Happy Noddle House in Boulder -- brief review
The Happy Noodle House in Boulder is the latest addition to Dave Query's "Big Red F" empire (other existing restaurants are Jax, Zolo, Lola, Centro, and the West End, all in Boulder and/or Denver). The Noodle House opened very recently where D'Napoli's italian restaurant was forever, on Walnut St just west of 9th. Outside, the building looks the same except for the big "Happy Noodle House" sign, but inside the place was a different world, looking nothing like the cozy italian place it replaced. I didn't wander the whole restaurant as I was seated by the door and it was quite busy, but the seating all appeared to be at large community type benches and "picnic" sized tables. I liked the change in atmosphere, but it was hard to evaluate (again, seated by the door and there were a number of people standing and waiting for a table).
The happy hour pricing is very reasonable. Unfortunately, the food was pretty mediocre. I ordered the "Steamed Chinese Buns", "Har Gao", "Lacquered Lamb Ribs" and "Thai Curried Chicken Wings". The steamed bun was tasty, and the har gao were also decent. But the ribs did not have much interesting flavor, nothing about the first bite made want to take a second; it wasn't awful, but was entirely non-descript. And the chicken wings were really no good at all. There was a sauce at the bottom of the little bowl that the wings came in, but the wings themselves were not covered in this sauce and had no flavor other than a basic cooked chicken wing with no seasoning. My companions ordered the "Mini Zaru Soba" which was a very generous portion for the price. Unfortunately, they also reported a lack of flavor, and the "soy dipping sauce" that came with it appeared to them to be, basically, soy sauce.
I wanted to be blown away as I do like some of the other Query restaurants (Zolo is one of my favorite restaurants in town), and I will certainly give the noodle house another try or 2 -- it certainly fills a niche in downtown Boulder -- but they also clearly need to do a little more work on the food they're producing.
9 months later and I'll update this. I have eaten there twice since the last review, and each time the food has been improved from the time before. Last night I had the pork rib appetizer with spicy hoisin sauce, and, I have to say, those were some tasty and tender ribs. And as an entree, had the rotisserie chicken (also with spicy hoisin, actually), and it was delicious. The double hoisin was kind of a coincidence (the ribs were ordered as a shared appetizer in a big group) so I'd like to try more things, but the people around me all seemed very happy with their dishes, which all looked tasty.
I will definitely give these guys some more opportunities.
We went recently and noted that the chef has changed. The food now stands up much better to the superb cocktails of the Bitter Bar. We had pickled golden beets, veggie crepes, pork buns, duck pancakes, yucca fritters, fishcakes, and split a bahn mi. They have great "happy time" specials every day from 4 to 6 including a $5 bahn mi and beer special from 4:00 to 4:30. This definitely will be in the rotation more frequently now.
I stopped by tonight to check it out (Monday night a little after 5). It was pretty empty, and I was seated at a sort of side bar area, not the main bar. The waiters kept heading back behind the bar to get tea and such, so my water got filled a zillion times. There weren't very many people in the restaurant, and it was 70F outside, so there wasn't a problem with draftiness.
I had the duck curry udon, which had carrots and yam in addition to the noodle, duck, and mushroom topping. My first reaction was to wonder if they had used the instant Golden Curry mix, then I decided that the mix would have been better (although it has been a while since I last used it). The sauce just seemed weak in terms of flavor. The duck was nicely cooked enough that I could eat it with just my chopsticks (no knife) without a struggle.
My very friendly server brought a small sample of the soft serve, unbidden. It was "beet and honey", which is unfortunate, since I really don't like beets, and it had a fairly strong beet flavor. The texture was ok, though a little on the thin/grainy side (I like rich, smooth soft serve that I'm sure is full of all kinds of chemicals).
Anyway, I'd rather go to a grimy hole in the wall that serves excellent noodles and dumplings, and it is too bad that there isn't one in Boulder. I'm not a big fan of You and Mee noodles, which is currently coming in at the bottom of the ranking in my comparison of north-of-Denver pho joints. Considering how much pho there is in Broomfield, I'd rather have some place that does excellent xiao long bao or Chinese pastries....
Lurker Dan - We went tonight and had basically the same reaction -- namely, that other than the steamed buns, mostly bland food. When we were on our way out, the front-of-house guy asked how we liked the food. My husband had already escaped, so I told him pretty much what you posted here. I said people usually expect some flavor from cold noodles (a Thai-style peanut sauce, a hit of soy, something). The soy sauce seemed thin and diluted, but a splash of hoisin and some hot stuff from the condiment selection helped. The mgr or whatever he was said he'd tell the chef -- and I believe he will. We had four dishes and two drinks, and the tab came to $16 and change, incl tax.
We dropped in for “happy time” last week to share a few items. I really wanted to like this place, but I’m wondering if they didn’t take the time or money to “try out” the dishes on friends and family first. It reminds me of Jing in that the food is dumbed-down, although the price points are thankfully much lower (with small plates from 1 to 4 bucks between 4 & 6 pm Mon-Fri and bowls between $8 to 16). The servers were all very friendly (if not perhaps a little over-eager) and requested feedback at the end of the meal, saying they are “new and want to get better.” I would be willing to bet that Big Red F will get them sorted out, although I have reasons of personal preference for not returning.
I think their approach with having the condiment bar (“Asian” vinegar, hoisin, Sriracha, Shichimi Togarashi) must intentionally be to bring out plain vanilla food and then let customers “doctor” it up according to their tastes. They couldn’t possibly think this food tastes good on its own. I’d rather see them offer selections with a wide variety of flavors and seasonings straight from the kitchen (from mild to assertive), and then let the chili-heads add more if they want. Seasonings usually taste better if they’re layered in during the cooking process rather than dumped on top at the end. (Edited to add that very fresh, well-prepared dumplings don't even need additional seasonings to be highly enjoyable.) If you’re dining out, you’re paying for the chef’s expertise in preparing your meal. I don’t want to experiment at my table by dumping commercially-prepared condiments on top for it to have any flavor. I can easily boil some soba noodles at home and indiscriminately squeeze Sriracha on top, so a place has gotta give me more reasons to drive there and wait and drop some cash.
They are putting sauce on the Thai Curried Chicken Wings with cellophane noodles now (which means they are listening to feedback), but it basically tasted like they dumped some coconut milk on top. Our Mini Zaru Soba came with wasabi paste and green onions to mix in the soy sauce, and while it was a bit lacking in pizzazz, at least it wasn’t off-putting like the wings. The steamed buns were just bad, and the “fatty lamb ribs” and har gao were boring. You could go to the worst dim-sum joint in the country (and I’ve been to a few contenders) and be delivered versions superior to this. Even SoBo American Bistro was able to produce some decent steamed buns on their happy hour shared plates menu recently, and it’s not like they’re marketing themselves as serving Asian cuisine.
We were still hungry and thought about splitting an entrée (staffers recommended the curry udon with duck), but opted to leave. My happy hour excursion left me so unsatisfied and longing that later that night I drove to Frank Bonanno’s Bones in Denver for a noodle bowl (poached lobster, edamame, and miso with ramen), and it was over-the-top, oh-my-god-i-could-bathe-in-this-miso-broth delicious.
Here's the other CH thread on Happy Noodle House:
I just realized this current thread is called "Happy NoDDle," so it might not be showing up in search results.
Yeah, I realized I misspelled the name in the thread title, but didn't see any way to edit it. "Happy Noodle House" is in the text of the thread so hopefully it will still show in searches. I'm both gratified and sad that everyone's experience was the same as mine. Gratified because it at least tells me that my impressions were correct, but sad because I want to love this place. I am just hoping that they get things straight and improve, because being hip and new will only sustain you for so long.