In the United States, as in many western cultures, the art of slurping one’s food in public has long been an etiquette taboo. In terms of culinary faux pas, slurping falls somewhere between talking with your mouth open and belching loudly. Conversely, in Japan and other Asian countries, slurping noodles at restaurants is not only perfectly acceptable, it’s often considered a sign of appreciation being conveyed to the chef.
Visit a traditional noodle bar in Japan and you’ll be surrounded by an asynchronous symphony of slurping, the audible inhalation of noodles being heartily enjoyed. If slurping noodles was an Olympic sport, the Japanese would earn gold medals (irrespective of the Russian judges) and America would place below Jamaica. Slurping among Americans is a closed door activity, done as secretly as sneaking in adult literature under the cover of a brown paper bag. It’s a surreptitious pleasure enjoyed only in the comfort and privacy of our own homes. Who among us hasn’t lustily sucked down a bowl of throat-warming ramen with the fervor of a stray mutt who hasn’t eaten in days?
Alas, many style-conscious Japanese youth, being more susceptible to western mores, are increasingly rejecting the old ways and have begun consuming their noodles as quietly as a monk in prayer. American-style ulcers and gastronomic distress are sure to follow. Their elders know that the unbridled pleasure of slurping noodles is not only immensely satisfying, it is healthy, too.
Japanese-style noodle bars have joined the ranks of sushi bars, dim sum and stir-fry as Asian food trends that have caught on tremendously throughout America (and the world, for that matter). The inspiration for the noodle bar is simple–drawing on long-held traditions of the daily diet in Japan which is dominated by noodle and rice dishes punctuated with healthful vegetables.
In its January, 2008 edition, Bon Appetit magazine, a gastronomic bible with worldwide acclaim, fêted five Tokyo-style noodle bars in America. Among those singled out was a trendy downtown noodle bar founded only a year previously. It’s not many Duke City restaurants that make a splash on the world’s culinary scene, much less a restaurant which celebrated its one-year anniversary within weeks after the magazine was published. The Asian Noodle Bar, in the heart of Route 66, did just that and if the volume of traffic to this wildly popular eatery is any indication, the sky’s the limit.
From the outside, the Asian Noodle Bar isn’t much to look at. Similar to other downtown businesses on Central Avenue, its storefront is obfuscated behind iron bars. It occupies the sidewalk level space on a time-worn multi-story building. While the stucco appears to have a relatively new sheen, the signage appears to have suffered the ravages of New Mexico’s winds and sun.
Step into the restaurant, however, and you’ll experience a vibrant, contemporary venue that’s chic and elegant while retaining a casual, relaxed feel. A semi-open kitchen in the center of the restaurant offers some diners the vantage of watching the chefs in action. Bar seating, similar to what you find at sushi bars, is available, but your view is mostly of the prep station. No matter where you sit, you’ll be treated to the sizzling sound of stir-fry activity and its inherently olfactory-arousing aromas.
Specializing in healthy, affordable and fresh-cooked noodle and rice dishes, the Asian Noodle Bar has developed a strong following among downtown diners. Not surprisingly, Japanese tourists visiting the downtown area also take comfort in its familiarity. The Asian Noodle Bar is the brainchild of Mimy Singvilay, a twenty-something whirling dervish and self-taught chef operating her first restaurant. Mimy’s family moved to Albuquerque from Laos when she was but three years old. Mimy was interviewed during a February, 2008 segment of Channel 4′s Good Day New Mexico where a couple of things came across very clearly–she is very passionate about her restaurant and her menu absolutely rocks!
The menu is very eclectic, ranging from traditional favorites to fusion creations. It features culinary fare from Vietnam, Thailand, Japan and China, a panoply of pan-Asian entrees sure to please. The menu is very vegetarian-friendly and includes vegetarian options for most dishes. With more than forty items on the menu plus an array of daily specials, the Asian Noodle Bar makes it really tough to decide what to order. That challenge is compounded by servers delivering irresistible appearing fare to neighboring diners.
You don’t even have to ask your neighbors in the close proximity seating dining area whether they like what they ordered. The blissful look on their faces will tell you all you need to know–alas, without the melodious confirmation of the sounds of satisfying slurping. There aren’t many slurp options on the appetizer menu which is heavy on fried and grilled items. Does anybody know the cultural protocol for loud crunching and gnashing of fried, battered stuff? Never mind, just have the fresh spring rolls and you won’t need to worry about appreciating your food too loudly.
9 February 2008: The fresh spring rolls, served three per order, are crafted from soft rice paper engorged with fresh vegetables, vermicelli noodles and your choice of BBQ pork, vegetables, tofu or shrimp. They are served with a sweet chili sauce that enlivens each bite with a flavor that’s quite a bit more sweet than it is piquant. These are excellent spring rolls deserving of a more balanced (more piquancy, less sweet) chili sauce.
9 February 2008: Another appetizer option called Asian Stix, features flash-fried chicken skewers served with both a sweet chili sauce and a Thai-like peanut sauce. Served in portions of three per order, each skewer is practically lacquered with a sweet, savory sauce then are served with two dipping sauces, both sweet. As with the sweet chili sauce, both sauces accompanying the Asian Stix could use a bit more balance–a little more piquancy and not as much cloying qualities.
15 February 2014: Sheldon Cooper, the obsessive-compulsive wunderkind on television’s Big Bang Theory enjoys mee krob every Monday for dinner. After having had it as our sole appetizer during our second visit, we had to wonder if he enjoys it as an entree or as a dessert. Mee Krob, a nest of crispy noodles with Thai sweet and sour sauce topped with bean sprouts, green onions, bell peppers and cilantro, isn’t always as sweet as the Asian Noodle Bar’s rendition. Frankly, we consciously sought out the bean sprouts, green onions and bell peppers to temper the sweetness of the noodles. While American tastes do lean toward sweet flavors, too much sweet can also be off-putting.
9 February 2008: Fortunately, the balance of flavors we didn’t find in appetizers is readily apparent in the entrees we’ve sampled. Showing a flavorful balance of sweet, savory, sour and piquant flavors is the restaurant’s Singapore Curry, one of the very best examples of culinary cultures coalescing. Singapore Curry combines Indian and Chinese ingredients such as fenugreek, cumin, chili, black pepper and of course, curry to form one of the most delicious curry dishes you’ll find. There are a number of Asian restaurants in New Mexico offering Singapore Curry, and the Asian Noodle Bar’s rendition competes with May Cafe and China Best for “best in the city” honors. Asia Noodle Bar’s rendition is a swimming pool-sized bowl served piping hot and brimming with vermicelli noodles, al dente carrots and perfectly cooked potatoes in a coconut-infused red curry broth. Talk about Asian comfort food. The throat-warming broth and the arousing aromas will instantly take away any malaise in the air and render your taste buds happy.
9 February 2008: Happiness is something a bowl of Spicy Sesame will evoke. This entree is crafted with thick Udon noodles, onions, broccoli, carrots and mushrooms in a spicy sesame soy sauce. The menu exaggerates just a bit with the label “spicy” at least for most self-respecting New Mexicans who can handle fiery foods easily. It’s a pleasant piquancy that enlivens every bite, along with other explosions of flavor (especially smokiness) in this wonderful dish…and if ever there was a noodle ideal for slurping it would be the soft, creamy, buff-colored Japanese wheat flour noodles. They have the thickness of fat earthworms and a slippery, toothsome texture.
15 February 2014: Another well-balanced entree is the Tom Ka Noodle, the restaurant’s interpretation of Tom Ka Gai a very popular Thai soup. The biggest liberty taken with the traditional preparation of this Thai comfort food favorite is the addition of noodles and the omission of galangal and kafir leaves. Still, the Tom Ka Noodle soup pays a respectful, soulful tribute to the more traditional preparation. Who can argue with a swimming pool sized bowl of vermicelli noodles, sliced mushrooms and onions in a coconut broth flavored with chili, lemongrass, lime juice and cilantro and topped with your choice of chicken, beef, pork, tofu, vegetables or shrimp. It’s another dish which just might inspire uninhibited slurping.
15 February 2014: One of the most delightfully fragrant entrees at the Asian Noodle Bar is the Spicy Basil, a tangle of flat rice noodles, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes and mushrooms in a chili basil sauce over shredded lettuce. With a pronounced licorice or anise-like flavor, basil enlivens this dish with flavor and fragrance. As the named component on this dish, basil is but one of the stand-out ingredients. There are also mushrooms, woodsy and earthy fungi imbued with smokiness. The tomatoes are fresh and clean. The noodles might inspire synchronized slurping
If accolades from a highly respected publication portend greatness, the Asian Noodle Bar is well on its way toward achieving the elusive heights that escape many restaurants in New Mexico. In Bon Appetit, it was mentioned with noodle bars in Boston, Los Angeles, Durham and Washington, D.C. In Albuquerque, it’s got a ways to go before it earns mention alongside Budai Gourmet Chinese, Ming Dynasty and Cafe Dalat as the Mount Rushmore of the Duke City’s burgeoning Asian restaurant scene.
Asian Noodle Bar
318 Central, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 February 2014
1st VISIT: 9 February 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Fresh Spring Rolls, Asian Stix, Singapore Curry, Spicy Sesame, Tom Ka Noodle, Spicy Basil, Mee Krob,