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Just how much do human beings love a great bowl of noodles? Ask Wang Cong-yuan.
According to a December report in The Wall Street Journal, the highly regarded Taiwanese restaurateur charges about $324 for a bowl of his best beef noodles, which includes different cuts of beef from Japan, Australia, the U.S., and Brazil, in addition to 120 grams of noodles and some broth. The price was reportedly dictated by his own customers, who said $324 was the amount they’d be willing to pay for Wang’s finest product.
Quick-serve chains can only envy that generous margin structure, of course, but Wang’s superlative beef noodles offer a pointed reminder that it is possible to take some pretty impressive liberties with one of the world’s most universally beloved starch staples.
It’s the accessibility and chameleonic nature of most noodles that permit such free-spirited experimentation. Even if mainstream U.S. consumers aren’t particularly well-acquainted with soba (buckwheat noodles from Japan), slim vermicelli pasta, or clear, cellophane-style noodles made from mung beans, the basic texture, appearance, and presentation of most noodle dishes is unlikely to send conservative diners racing from the dining room. And since noodles almost always serve as carriers for a sauce, filling, or stir-fry—or as flavor and texture enhancers in soups—they offer a safe, nonthreatening way to ease diners into new flavor profiles and ingredients.
While noodles are pleasingly familiar, they’re hardly in a state of stasis. Indeed, it seems that chefs, packaged-foods companies, and a host of enterprising chains are finding the form ripe for reinvention and renewal. Lately, we at the Center for Culinary Development are seeing more authentic takes on—of all things—ramen, which for years has been widely considered among the most pedestrian of noodles. Outlets such as Ippudo and Soba Totto in New York City celebrate the form, and Ajisen Ramen now boasts more than 300 units worldwide, including a half-dozen in California.
Meanwhile, increasingly popular food trucks in major metropolitan areas offer virtually limitless takes on Asian mainstays such as pad Thai, curried Singapore-style noodles, Japanese Yakasoba noodles, and dan-dan mien, a spicy Sichuan noodle with strong sesame flavor overtones. Even your local supermarket’s fresh-foods display is probably teeming with fresh Italian pasta salads, Asian noodle dishes, and mac ’n cheese variations.
From the quick-serve operator’s perspective, the real value of noodles is their variety. They can be used as an entrée through which chains can tap into three prevalent culinary trends, including:
Safe, approachable global flavor explorations: The idea of a hot pad Thai entrée would probably strike many Burger King, Jack in the Box, or Subway patrons as off-base or even bizarre. But a cold pad Thai salad or a Thai chicken salad bowl with noodles could probably integrate well into diners’ existing concept of what these chains deliver while expanding frequent users’ Asian flavor horizons. Just as teriyaki has effectively become, over time, an almost universally accepted staple of the American flavor palette, one day salads made with Indian curried rice noodles, Japanese udon noodles, Vietnamese pho rice, or Korean-style guksu noodles will come to seem about as exotic as Chef Boyardee.
Healthier dining: From noodles made from spinach, squash, or tomato to higher-fiber white whole-wheat pastas, noodles can increase a meal’s stealth-health quotient and even offer a platform for more meatless dishes. For Italian chains such as Pizza Hut, the idea of noodles as a main course or hearty side dish is hardly a new concept. But it’s not hard to see how whole-grain noodles served hot or cold (primavera-style, perhaps) could substitute for richer, potato-based sides at chicken, burger, and sandwich chains as well.
Comfort options: Hearty, warm, filling, and familiar, noodles are, in many ways, the ultimate comfort food, whether they take the form of traditional Italian spaghetti or lasagna, chow mein, or American-style egg noodles like those found in standard casserole dishes or what used to be called chop suey. As quick-serve operators look to expand their comfort-food offerings, noodles can provide a solid, satisfying base from which to explore new directions.
Just as the introduction of artisan-style breads has invigorated sandwich chains by enabling innovation within a familiar format, I believe that tinkering with the possibilities afforded by noodles can open new doors for chains. If they’re seeking to capitalize on diners’ interest in Asian flavors, healthier menu options, and comfort foods, noodles will offer endless options. Even if standalone noodle chains may not pique Americans’ culinary interest, it seems a sure bet that there’s room to incorporate them into existing chains’ menus in novel, creative ways.