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Kimbo's Noodle Bar gives fast food fresh meaning.

Noodling Around

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With all the great restaurants in town right now, it's disappointing to realize that I always end up at the same two or three for lunch. But lunch is the kind of meal where you don't have a lot of time and you want what you want. Fast. No hassles. And if you're like me, you want it cheap, because eating lunch out every day can really add up. On the first two counts — fast, no hassles — Kimbo's Noodle Bar and Wide Coffee succeeds.

On the corner of Harrison and West Cary streets, the fringe of VCU land, Kimbo's has moved into a former bagel shop like a breath of fresh spring air. Patrons of the former Bruegger's will recognize much of the layout, which has been updated and stylized, thankfully, but there is new stuff, too, like the semiprivate coffee corner tucked behind a couple of partition walls and furnished with upholstered chairs.

A great spot to sit and read for a while, do a little studying or chat with a couple of friends, Kimbo's is open, light and airy with a postindustrial-Scandinavian-blond-wood touch that's urban but not grunge; cool but not retro; hip but not jaded. It's more of a clean, fresh, Seattle-coffeehouse-urban look. For the record, Wide Coffee is a brand of bean and it's good.

The noodle menu, which appears on three tablets bolted to the range vent hood like giant Japanese characters, is simple. There are two cool noodle dishes — Viet-Grille Salad and Veggie Sesame Noodles — and eight hot noodle dishes featuring a pan-Asian array of noodle styles: rice noodles, Chinese noodles, ramen, udon and glass noodles. Each dish comes with various items such as sprouts, scallions, carrots and cucumber. You can also add tofu, chicken and shrimp for an additional cost.

There also is a featured Daily Noodle, and there are five choices of appetizer including dumplings, spring rolls and satays ($1.95-$3.50).

For eat-in, which is probably how you want to go, you order at the grille, grab a drink, and sit. They'll bring your noodles to you, and fast. Noodles are served in a big white paper bucket. One size fits all. Pluck your disposable chopsticks from a glass on the table. Forks are available at the sideboard with the napkins and straws.

[image-1]Photo by Stacy Warner / richmond.comSo far, after several visits, my favorite is Thai Lemongrass Chicken ($6.50). The smoky flavor of the grilled peppery chicken with the crushed peanuts, scallions, sprouts, onions and rice noodles is a winner. The Viet-Grille Salad ($5.95) is good, but a little on the bland side. The "seafood-infused" dressing doesn't cling to anything and the use of flavorless-but-crunchy iceberg lettuce is not impressive. I thought the fresh spring roll ($2.50) was outstanding and, given its size, could make a frugal, simple lunch on its own. The original spicy peanut dipping sauce is excellent, too.

The Master of Your Lo Mein ($4.95) is probably the best value on the hot side, likewise the Veggie Sesame Noodles ($4.95) on the cool side. But add in tofu, chicken or steak, and you tack on another $1.50, pushing your bucket over $6. Add shrimp and you're over $7 with tax.

This leads to my only misgiving about Kimbo's: the inconsistency of a disposable fast-food environment with full-service restaurant prices. While the portions are large, I was left feeling ambivalent about this.

Whether a valid assumption or not, the perception among the people I've taken there is that noodles ought to be cheap, particularly in an area where the prime customers are likely to be students and academics. (Likewise the coffee.) No base entrée, with tax, comes in at less than $5. Though you hardly need an appetizer and a bucket of noodles, if you follow the suggestion of the menu — starter plus entrée — and the temptations of the beverage cooler, before you know it your noodle-bar lunch has set you back about $11.

It seems to me that a bucket half the size, or even two-thirds the size with a corresponding across-the-board reduction of about $1.50 to $2 would help put Kimbo's on the regular beat for many students, faculty, local business people and dedicated Fan residents.

In the end, unless there is a strong reason for coming to this corner of campus — off the main direction of travel for all but commuting students and the sorority sisters around the corner — not many will make the trek. And that's too bad, because Kimbo's is a fresh, original alternative to the pizza-or-sandwich lunch. A soon-to-come vending cart may help attract downtown

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