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People don't want to cross the bridge to get here," says Peter Wong. He's talking about the little concrete blip that arches over the Intercoastal on East Commercial Boulevard in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, a clackety span you could just about hop over with a running start. Wong opened Noodle Box on Ocean Drive 13 months ago with his wife, Lily Chow, and her brother Peter, and I'm as flummoxed as they are as to why they're not setting records in the fast-food industry.
Business so far has been steady but slow. Maybe it's the economy, Wong says; maybe they're still too new.
The concept for Noodle Box comes from Asia via California, where quickie boxes of soba tossed in fiery black bean sauce have already taken off; as a Lauderdale beach-side snack, it's still a novelty. At Noodle Box, customers choose a noodle — skinny white rice sticks; flat, hearty buckwheat Japanese somen; crystal-clear, slippery bean threads; chewy, cylindrical udon; Vietnamese pho; wide Chinese egg noodles; or even a wavy block of ramen. These are paired with one of ten sauces or four soups, and five proteins. Your customized meal arrives in a black cardboard box along with chopsticks or a fork. Pluck your paper napkins from a wall dispenser and sit at the bar or one of the few rather noisy metal tables, under a swooping ceiling composed of brilliant tangerines and limes and yellows, very Hello Kitty. The feel is fun, simple, fresh. The food's first-rate. And it's fine to slurp.
You don't have much choice about slurping. There's no good way to eat Asian noodles following Western etiquette. It's not possible to twirl a nest of bean threads politely around your chopsticks. The best you can hope for is to get as much into your mouth as is manageable and bite off the rest so it falls back into your strategically positioned box. Or hold the box aloft and shovel in your noodles. Forget about looking sophisticated; this is no place for a first date unless your new friend has a wild sense of humor. Over a couple of visits I've had to let my fancy manners unravel like so many blocks of boiling ramen. And what a childish pleasure it is to suck up a damp strand of noodle dripping with sauce — like kissing and eating simultaneously, with a joke thrown in for kicks.
Noodle Box is the Wong-Chow clan's first foray into fast food, and the beginning of what they hope will become a franchised outfit. Originally from Hong Kong, they've been in restaurants for years. When they moved to Florida they opened first the elegant Jasmine in Boca Raton, then the Asian fusion-y Wild East on Las Olas Boulevard. Now they're seeking advice from investors who know the franchise business. Sadly, future boxes are going to need a different name: An outfit in Australia has already trademarked "Noodle Box." I hope the Wong-Chows set up a franchise by any name on every corner. There aren't many places around here where the vegan can mingle with the carnivore, the teetotaler with the lush, over a meal that costs less than a ten-spot, and walk away satisfied and even charmed.
I love the open design. It's spotlessly clean but not sterile. Rows of shining noodle pots are visible in the kitchen. Shelves hold labeled glass jars of dried noodles that are beautiful guides. A cooler displays squat little bottles of Kizakura Tokuri unfiltered cold sake ($7), which is color-coded (the blue label is the sweetest and least alcoholic), as well as beer, a few white wines, waters, and sodas. A machine at the bar blends smoothies. Another candy-colored Japanese device looks like something from Willy Wonka's chocolate factory; it puts a spill-proof cellophane seal over 24-ounce cups of bubble tea ($4.75).
Bubble tea! The Taiwanese who first concocted this infantile fantasy of a beverage in the early '80s ought to be canonized. Bubble tea is one of the few recently invented foods that deserves a long life. Someday when the edible menus and pea-flavored caviar of molecular gastronomy seem as quaint as 40 blackbirds baked in a pie, 23rd-century tots will still be pestering their mamas for tea-soaked tapioca pearls. Noodle Box sells five flavors of cold milk bubble tea, including Hong Kong chai latte (very good) and azuki red bean latte, and five flavors of regular bubble tea, including honey citron green tea (splendid) and passion fruit green tea. The "bubbles" are black bobas made from tapioca, the size and shape of small marbles, only squishy, like jujubes. They taste of nothing but the liquid they soak in, such as coconut black tea latte. An extra-wide straw, poked through the cellophane lid, lets you suck them up with your tea; the effect is a sweet, chewy drink full of sugar, caffeine, and texture. All it lacks is a shot of vodka, but you could order a bubble tea to go and try that at home.
My favorite noodle is the fresh udon; my favorite sauce, Korean chili; and of all the proteins I tried, the pork, tofu, shrimp, and chicken were clean and tasty. The udon noodle is a fat little sucker, roughly the circumference of a small worm, with what I imagine is a similar mouth-feel, slippery and soft. It's immensely satisfying with onion, scallion, and green and red peppers in their firecracker sauce, which is hot from chilies and sweet and salty via hoisin and soy. I loved the Korean chili sauce made with shitake mushrooms, Napa cabbage, broccoli, onion, and chili paste. Much milder but coolly and crisply delectable is the Thai chicken noodle salad tossed with slivers of raw carrot, cilantro, bean sprouts, lime, lettuce, and cucumber ($8.50). Rice vermicelli with Malaysian satay mingles acidic pineapple with onions, scallions, green and red peppers, and a milky, semi-sweet brown satay sauce.
Lily Chow, who's behind the counter most afternoons, came up with most of the sauce recipes in her own kitchen, through many trials and errors, along with the half-dozen side orders: panko fried shrimp cheese balls made with cheddar and shrimp ($5.75), mini samosas served with garlic aioli ($4.75), shrimp and chicken gyoza, spring rolls, and miso soup. The shrimp balls are instantly familiar and addictive, like conch fritters or fried chicken tenders, offering a savory goo held temporarily in check by a crunchy panko shell. Mini samosas were eminently edible but pale shadows of the real Indian deal. Noodle Box's Pan-Asian offerings are good and filling, but none of it will knock you for a loop the way a real Malaysian, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Korean, or Thai meal will. But that's asking too much of fast food, isn't it?
A 24-ounce highball of bubble tea and a box of noodles makes for a pretty substantial meal and will set you back around $15 (noodle or rice boxes are $8.50 with chicken, pork, or tofu; $9.50 for beef or shrimp). That's pricier than you'd expect for a self-serve walk-up counter, when Micky D's quarter-pounder and a coke still comes in well under $10. Two of us even managed one night to spend almost $50 with sake and side orders; that's about what you'd spend on dinner at most mom-and-pop Thai or Chinese places, which offer a lot more variety. I'd guess the relatively high prices factor into Noodle Box's slow business at least as much as that dinky little bridge. Even so, it's a bridge worth crossing.