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My constantly curious pal has an honest question. "What's with all the different types of pasta in the world? I get that they come in different shapes, but are they really different noodles?"
It's an appropriate inquiry, given that we're hunkered over big bowls of the steaming starch, served at sN, a two-month-old cafe in the giant new strip mall on the northeast corner of Stapley and Baseline in Mesa. The name stands for "simply noodles," and that's what this shop sells: noodles from across Asia, including Japan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. Only a few of the almost 30 dishes, in fact, don't feature pasta -- fried rice, tempura shrimp and vegetables, and appetizers of lettuce cups, wok spinach salad, and edamame.
My friend, of course, is talking about the more common Italian noodles, and the answer is no, there is usually little difference between the hundreds of varying shapes, sizes and thicknesses of such pasta. Capelli d'angelo is floss thin and delicate; pappardelle comes in wide ribbons; and farfalline is shaped like tiny butterflies. Some doughs have egg added, some have flavorings like spinach, beet juice or squid ink, but generally, all these pastas are fashioned from semolina (durum wheat flour), and water or milk. Shape serves primarily to support sauces, I explain, with skinny noodles best for thin tomato-basil sauce, and fat noodles best to hold chunky meat or heavy cream sauces.
1236 E. Baseline Road
Mesa, AZ 85204
480-892-0688. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.
He nods. "I've always wondered about that," he says. "Now I can get on with my life." He sticks his chopsticks back into his tureen of drunken shrimp and chicken, tugging at a tangle of hokkien (medium thick, fresh yellow egg noodles), bringing it in a big, sloppy clump to his mouth.
But I'm not done with him yet. Because sometimes, a noodle is not, in fact, a noodle. As in when it's from Asia, like the very kind we're stuffing ourselves with here at sN.
I just found this out myself: Technically, the U.S. government requires a "noodle" to contain flour, water and egg. If eggless, it's officially called pasta (though the Italians have never been held to this packaging standard). Most Asian noodles, though, are made from flour or rice, sans egg, so in its cultural charity, the FDA has long classified them as "alimentary paste." (A few years ago, the government did relent, allowing the Asian variety to be called noodles, yet most imported packages still bear the AP designation.) Alimentary means "of, relating to, or functioning in nourishment or nutrition." Not much of a romantic ring to that, is there?
There's reason for the clinical name, I suppose. I'm thinking that our government declined to include Asian varieties in its standard noodle definition -- though it's widely accepted that noodles originated in Asia as far back as 1000 B.C. -- because there are so many recipes. Though some Asian-style noodles are wheat-based, many others are made from ingredients such as rice, potato or buckwheat flour; cornstarch and bean; yam or soybean starch. And because of language differences and the many dialects within each language, there are numerous names for each type of noodle. This has to be too much for those anal government types.
Perhaps this is also why sN owner John Wong calls his restaurant Simply Noodles. Rather than getting us bogged down in details, he tells me, he just wants his guests to enjoy "a great healthy concept," focusing on fresh ingredients, home-brewed sauces, and "back to basics" eating with no chemical tenderizers, preservatives or MSG. He's packaged the concept for contemporary fashion, seating us in a tiny, funky lounge with polished concrete floors, a soaring exposed duct ceiling, and an exposition kitchen framed by a curving, full-service bar. Paper lanterns and lots of live bamboo are carefully positioned for what Wong calls feng shui design.
I love noodles. I love fresh ingredients. I adore authentic Asian food. So the sN concept sounds great. Except several things bug me about the place. First, the menu is written in trendy code. I appreciate Wong's less-is-more ideals, but over three visits, my dining companions and I struggle to figure out what's in "garlic shrimp and chicken in green garden (Vietnam)," "hokkien mee style with shrimp and chicken (Malaysia)," or "mer-lion's mouth Pacific Rim chicken and black bean (Singapore)." None of us has the patience, or memory capacity, to listen to our server try to individually describe more than two dozen dishes, and he doesn't seem too into it, either, sighing over having to detail what an egg noodle is for the umpteenth time.
Secondly, unlike most small Asian noodle shops, experimenting with sN is a pricey predicament -- à la carte bowls range from $6.50 to $12.50 for dinner, $5.20 to $10 for lunch. An appetizer of pot stickers or spring rolls is $6.50.
And third, for all the dizzying variety of Asian noodles, sN offers only about a half-dozen models, and most in pretty much the same format of stir-fry with chicken, shrimp, beef or vegetables. Sauces are so lightly applied and lightly flavored as to evaporate. Ingredients are definitely topnotch, yet by my third trip I have to admit I'm tired of noodles. I'm bored of pasta. I actually feel like I am eating alimentary paste.
There's no doubt Wong knows his noodles. This is his first U.S. restaurant, on the heels of nine successful cafes in Australia. He and his Australian-native partner Oiyee Lee met in India five years ago, traveled all across the Orient collecting recipes, and present them here unchanged. His operation builds on a very recent local trend of noodle worship, following the opening of two other pasta places, Cherryblossom Noodle Cafe at Ninth Street and Camelback in Phoenix, and Nothing but Noodles, on 90th Street and Via Linda in Scottsdale (the difference is those two places emphasize Italian noodles along with Asian specialties, and have a wide selection of non-noodle dishes as well).
Yet the only real flavor I find here is in the spicy dishes, and then, it's almost insane. "Emperor SunZu's ancient pearl chicken" (its full description) falls under the traditionally mild Japanese category. But there's so much red chile I literally can't eat the hokkien tossed with big slabs of breast meat, julienne carrot, white onion, bok choy, domestic mushrooms, shallot and snow pea slivers.
The menu's mysterious "garlic shrimp and chicken in green garden" turns out to be skinny, al dente egg noodles, tossed with big slabs of breast meat, meaty shrimp, julienne carrot, white onion, bok choy, shallot and snow pea slivers. The only hint of garlic is a timid sweetness clinging to the noodles. "Hong Kong flat rice noodles and shrimp and chicken" is thick ribbons of tender-chewy pasta tumbled with -- surprise -- meat and vegetables. The smidgen of sauce is, well, brown.
By the time I get to "satay beef and thin egg noodles (Malaysia)," I know the routine. The dish is a mound of ramen-like pasta, stocked with thin slices of beef, vegetables, and a whispery glaze of what might be garlic.
"How do they make a food with so little flavor?" my quizzical companion wants to know. All he tastes in his "drunken shrimp and chicken and peanuts -- spicy! (China)" is red chile and a hint of sweetness. He's asked for the spice level to be toned down, and it is, but it's still overpowering on a bed of hokkien, meat and vegetables.
Only four dishes stand out enough that I'd consider making sN a regular destination. The "udon noodles stir-fry with shrimp and chicken" is terrific, the slippery soft thick wheat noodles plump with poultry and vegetables. The meager splash of broth has potential, if we could splash in some soy. A bit of soy would send "way of the shrimp won ton egg noodle soup (China)" to the top, too. The broth is robust, bobbing with fresh vegetables and stellar won tons stuffed huge with herbed minced pork and chunked shrimp. The same hand-rolled won tons come as absolutely incredible pot stickers, busting with moist pork and dipped in an outrageous soy-oyster sauce dip. My pal and I make short work, too, of rice paper rolls (Vietnamese summer rolls). The six chilled, plump bundles are gorged with sparkling fresh shrimp, vermicelli fresh mint and lettuce to be dipped in caramel-textured sweet-and-sour fish sauce.
Perhaps sN is too healthful for my taste buds (it's telling that the dishes that turn me on include bits of grease, salt and aggressive sauces). Maybe knowing of the great wealth of Asian noodles out there -- and finding such a small selection here -- has me disappointed. It might be that all sN needs to do to bring me back more than once a month is to add some of the exciting Asian noodle dishes I was hoping for -- like Japan's zaru-soba (cold noodles with seaweed strips dipped in a broth of soy, sake, spring onion, white sesame and wasabi); or my favorite Vietnamese pho.
With a lot more variety on the menu, this might really be Simply Noodles, instead of Simply Alimentary Paste.