Cafe Reviews

The Multicultural Menu at Downtown Phoenix’s Noodle Bar Still Needs Work

Noodle Bar in downtown Phoenix offers both Japanese and Italian dishes.
Noodle Bar in downtown Phoenix offers both Japanese and Italian dishes. Jackie Mercandetti

Noodle Bar is one of the more exciting restaurants that’s cropped up in downtown Phoenix in the past couple of years. It’s an independently owned restaurant with a dual-menu concept — Italian pasta served alongside Japanese ramen — and its unorthodox format offers a glimpse of what the downtown food scene might look like someday. Or, rather, what many of us hope it might look like: more independents, more vision, more singular menus that don’t involve burgers and build-your-own pizza shops.

That said, Noodle Bar, despite its sizable ambition, doesn’t yet live up to all it might become.

The restaurant is situated on the ground floor of the Orpheum Lofts, a well-preserved 11-story Art Deco building that has survived the years with dignity and now quietly decorates First and Adams streets with all its Gatsby-era charm intact.

Inside, the dining room features a modern red-and-black color scheme, with Japanese flourishes (bonsai trees lined up on a counter; a Japanese-inspired mural) and a few Italian motifs (Italian tiles; black-and-white photographs of what appears to be the Italian landscape). Hits from the ’80s always seem to be playing over the house speakers.

click to enlarge The modern dining room is located on the ground floor of the Orpheum Lofts. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
The modern dining room is located on the ground floor of the Orpheum Lofts.
Jackie Mercandetti

One of the restaurant’s most curious design aspects is its light fixtures, featuring swirls of curling metal accented by hanging light bulbs — the swirls and curls are meant to evoke the restaurant’s noodle-centric menu. The room is comfortable enough, but despite all the attention to detail, the overall effect feels a little cold and sterile.

Noodle Bar opened in January 2016 as two distinct, fast-casual noodle restaurants under one roof — Otakumen, a Japanese ramen shop, and Pat and Waldo’s, serving variations on classic Italian pasta.

The dual concept was partly inspired by chef-owner Marco Di Santo’s Chinese-Italian heritage, and also reflects the chef’s past ramen-making training. Under the old format, ordering involved picking one of the two counters, then waiting for your food to be delivered to your table.

The two concepts were consolidated under the Noodle Bar name last fall, and the menus have been trimmed down and revised a bit. There’s now also full table service, which has gone a long way to helping the restaurant feel less like a sleek food court and more like a sit-down restaurant.

From the Japanese side of the menu, there’s an appetizer selection with izakaya nibbles like karaage fried chicken, agedashi tofu, and gyozas.

On a recent visit, the fried chicken plate was well-seasoned, but the meat was a little tough, oily, and overly chewy in places. And a plate of minced pork gyozas had a pleasing crisp texture and good flavor, but there was nothing about these to set them apart from any other version you might find on any other appetizer menu.

Agedashi tofu fared better: the hunks of tofu were panko-dusted and lightly fried on the outside, hot and silky on the outside, and topped with bonito flakes for a pleasantly fishy flavor.

click to enlarge There are eight ramen bowls on the Noodle Bar menu. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
There are eight ramen bowls on the Noodle Bar menu.
Jackie Mercandetti

Ramen is popular with the downtown college crowd that haunts Noodle Bar nightly. And the restaurant, on the whole, seems to work better as a quirky ramen bar than as a traditional red-sauce Italian restaurant.

The ramen isn’t made fresh in-house, but the noodle quality is reasonably good, and it should please most casual ramen eaters. You can’t adjust spice levels, though, or calibrate your bowl with a specific noodle firmness, which will surely annoy ramen connoisseurs.

There are eight ramen bowls on the menu (including a vegan bowl), of which the hakata ramen featuring the house tonkotsu broth is probably the most popular. It’s served with standard toppings like melty pork chashu, wood ear mushrooms, and scallions. The broth is not quite as thick and creamy as most quintessential tonkotsu bowls, but it registers deep notes of onion, ginger, and garlic. It has a chicken soup, medicinal quality about it that is endearing and comforting. But if your idea of great tonkotsu involves the tangible and creamy intensity of melted pork marrow bone in your bowl, this one will probably not take you to ramen heaven.

A newer option is the curry ramen bowl, which comes layered with stewed beef and vegetables and chili threads. It’s more flavorful than spicy, bearing a gingery, lightly curried flavor that is pleasing, if a little one-note. There’s also a spicy miso ramen featuring pork chashu and a savory, six-minute egg. The broth is spicier than the curry ramen, hot enough to clear a mildly stuffed nose, at least, and it’s perfumed nicely with sesame and garlic.

Apart from ramen, the Japanese side of the menu also features a couple of wok-seared soba noodle dishes. The yakisoba, on a recent dinner visit, was surprisingly disappointing. The skinny noodles clumped together, and the house yakisoba sauce was bland and immemorable. I upgraded my bowl with shrimp for $3 extra, which yielded exactly three rubbery, overcooked shrimp.

On the flip side of the Japanese menu, you’ll find Noodle Bar’s Italian offerings. Unlike the ramen noodles, the pasta is made in-house.

click to enlarge Lasagna rolls are one of the dishes that need work. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
Lasagna rolls are one of the dishes that need work.
Jackie Mercandetti

Antipasti options include polpetas, the house meatballs, which are extra-juicy and meaty, if a little heavy on the pepper. Veggie small plates include Brussels sprouts doused in a dullish lemon pesto cream, and served with crostini on the side. Not even inordinate amounts of cream, though, help make much of an impression.

More disappointing, though, is a small plate of cheese-stuffed raviolo. The texture of the pasta was off on recent visit, the pillowy pasta chewy and hard around the edges.

This may be the most disappointing thing about eating at Noodle Bar. For all its devotion to the noodle form, the restaurant’s pasta dishes can often be clunky. During a recent dinner, for instance, a plate of rolled lasagna, stuffed with bolognese, had a dry, crusty texture. The three, generously-portioned rolls were constructed with what seemed only a smear of ricotta and Pomodoro sauce.

Another pasta option, salsiccia with pappardelle pasta, brings together the classic sausage and peppers combo in a bowl of homemade pasta. But on another dinner visit, the twisty ribbons of pasta were wrapped in a bland tomato cream sauce, and the sausage was quickly lost amid the heaviness of the sauce.

Noodle Bar may have shed its unwieldy double moniker, but now there remain other details to work out. Let’s hope the restaurant can shed its infatuation with noodles as a big-picture concept, and focus more specifically and intently on perfecting at least half of its menu.

Noodle Bar
114 West Adams Street, #C-103
Hours: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight; closed Sunday

Agedashi tofu $6
Raviolo $7
Hakata ramen $11
Rolled lasagna $10.50

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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.