Chefs across the country are expanding Americans' notions of various Asian cuisines. In Washington, diners are experiencing an explosion of new Asian restaurants, from several Izakayas serving Japanese small-plate pub food, to focused regional cuisine such as Little Serrow's northeastern Thai dishes. In Richmond, Peter Chang China Café introduces diners to authentic Sichuan-style Chinese dishes far beyond the familiar Chinese-American standards such as General Tso's chicken.
Descending the steep stairs to My Noodle & Bar's basement entrance on Monument Avenue, I bring my food-trend-obsessed hopes of finding something new and authentic. Initially I'm disappointed by the pan-Asian, self-described fusion menu. Another overreaching attempt to deliver flavors of most of an enormous continent from a single kitchen, I think. But that feeling gives way to pleasant surprise at the wide range of well-conceived and executed noodle dishes. The menu includes soups and entrees as well, but the best bets are the noodles, as the restaurant's name suggests.
The owner, Joe Kiatsuranon, grew up in the restaurant business. His mother owns Carytown's Mom's Siam, and regulars there may recognize him, as he makes a habit of spending time in the dining room checking in with his customers. Gregarious and passionate about food, his concern for his guests' experience is evident whether he's offering My Noodle's homemade hot sauces or suggesting what to order. My wife's family likes to say that the secret and necessary ingredient to good cooking is love. While I'm not as sanguine about the culinary effects of the restaurant staff's emotional state, it's clear that Kiatsuranon loves his food and new restaurant, and that emotion translates onto his plates.
The noodle and broccoli ($10.50 with tofu) delivers thin rice noodles in a black bean sauce, spiced to the level of heat you can tolerate, punctuated by crispy and pungent slices of fried garlic and sweet pine nuts. The classic Thai drunken noodles ($14.50 with shrimp) don't suffer from my dining companion's request for a mild and gluten-free version. Thai basil and fish sauce hit the right savory notes without masking an underlying sweetness. The wide rice noodles are cooked to chewy perfection. The pad Thai ($10.50 with chicken) suffers a rare misstep on one visit. Overly sweet, it could have been served as dessert. I'm hoping it was a cook's off night, and not the recipe.
The entree section of the menu needs some explanation. It's simply a list of words: "broccoli," "wild pepper corn," "spicy lemon." The trick is that you can pair your choice of protein and the entree title and be served a dish with steamed rice or a side of noodles. Some of these make sense, such as green curry or sweet and sour, but I'm left wondering what flavor profile would land in front of me if I order pork and broccoli. Thankfully the staff is patient and helpful and more than makes up for any confusion caused by the menu or the diners' special requests.
The appetizers and the soups are hit and miss. The barbecue pork noodle soup ($10.50) has a straightforward and clean broth that begs for some flavor from the excellent house-made hot sauces. The pork is a touch dry, and overall, while a fine dish, confirms my bias toward the noodle section of the menu. The appetizers are similarly adequate, with the Thai sun-dried beef a standout.
A word of warning to diners: The acoustics are such that your conversations carry and can be heard by the quieter or nosier around you. On one occasion, this leads to overhearing a drunken, cringe-worthy conversation with a patron at the bar commenting on the looks of the female staff and talking about Vietnam. Fortunately he ends by loudly proclaiming his love of the restaurant and his intention to bring all his friends. And it's the welcoming staff, cooking good food they're passionate about, that will keep people coming and bringing others.
So while My Noodle doesn't push the envelope or break new culinary ground, it's serving comfort food that can warm your soul. S
My Noodle & Bar
1600 Monument Ave.
Monday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m.-4 p.m.