular appetites can score everything from early-morning pho (Pho 79, at 1080 South Havana Street) to lunchtime yakisoba (Taki's, at 341 East Colfax Avenue) to chirashi and udon for dinner (Izakaya Den, at 1518 South Pearl Street). We've got noodle-bar chains (Tokyo Joe's and Pho Fusion, most notably), we've got freaky one-offs (Oshima Ramen, at 7400 East Hampden Avenue). And over the past six months, we've had two big-name openings: Bones, from Frank Bonanno (701 Grant Street), and Happy Noodle House.
And now we have one more: XO, in the Jet Hotel, at 1612 Wazee Street. XO was supposed to open back in January, then in April. Last Thursday, when I asked Jet's Jordan Bullock about the delays, she laughed. "I think everybody knows what the economy did over the past few months," she said before telling me that the economy was better now (hooray) and that XO was opening the very next day. After I spoke with Bullock, I talked with veteran chef Jose Guerrero (ex of...just about everywhere), and he told me about the menu he had ready to go at XO. Mostly, he told me about his broth. He was very proud of his broth, which is "very simple, very straightforward," he said. And when I asked about his take on the standard noodle-bar board, he offered this: "Focus on the broth. The broth is what will make the difference — the kind of broth where people just want to slurp it all up."
The XO menu basically breaks down into four categories: ramen (in three varieties: duck, beef and seafood), semi-dry noodles (using about half as much broth as the ramen), dry noodles (mostly Korean, plus yakisoba and a chicken pad thai based on Guerrero's time as a stagier in Bangkok), and then rice. He'll be offering three types of gyoza presented as prepared plates, as well as seven kinds of hand-stretched noodles, all coming in from Kwan Sang Noodle Company here in Denver. The local-sourcing thing is important to him. The organic thing. And even more important, getting the best of the best of everything he can get his hands on. When I asked how his food will compare with that of Happy Noodle or Bones, he replied, "I'm trying to stick to Asian ingredients and put my flair to them." And then he went right back into how quality is what matters when you're dealing with something as simple and standard as a noodle bowl.
"I think what'll set us apart is our patience," he added, and talked about the slow approach to stocks, clarifying them into consommes, reintroducing flavors. "It's authentic, absolutely," he told me. "We're not trying to reinvent the wheel. That's where the XO comes in, you know? Extra Old. Like cognac, it's something special."
And as for the delays? "The joy of it is, I'm able to make sure everything is perfect, make sure everything has that 'Wow' factor," he said. "That every dish has its own identity."
And with that, he had to go — back to his kitchen, back to tinkering with a menu five months in the making.
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That's a lot of time to add some "Wow."
Leftovers: While researching noodle bars last week, I stumbled across an old rumor that David Chang — of the Momofuku brand — was considering bringing one of his noodle-bar concepts out of Manhattan and all the way west to Denver. I figured this primarily Yelp-based rumor was complete crap, but called Chang's people to be sure. And surprisingly, I didn't get an outright denial.
"We wouldn't talk about any plans for the business," said the woman who picked up the phone at the Momofuku offices when I asked if Chang was coming to Denver. "Even if we were — and I'm not saying we are — we wouldn't." And then she pawned me off with an e-mail address and told me someone would certainly get back to me.