Thursday, November 16, 2006
Here the scouting report is almost as succinct as the name of the restaurant. The name: Noodle Bar. The report: small space, small prices, huge value.
To wit: Here there are just 10 stools—so the coffee-shop-style spot fills up quickly. Fortunately, once the attendant’s attention has been seized, the food flies out in a timely manner and disappears just as quickly. Perhaps most inspiring, however, is the fact that virtually everything on the menu is $5. I may be wired differently than most, but that economical consistency just makes me feel good.
Of course, care, authenticity and big portions have to be present to make something a good value, and not just cheap. These Vietnamese-style soups, bowls and rice plates are a good value. A pair of colleagues and I dropped in at 1pm on a Friday to verify that. The bar was full, but a few seats emptied within minutes.
A Vietnamese Iced Coffee ($2.50) caught my eye on the specials board. Rich, creamy and sweet, it tasted much like a bottled Starbucks frappaccino, but with a more militant caffeine kick.
I had a sweet spot at the far end of the bar—next to the kitchen, and positioned perfectly for maximum aroma and a good look at our Vietnamese Shrimp and Pork Crepe (or Banh Xeo, $5) being layered and folded. We split it three ways. The pork—like all the meats on this day—was superb, sizzled to that point where both tender and crispy-at-the-edges is possible. It was joined in the thin, eggy fold by a few good-sized shrimp and an overly generous amount of sprouts. A couple of romaine spears and traditional Vietnamese green garnishes—peppermint, cilantro, and pepper slices—filled the plate. Though unwieldy to eat, the crepe was a good way to warm up—as was the diverse Seaside social experience offered by the community bar.
Things only got better from there: My Barbecue Garlic Prawns and Pork (Bun Tom Thit Nuong, $5/regular bowl; $6/large), a big serving of vermicelli rice noodles, lettuce, sprouts, green onions, roasted peanuts, three barbecue shrimp and some excellent barbecued pork, was only a few shrimp short of being the best deal by the bay. The house barbecue treatment was excellent.
In my judgment, Buck’s #28, Chicken Pork and Shrimp House Combo Fried Rice (or Com Chien Thap Cam, $5) was tasty despite being left in the pan a touch too long. It was also a chopstick challenge on par with Miyagi’s catch-the-fly test in the seminal Karate Kid. In with tiny rice kernels and green peas were the shrimpiest shrimp I’ve ever seen—about the size of ladybugs—but each mini-morsel was a savory microcosm of a faraway Vietnam flavorscape. Tee’s Chicken with Vegetables Over Rice (Com Thit Ga Xao Cai, $5) had tender pan-sizzled chicken and veggies and a ton of rice—solid, but nothing special.
Before we left, the friendly server Yvonne told me that the #14 I had ranks amongst the most popular dishes, up there with the BBQ Five-Spice Chicken ($5-$6) and the Combination Noodles (with beef, shrimp and soft tendon, $5). I pledged to come back for another favorite selection, the dish she swears she eats four days a week—the Pho Tai, Bo Vien, the Seared Beef and Meatballs Noodle soup ($5-$6).
On my next visit, Seaside kickboxer Joy and I started with the Fresh Shrimp & Pork Spring Rolls (yes, $5). The four tightly rolled treats were out in no time and surprisingly big; starting with these and following with a pair of bowls translates to a ton of food for well under $20. The refreshing wraps of greens, rice, plain pork and two shrimp came with a standard-issue peanut sauce.
Unsurprisingly, the #2 Yvonne eats so often was a tasty pha, with delicious beef broth, good noodles and thin slices of tasty beef. But there’s no way I could tangle with the traditional Vietnamese meatball more than once a month—the gristle and spongy chew to them is just tricky. I wished for Joy’s big bowl of BBQ Garlic Prawns & Pork—or the Lemon Grass Aromatic Chicken ($5).
The fried bananas, deep-fried inside an egg roll shell and dusted with powdered sugar, were devastatingly good. And at $2.50, they’re just another bargain to be found at this tiny treasure of a restaurant. Thankfully, as the word spreads and stools here get harder to come by, there’s always takeout.
NOODLE BAR RESTAURANT
1944 Fremont Blvd., Seaside • 11am-8pm Mon-Sat. • 392-0210.