The cement bunker facing the mules parked along Jackson Square, a former newsstand buried between Cafe du Monde and Jax Brewery, is either the best location or the worst location for a pan-Asian noodle bar. The obstacles here are obvious. A shop down the block does a booming business by blending voodoo paraphernalia, zydeco music and a convulsing mummy at the entrance, and a waist-high robot prowling the sidewalk draws more visitors into the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum than all the city's cemetery tours combined. But remember, this is the neighborhood wherein Krispy Kreme, despite its name brand and nationwide cult, recently met its demise. A successful French Quarter business plan usually requires significant regional shtick.
Usually. There are a few exceptions, including in the competitive dining arena; I have high hopes that the new Noodle Bar & Tea Shop will join Bennachin and Salt & Pepper in the thin ranks of little French Quarter ethnic restaurants that could.
Which is not to say that I haven't had doubts. I was certain, in fact, during my first few chaotic minutes there that they would be my last. Flats of soy milk, sacks of rice and buckets of soy sauce blocked the front door; there were no tapioca pearls for bubble tea; orders were taken on sticky notes, a poor match for a noodle house's perpetual steam bath; and a cook frantically butchered whole chickens on a slab of cutting board no bigger than a pot holder.
What a surprise, then, when the spring-fresh soy milk and iced, sweet green tea with ginseng appeared almost immediately, quickly followed by four gratis bowls of gently smoky, golden miso soup. Though my friends and I sat at the noodle bar, where a dozen leather-cushioned stools allow views of the active kitchen, none of us could puzzle out how the rest of the meal materialized so quickly. There were fragile-skinned gyoza dumplings, browned on one side, lucent on the other, and filled with an aromatic, sausage-like ball of pork and garlic. There were fryer-hot Vietnamese spring rolls, their crisp wrappers bundled tight as winter scarves around a moist and meaty filling. And there was a cold, sesame squid salad, the squid sheared into ribbons of gelatinous crunch.
Our collective favorite appetizer, the tender, boneless, barbecue beef ribs, struck several chords of familiarity. It reminded half of us of hot dogs and the others of pate. If those two sound contradictory, consider the virtues of boudin.
The Noodle Bar's jester -- a jokey overseer who's deceivingly efficient -- provided dinner entertainment, while the dead-serious cook behind him kept busy dunking handfuls of supple, clay-pink soba noodles into a steaming water bath, crumbling blocks of silken tofu into a galaxy of weightless white cubes and pressing chicken breast between the dry ridges of an electric grill. His work yielded mostly glorious main course results: carrots and delicate, woodsy, buckwheat noodles moistened in a sweet-salty garlic sauce (Japanese Soba); and tofu with curly, blond ramen noodles immersed in a clear, chicken-beef broth that appeared as limpid as it tasted stout (Chinese Nama Soup). A two-dimensional rendition of pad Thai -- salty and hot but not tangy, nutty or herb-brightened -- was the evening's only downer; its rubbery chicken didn't help.
Pan-Asian restaurants are this decade's sushi bars, but Noodle House's blended ethnicity results from its multiethnic ownership more than from a fashionable dining trend. You Lin was raised by one Chinese and one Japanese parent, while his partner, Lan Do, is of Vietnamese heritage. The couple also owns the restaurant Nagoya in Jackson, Miss., which is currently run by some of their 15 combined siblings.
On the Japanese tip, the lightly battered tempura shrimp were faultless on the afternoon I tried them, and a cold tofu and wilted spinach salad with sesame-soy dressing was refreshingly simple. Vietnam is well-represented in bowls of pho, a vermicelli noodle soup of robust, star anise-touched broth. The pho is prepared with either well-done beef or well-done chicken and served with platters of raw cilantro and bean sprouts for garnish. There's also a host of basic teriyaki and grilled meat plates, but anyone who chooses these over the superior noodle bowls is bound for a letdown.
All of the retail teas, vacuum-packed in shimmery gold, red and green bags, are imported from China. You may schedule a tea ceremony around one of the cavernous back room's low, glossy tables, but functionally the 'Tea' in Noodle Bar & Tea Shop refers to the exciting selection of iced fruit teas, which are sweet as sno-balls but not as synthetic -- they contain actual fruit pulp. If the requisite black tapioca pearls suddenly become available, you may order them as bubble teas.
Last week a friend who lives in the French Quarter joined me at the mahogany-stained wooden bar for a bowl of pho and a stiff Vietnamese coffee. His dining routine changed instantly with the realization that he could have an identical meal delivered any day of the week. Which proves that sometimes -- even in the French Quarter -- good food and a bicycle are shtick enough.
- Diners can sit at one of the NOODLE BAR & TEA SHOP's dozen leather-cushioned stools to peek in on the active kitchen. Good luck figuring out how they whip out the food so quickly.