Whether it’s technology like a smartphone or an entertainment franchise like Star Trek, there are times when the best fix is a reboot. Sometimes the decision to shut down and come back after changes occurs after years or decades of existence. In the case of Noodle Bar, the reboot came after less than a year of operation. After a shaky start as two separate fast-casual restaurants — one Japanese and Italian — in a small food court arrangement, a recent reboot has led to the creation of a single restaurant devoted to noodles from both nations in a full-service dining room.
Noodle Bar’s official address reads 114 West Adams Street, but the actual entrance to the newly merged restaurant is found on the west side of First Avenue, halfway between Monroe and Adams. The location is equidistant from the Van Buren light rail stations to the north and the Washington / Central (westbound) and Jefferson / First Avenue (eastbound) stations to the south. Bike racks are built into parking meters on the blocks surrounding around the restaurant on First Avenue, Adams, and Monroe.
The restaurant is inconspicuous despite its location in the ground floor of the imposing and majestic Orpheum Lofts, a 1931 office building recently renovated to serve as condominiums. Look for a subtle sign above the doorway or a sandwich board sign that is frequently placed on the sidewalk along First Avenue. Inside, there’s a host station at the center of the dining room, which is minimalist and contemporary in decor without any overt nods to either Japan or Italy. Two-and-four seat tables fill the room, and some counters near the front are good for solo visitors.
The menu combines Japanese and Italian influences in roughly equal proportions with one side of the sheet devoted to each nation’s noodles. There’s no discernible attempt to merge the two cuisines, so it would be wrong to call Noodle Bar’s approach “fusion.” Instead, it’s simply two parallel sets of appetizers and entrees bound not so much by cross-cultural experimentation, but instead a celebration of common themes such as shareable snacks to start and bowls of noodles as main dishes. Feel free to mix both Italian and Japanese items when ordering, though.
The Japanese side of the menu starts with izakaya, small plates of Japanese tavern food. Most items here are holdovers from the menu at Otakumen, the ramen restaurant that was part of the original Orpheum food court concept. Karaage is crisp pieces of fried chicken, enlivened with soy sauce in the marinade and garnished with bits of scallions and an aioli sauce. Agedashi tofu is similarly accessorized with the added effect of bonito flakes flickering on the plate. Chahan is seasoned fried rice with plenty of egg and a little meat. Cucumber tsukemono is a light, tart salad.
The ramen bowls are moderately sized — enough to serve as a full meal for a modest appetite but restrained enough to leave some room for appetizers. Torigara ramen with chicken, bean sprouts, and sesame seeds is a gentle introduction to Noodle Bar’s soups, as is the Sapporo, which adds the flavor of miso and the mouth-feel of butter. Tori toma makes a bolder statement with a spicy tomato broth and a bit of kimchi. Hakata ramen is perhaps the most traditional with a cloudy tonkatsu broth and protein from pork. The machaca ramen incorporates drief beef, but in small bits as a flavoring rather than in the copious portions usually encountered in a burrito.
The flip side of the menu, the Italian half, starts with antipasto dishes such as small plates of sausage, ravioli, vegetables, or meatballs. The salads range from a relatively straightforward house salad, a Caesar in all but name, to a vibrant arrostito salad in which romaine is topped with roasted peppers, leeks, and a slightly tart lemon dressing. Noodle Bar’s version of the classic caprese goes beyond the normal trio of tomato, basil, and mozzarella by using cream burrata as its cheese and relying on tomatoes that have been roasted for enhanced flavor.
The entrees are all based on pasta in keeping with the obvious theme at Noodle Bar. Pomodoro is a simple combination of tomato sauce and meatballs. Cacciatore is made with crispy chicken thighs, a welcome alternative to endless boneless breast, augmented with marinated tomatoes, pomodoro sauce, cauliflower, bell peppers, and capers. The lasagna at Noodle Bar is rolled around the ground meat and ricotta within, essentially creating a pasta pocket. While most portions of pasta are moderate, the lasagne almost demands to be shared among two or three people.
Beyond the two-sided regular menu, there are occasional specials such as a Chinese-inspired chewy dan-dan noodles with ground meat and scallions. There are no desserts listed on the menu, but a final chapter of the meal is also sometimes available as a chalkboard special. A recent key lime pie made with the Asian yuzu fruit is an inventive play on an American classic. One nice upgrade with the reboot is enhanced drink offerings. Bottled beer has been upgraded with an expanded array of draft choices, as well as wine, sake, and fruit-flavored lemonades.
A new wait staff does a generally good job of navigating the space, including awkwardly placed counters which were designed with more of a self-service model in mind, and providing for customer needs. While the two restaurant originally in this space served perfectly good food, they struggled with a confusing layout for customers. Noodle Bar builds on the kitchen’s strengths while making the environment less confounding. There was no “blue screen of death” on First Avenue, but the recent reboot has allowed for the needed improvements to keep the noodles coming.
Updated 1/8/2019: Noodle Bar has discontinued the Italian dishes on its menu and now serves only ramen and Japanese food.
114 W. Adams St. #103, Phoenix AZ 85003
Van Buren / First Avenue or Jefferson / First Avenue stations (westbound)
Van Buren / Central or Washington / Central stations (eastbound)