New summer salads at Noodles & Company: two outta three ain't bad

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I am a huge fan of noodle-sucking. I will suck noodles in such a disgusting, socially-reprehensible way that I even get filthy looks from small children. Slurp. Slurp-slurp.

And Noodles & Company knows how to feed my fix. I've always liked the Denver-based chain for its fast-cazh convenience and prices, as well as bowls of noodles smothered in sauce. So when I learned that it had just introduced a line of summer salads, I dry-rubbed my hands in glee and headed over to the Noodles & Co. at 2205 East Colfax Avenue.

Walking into this store is like walking into any Noodles & Co. location -- which is actually very comforting. I've never seen any store that wasn't very clean and didn't play easy-listening world music at reasonable levels.

But this location has a bonus: "The Space-Age Beverage Machine." It's an unassuming, brushed-stainless steel, self-serve drink automaton with a touch screen that lets customers choose from a seemingly endless array of soft drinks -- orange Mello Yello, raspberry no-cal Powerade -- and an entertaining way to blow ten minutes picking a single drink.

Which I did. But then I turned to the real reason I'd come in. The three new summer salads at Noodles are Spinach & Fresh Fruit Salad, Chili-Lime Ginger Salad with Seared Chicken, and Backyard Barbecue Chicken Salad. They're each $7.75 -- more expensive than fast-food salads, but less than most full-service chains' salads -- and meal-sized if you are a light-to-moderate eater.

The Chili-Lime Ginger Salad with Seared Chicken was noticeably weightier than the other two because of the profusion of cold, marinated rice noodles -- noodles! -- on top, and it had about three ounces of well-seasoned -- read: not briny with too much salt -- flat-grilled chicken, whole-leaf spring mix lettuces, carrots, red peppers, zucchini, fresh-cut mint, peanuts and black sesame seeds, a sweet chili-lime-ginger dressing on the side, and also a container of...croutons? The croutons were obviously made there, and weren't terrible by any means -- just out of context with the Asian-inspired nature of the salad. I later discovered that this salad is supposed to come with crispy wonton strips, not croutons, which makes more sense. But even with the croutons, I liked the salad. Everything was fresh, the vegetables were perfectly tender-crisp, and the dressing was a righteous combination of warm ginger and mild chili, tangy lime and possibly some rice wine vinegar. There was less chicken than other ingredients -- but then, chicken is more expensive than noodles, and Noodles probably thought no noodle-lover would mind. but all in all, the combo worked well. The Spinach & Fresh Fruit Salad should have been named "The Spinach & Fresh Strawberry Salad," because strawberries were the only fruit I found. Even so, the salad was a fantastic mixture of colors, flavors and textures: berries, chopped pecans, bacon, red onion slivers, mild blue cheese crumbles and good-quality spinach with a side of "Balsamic Fig Drizzle." That's a terrible name for a good dressing. In fact, this salad has serious naming issues, but thankfully not issues of any other kind.

I appreciate it when fresh spinach leaves are washed so that no speck of sand gets stuck in any part of my mouth. Noodles' spinach was clean, the berries were a bit overripe but not to the mushy point, the bacon wasn't fake-smoky and the blue cheese was gentle enough so as not to offend mainstream diners, but with enough flavor to let you know it was there. The dressing was more balsamic than fig, but the sweetness on the back end played well with the cheese and onions. I would order this again.

But the third salad struck out.

The Backyard Barbecue Chicken Salad consisted of three ounces or so of shredded, flat-grilled chicken breast meat, Roma tomatoes, fresh-cut corn, red cabbage, whole-leaf spring mix lettuces and a creamy coleslaw-like dressing. Boring.

The chicken was bland, and needed some actual barbeque sauce. The shreds of raw cabbage overwhelmed the mixed greens. Anyone who shops for tomatoes at the grocery store knows Romas are dirt cheap and usually under ripe; they're also dull. And even though the corn had been knifed off-the-cob in neat little rows, it was still plain, non-seasoned, cold, boiled corn.

The biggest problem, though, was the peculiar dressing -- an oddly pale, mayonnaise-tasting sauce with very little to recommend it. A nice smoky tomato dressing would work much better with this salad, or maybe Noodles could go the barbeque-sauce-infused-ranch route.

Although that salad was a disappointment, Noodles & Company is smart to offer customers quality salads with some living colors and flavors. Now if it could just install a "Space-Age Salad Machine" capable of letting diners create their own bowl of weeds using a touch screen...

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