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Bowled Over

A simple, winning concept at Noodles & Company

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Who doesn't like eating out of a bowl? Why do certain shapes evoke comfort, safety, calmness? And who doesn't like that universal ingredient of comfort food -- noodles?

Answers to such questions can be found at Noodles & Company, a sweet little model of dining efficiency stranded on the far northeast side of town.

It's a simple enough system. Aaron Kennedy, a business wizard who cut his marketing teeth with companies like Pepsi and Oscar Meyer, thought it up in 1995. Make it easy and inexpensive ($3.75 $5.95) for busy people to grab a quick meal without the guilt and nutritional bloat of a fast-food joint. Have beer and wine available for the grown-ups, kids' portions of most entrees for their offspring. Have it tastefully designed, from the lettering on signs to the colors on the wall. Hire young people who are -- for the time being -- willing to work for peanuts and make it a "No Tipping" restaurant (not at all a good thing in my book but certainly appealing to some folks).

And have it all held together by noodles. Udon noodles, rice noodles, egg noodles, elbows, bowties, penne. It's a carbo-loading athlete's dream come true. Each dish made to order, the choices cover the globe from Japan to Thailand to Italy, Indonesia and -- yes -- Wisconsin. Buried at the bottom of a list of noodle bowls is the classic Mac & Cheese.

We had to have it. Cheesy, gooey, gummy (in a good Mac & Cheese way), it held its own against some of the more exotic bowls we sampled, like the Sesame Seared Lo Mein and the Pad Thai. The only way to make that Mac & Cheese better would be to eat it at home in your jammies in front of the TV.

The buttered noodles with Parmesan were also comfortingly bland; we jazzed it up with some chicken (other add-ons include beef tenderloin, tofu, shrimp, tomatoes, broccoli and sauted mushrooms). It's nothing fancy, and nothing you couldn't throw together yourself, but we liked it.

We really liked the spicier noodle bowls. The Pad Thai's sticky rice noodles came with peanuts, carrots, bean sprouts and cabbage. It's not even close to the heat level you'd find at most Thai restaurants but the large bottle of Thai hot chili sauce on the table allowed us to warm it up a notch. We similarly doctored the Thai Curry soup, a broth thick with rice noodles, spinach, mushrooms, cabbage and onions. It's nice to have some Thai dishes for more timid palates. But it's even nicer to have that chili sauce option.

Since we were immersing ourselves in all available Thai dishes, we sampled the Thai Caesar salad. It's not something I saw in Bangkok, but it's a nice little spin on the Caesar. Take romaine and coat with a spicy peanuty dressing. Top with bean sprouts.

As much as we enjoyed the quasi-Thai dishes, we loved the Sesame-seared lo Mein. Mushrooms, carrots, cabbage and peas spend their 15 seconds of fame in a wok being quickly heated and tossed with lo Mein noodles in a sesame soy sauce. That bowl was licked clean.

If Italian pasta dishes are more to your liking, try the Pesto Cavatappi, curly noodles joined with tomatoes and mushrooms in a pesto, wine, cream sauce. Or the Pasta Fresca, basically a Primavera with penne pasta, spinach, tomatoes and onion. Children of all ages will enjoy the classic bowl of penne with marinara. Remember those add-ons if you're wanting more variety.

In the interest of keeping costs down, you get your own drinks, chopsticks, condiments and take-out containers. What service there was, was friendly. The experience some friends had when Noodles first opened must have been a fluke. They were advised, while still eating, to "Speed it up; we need the table." This from a manager -- and not just some guy needing to seat his entourage -- was a little discouraging. Happily the only discourse directed to us was from a busboy asking, "Did everything go well?" It had indeed gone well, and speedily; for which we were grateful. We still had a stop to make.

Unbeknownst to Mr. Kennedy when he opened the Colorado Springs franchise (unless he really is a marketing genius), Noodles & Company is next door to a Coldstone Creamery. There the kids behind the counter, all high schoolers with homework waiting, scoop your ice cream, yogurt or sorbet onto a cold stone slab and, with a deftness that belies their youth, mix in your choice of candies, nuts, chips, sprinkles. How does Amaretto ice cream with toasted coconut sound? Double Dutch chocolate with bits of peppermint patty? Coffee with macadamia nuts, white chocolate chips or M&Ms? A sensible person might get lemon sorbet with a modest topping of rainbow sprinkles. We were over the top with our combinations.

So the night began and ended with bowls, neither fancy nor unforgettable, just bowls brimming with easy, familiar, filling comfort food.

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