Fast Food with Flavor
Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese or comforting chicken soup — it’s noodles any way you want them at Westchester’s Noodle World Jr.
By Richard Foss (email@example.com)
There was once a time when all popular fast food in America involved a bun or a crust, with meat and cheese or some token vegetable inside. No, really, you can look it up. In those primordial days before supermarket sushi, rice bowls and crisp-shell tacos with cheddar cheese (the first Taco Bell opened in 1962), if you wanted a quick bite you didn’t have many options besides pizza and burgers.
We still eat plenty of those old favorites, but even places that your average Angeleno would think of as Hicksville have drive-thrus serving once-exotic food. Instead of a crust or a bun, our proteins and vegetables are perched atop noodles, or swimming with them in a rich broth. Depending on where you go, you can get thin buckwheat yakisoba, fat rice udon, chow mein, or the flat noodles used in Thai cooking.
Or you can stop in at Westchester’s Noodle World Jr. and get whichever you like, however you like it.
The newest location of this Alhambra-based chain offers 20 noodle dishes in the distinctive styles of various Asian cultures. If you like your soup spicy, you can get Thai hot-and-sour broth with or without coconut milk. If you like mild natural flavors, there are Japanese ramen broths. Or you can split the difference with a fragrant and rich Vietnamese pho.
And if you are overwhelmed by these choices and in need of immediate comfort food, you can get plain chicken noodle soup, which is comfort food by just about anybody’s standard.
The neat modern storefront on Sepulveda Boulevard operates like a typical fast food place: you order at the counter, are given a number and very quickly some food shows up. Noodles don’t take long to cook, no matter what you do with them.
If you happen to want appetizers (and of course we did), you can ask that those arrive first. We tried the vegetarian eggrolls and an order of wings, and they were both pretty good. The wings were crisp; the Vietnamese-style spring rolls stuffed with cabbage, carrot, onion and (of course) noodles. Both had obviously both been made to order instead of spending any time under a heat lamp, and while they were mild by themselves they came with high-energy dipping sauces.
Over several visits I tried four noodle dishes: udon in pork broth ($8.50), chicken noodles ($7.95), yakisoba ($8.50) and garlic noodles ($8.50).
I think that last item should be listed on the menu as “GARLIC Noodles,” or perhaps “Garlic! Noodles,” because there may be more garlic than noodles by weight. That last part may be an exaggeration, but it didn’t taste like it on the first bite; the mix of toasted and sautéed garlic packs a wallop.
Of course there was more to the dish than that — you could taste the white and shiitake mushrooms, chicken, green onions, garlic butter and cheese, too —but the garlic was way out front.
The other three noodle dishes were faithful to their traditions — the Hong Kong-style chicken noodles in an intense oniony broth, and the udon served with tender pork, Japanese fish cake and vegetables in a delicate amber-colored meat broth. The yakisoba with shrimp and vegetables had the slight smokiness that can be imparted by wok cooking, and was my second favorite after the GARLIC! Noodles.
Noodle World Jr. also offers some rice plates, and I’ve sampled a Thai-style mint leaf chicken. This was essentially the popular dish known as larb: ground chicken with basil, bell pepper, garlic and jalapeno over rice and topped with a fried egg. Americans tend to think of mint as a mild, mellow flavor, but in this preparation with chilies and garlic it can be an exhilaratingly spicy blast. The focus may be on noodles here, but this showed that they have the same steady hand with other things.
Noodle World Jr. is obviously doing well, and so is the rest of the chain — a spokesperson for the company estimated that their nine outlets serve between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds of noodles each day.
As much as that sounds like (and I invite you to imagine what a 1,500-pound pile of noodles would look like, with or without toppings), it’s just a tiny fraction of the noodles served every day around America.
Noodles have mainstreamed now, and our fast food choices are all the better for it.
Noodle World Jr., 8636 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Westchester (310) 216-9888 noodleworld.com