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Noodles and Other Stuff

Nothing but Noodles may be worth dropping by, if it's on the way

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First off, it must be said: The name is a complete lie.

In fact, Nothing but Noodles has a menu with more than a handful of offerings--including salads, soups and desserts--sans noodles. Thus, disregard the name as a bad creation by some overly enthusiastic nerds in marketing.

But, you say, forget the name. How is the food? The answer, in a nutshell: Not bad. Not great, but not bad, either.

Garrett and I visited Nothing but Noodles on a recent weekday evening. Occupying a corner of the shopping center at Camp Lowell and Swan roads, the first Tucson incarnation of the Scottsdale-based fast-casual chain opened last year. (A second is coming soon to Grant and Silverbell roads.) The restaurants' goal, according to the Web site: "Enjoy a contemporary dining experience with heavy, white-china bowls, cozy seating, original artwork and stylish colors. We operate on a simple principle: prepare fresh food fast in an open kitchen to display the high quality products we serve. Our noodles blend in perfect harmony with our flavorful sauces and enticing extras ... delicious meets beautiful all in one bowl."

That's mostly correct. The food does come in white bowls. The seating is, while not exactly cozy, moderately comfortable. There is original artwork on the walls, and the colors--primarily yellow and brown with wood trim--are stylish, assuming you find yellow, brown and wood trim stylish. (The '80s music playing overhead, however, was about two decades out of style.) There are a lot of wavy lines around the restaurant--from the overhead décor to the fencing around the outdoor dining area--which provide a nice touch, driving home the restaurant's noodle theme. The kitchen is open, and the food is served fast. But the noodles and the sauces aren't always in perfect harmony--though some of the dishes are pretty good--and the extras are hit-and-miss.

On our first visit, Garrett and I decided to split a bunch of different things: a cup each of the potsticker and Thai red curry soups ($3.69; a bowl is $4.75); the beef stroganoff ($6.89) and the pad Thai noodles with chicken ($5.59 plus an extra $1.99 for the meat). After the usual fast-casual rigmarole (order at counter, get number, get your own silverware and drinks, have food delivered to table when ready), we were ready to eat.

The soups--delivered at the same time as the noodle bowls--were both disappointing. The potsticker soup, with a couple of potstickers, mushrooms, ginger and spinach, tasted quite earthy and slightly bitter. It reminded me of a mushroom-intensive wonton soup. The potstickers, regrettably, were almost tasteless. The Thai red curry soup, with coconut milk, rice noodles, red peppers, chicken and green onions, wasn't bad at all--except that neither Garrett nor I could taste even a hint of curry. The chicken, coconut milk and other ingredients made it palatable, but again, the name was a misnomer.

Fortunately, the noodle bowls were both pretty good. The beef stroganoff reminded Garrett of what his Dad used to make; he said that if he were in a stroganoff mood, the dish "would do it for (him)." I liked it, although the sauce could have used a little more pizzazz, and the dish could have used a bit more beef. As for the pad Thai, it was the highlight of the meal. It wasn't spicy at all (even though the menu warned it would be), but it had a nice, mellow sweet taste that combined nicely with the cilantro, chicken and other flavors. There was, however, one problem: The egg, supposed to be an ingredient in the dish, was not mixed in at all. Instead, it was included in one piece, like a big, rubbery omelet. This didn't work, and for the most part, Garrett and I ate around it.

For dessert, Garrett decided to get the New York cheesecake ($3.49), and I ordered the chocolate chip cannoli ($3.49). Nothing but Noodles also offers key lime pie ($3.49), triple chocolate cake ($3.49) and, interestingly, cotton candy ($1). As with the meals, the desserts were a mixed bag. Garrett enjoyed his cheesecake thoroughly. (It is offered with either strawberry puree or almonds and amaretto liqueur, but he got it plain.) Sweet with a hint of cheese flavor, Garrett deemed it "pretty damn good." My cannoli, however, was pretty damn mediocre. The shell was rock-hard and stale-tasting, while the filling--with sweet ricotta cheese and chocolate chips--was only so-so.

With thoroughly mixed feelings about Nothing but Noodles, we returned for lunch a day later. We decided to share an order of Thai lettuce wraps ($5.29). Garrett ordered the Thai curry beef with vegetables off the low-carb menu ($6.50), while I ordered a cup of the tomato bisque soup ($3.69) and a half order of the Oriental salad ($2.99). For dessert, we opted to split a piece of the triple chocolate cake.

Our mixed feelings stayed mixed after lunch. The lettuce wraps were OK, except that there wasn't as much chicken/jicama/mushroom mixture included as we had expected, based on similar dishes at other restaurants. It was enough for 2 1/2 wraps, meaning a whole lot of lettuce went unused. The accompanying Thai peanut sauce was somewhat bland as well. My salad was also sub-par. The sweet-and-sour dressing, while passable, was primarily sweet, and the lettuce was not as fresh as I would have liked.

Thankfully, the soup and Thai curry beef were much better. The bisque--which, surprisingly, was quite chunky with tomato and onion--had a rich, creamy taste. It was the highlight of my lunch. Garrett enjoyed the concoction of beef, green onions, bell peppers, peanuts and carrots, served with a wedge of lettuce in case you want to use the leaves to make wraps. He was baffled, though, by the accompanying mozzarella and tomato slices. While they were fine, and while they both fit the low-carb theme, they had nothing to do with the Thai curry beef.

The cake, drizzled in chocolate sauce, provided a nice, sweet ending to the meal.

In all, our meals at Nothing but Noodles were OK--nothing spectacular, nothing terrible. We'd go back if driving by, perhaps. But we wouldn't go out of our way to go back--unless maybe Garrett gets into one of his beef stroganoff moods.

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