They’re made with just flour and water, but mixing these simple ingredients has created one of the world’s most popular foods. Noodles, from Italian pasta to all-American macaroni and cheese, and from Asian wheat or rice flour versions to those used for chicken noodle soup, are on the menus at about half of American limited-service restaurants.
“Noodles and pasta have been popular favorites for a long time, and they have certainly progressed in quality and style,” says Howie Velie, associate dean of culinary specializations at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. “The basic formula is wheat- or rice flour–based, and can be as simple as adding water and salt.” Eggs and other ingredients may be added, he says.
Serving noodles is a great option for restaurant operators, Velie adds. “It’s value added because it’s filling, so you can get a giant plate of pasta and it doesn’t cost a lot.”
Market research firm Mintel reports that noodles were being served at 53 percent of limited-service restaurants during 2014’s second quarter. Although the number of pasta and noodle mentions on menus hasn’t changed much since 2011, Paul Pendola, manager of Mintel’s Menu Insights, says there’s been an increase in pasta side dishes. That gives operators “the opportunity to innovate around pasta and pasta sides, making sure consumers have a wider and more innovative selection,” he says.
Technomic reports that the number of quick-service and fast-casual restaurants serving noodles, along with the number of noodle menu items, has grown from 2009 to 2014.
“Noodles are pretty inexpensive for restaurants and consumers,” says Elizabeth Freier, an editor at the Chicago-based market research firm. “There’s a lot you can do with noodles, and you can incorporate plenty of varieties, both hot and cold.”
Not only do noodles come in various flours, but there are also dozens of shapes—thin, fat, short, long, wavy, and spiral, among others. There’s also pasta that comes with a health halo, such as whole-wheat and gluten-free, Freier says.
While noodle shapes are visually interesting, there are other important differences, in taste, texture, and the flour used.
“The thicker the noodle, the more the palate is hit by that flavor,” Velie says. In addition, “texture is part of taste, and people forget that.” In Chinese cooking, for instance, wide rice noodles add flavor and texture as they char while cooking in a wok. Rice noodles tend to be more difficult to make than wheat ones, Velie adds, because wheat contains gluten, which not only provides chewiness, but also elasticity, so size and shape are manipulated easily.
Most noodles in western countries are made with wheat flour, while it’s split nearly evenly in Asia between wheat in northern climates and rice in southern latitudes.
Pasta is by far the best known and loved European noodle in America. Many restaurants serve traditional favorites, like spaghetti and lasagna, although some are also looking for new varieties and ideas to remain fresh. At Fazoli’s, the menu has build-your-own pasta bowls with spaghetti, regular or whole-wheat penne, fettuccine, or ravioli, all cooked throughout the day, plus oven dishes that are “traditional with some twists,” says Jon Quinn, vice president of marketing.
“We look at what we’re trying to achieve,” he says. “What are the best noodles, sauces, and cheese to meet that concept?”
The Lexington, Kentucky–based chain of nearly 220 units has used different pastas in limited-time offerings, including sacchetti (pasta pouches) in a cheese-stuffed pasta line and cavatappi (spiral macaroni) in casseroles. The latter, in Signature Cheddar Alfredo Bites, has “one foot in mac and cheese, but a step more in premium,” Quinn says. “We wanted the sauce flavor that met that noodle type.”
There’s only one noodle, capellini, available at Piada Italian Street Food’s nearly two-dozen restaurants. It’s the heart of the concept’s signature pasta bowls.
“Thinner pasta really works for the guest we’re feeding,” says Mike Bomberger, executive corporate chef and part owner at the Columbus, Ohio–based company. “It’s easily recognizable to all backgrounds that come to Piada.”
The restaurant company put a significant amount of time into testing many types of pasta before settling on the rod-shaped capellini, which Bomberger says holds well, looks great in a bowl, and has a terrific taste with the various sauces and toppings that are offered. Piada has enacted steps to make sure the pasta is cooked correctly and avoids being mushy. “We spend a lot of time with our chefs on these procedures,” he says.
While pasta is America’s most common European noodle, there are others. For example, spaetzle, a small, free-form dumpling from central Europe, is featured with the popular chicken paprikash at Al’s Corner Restaurant in Barberton, Ohio, says owner Denny Gray.
Chinese-style cooking has been in the limited-service space for years, but a wide range of Asian quick-service eateries have popped up more recently serving various types of noodles, from Japanese ramen to Vietnamese pho.
“There are a lot of similarities in what’s known as Pan-Asian cooking, but there are distinct differences” in the noodles, sauces, and spices that are used, says James Clark, food and beverage manager at Austin, Texas–based Mama Fu’s Asian House. “Egg noodles are wheat-flour noodles made with eggs, similar to an Italian noodle,” he says, adding that they are the base for Chinese lo mein. “The family of rice noodles has a whole different taste and texture.”
Mama Fu’s pasta bowls, pad thai, and thai basil use a wider noodle, while thin ones are in the Vietnamese vermicelli salad, along with greens, cucumbers, bean sprouts, and seared chicken in hoisin sauce. Pho also has a bigger rice noodle.
Mama Fu’s Black Market menu features two rice vermicelli dishes: Tom Kha, a traditional Thai dish with a choice of a protein in a spiced coconut and chicken broth with vegetables, and Singapore noodles with a protein and vegetables in a spicy curry sauce.
Pei Wei Asian Diner gets inspiration from noodle houses across Asia, says Nevielle Panthaky, the Scottsdale, Arizona–based operator’s head chef. The company’s lo mein noodle is thicker than spaghetti to provide a heavier texture with a good bite.
“What the noodle does is help soak up the sauce and stand up to the wok,” he says, adding that the same noodle is used in the chain’s version of dan dan.
Pei Wei serves wide rice noodles in its pad thai, while thin fried noodles are in Chinese lettuce wraps and a spicy chicken salad. Noting the proliferation of noodles at educational institutions and small independent restaurants, Panthaky says Pei Wei is considering expanding its noodle offerings, which might include ramen and other noodles in soups and bowls.
Chinese hand-pulled noodles will be at the heart of Fat Noodle, which is expected to open early this year in San Francisco. It’s the brainchild of Adam Fleischman, founder of Umami Burger and 800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizza, and chef Joshua Skenes.
“The noodles have a firmness to them because of the way they’re pulled and worked,” Fleischman says. “Rather than pan-Asian or pan-Chinese, this is more authentic.” The sauces are expected to be lighter to complement the flavor of the noodles.
Meanwhile, New York City–based Glaze Teriyaki has incorporated Japanese soba noodles into its salads. “We wanted to have a noodle option, but on the lighter side,” says Jesse Kay-Rugen, owner and operator, about the Cold Soba Sesame Noodle salad.
Some chefs are using noodles to fuse East and West cuisine. One example of this is the Ramenburger, which is an Angus hamburger in a bun made of ramen noodles and seared in sesame oil so it’s crunchy outside and soft inside. Created by Keizo Shimamoto, a Japanese-American ramen chef, the burger debuted last year in Brooklyn and has made its way to Los Angeles, where different varieties are sold from a walk-up window adjacent to a Koreatown bar and grill.
“The ramen is made to our specifications, and it’s fresh,” says Shimamoto’s brother, Jeff, who works on the West Coast operation. “This is a fusion of Japanese and American—that’s what we are—and it’s two great foods.”
If any pasta dishes are considered American, they are probably chicken noodle soup and macaroni and cheese, even though both have roots in other cultures. Most restaurants serving soup have at least one chicken noodle offering. The egg noodles in the version at Garden Fresh’s Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes are among 30-plus types of noodles featured in the company’s soups, salads, and pasta.
“It’s one of our more proprietary items,” says Kim Menzies, director of culinary innovation at Garden Fresh. “We used to make it in the back of the house, but now we have a supplier make it. It’s just four ingredients, but one of our most craveable and identifiable [items].”
The noodle is about 2 inches long, a half-inch wide, and almost a quarter-inch thick. “Our guests just love that soup,” she says. Among the other noodle soups are chicken orecchiette, chicken pipette, and Thai shrimp udon noodle.
Garden Fresh’s restaurants also feature two pasta salads at the salad bar. Those using an acidic dressing require thicker noodles “because they stand up better,” Menzies says.
Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes are among many limited-service restaurants that feature a version of mac and cheese. It’s a simple dish, made either as a casserole or atop a stove and typically with macaroni noodles and a cheese sauce. Some restaurants, including Burger Lab, put mac and cheese atop burgers.
Many noodle styles have come together at the aptly named Noodles & Co., which has Mediterranean, Asian, and American noodle dishes. There is penne, macaroni, udon, cavatappi, egg noodles, and whole-grain linguine.
“In our restaurants, we cook noodles twice a day to keep it fresh. Once it’s cooked, it has a short life,” says company chef Nick Graff. “We cook it al dente. When you finish off the dish for a guest, the noodles have perfect tenderness.”
Noodles are prepared in pasta cookers, and all of the dishes, from penne rosa to Wisconsin mac and cheese to Japanese pan noodles, are cooked in woks.
“You need a wok for Asian style; you need that extreme heat up front,” Graff says. The wok is adapted with a special pan to do Italian and American dishes.
While Italian pasta offerings are the only option on the Mediterranean menu, he says, the company is looking to develop more, including a Greek offering and perhaps Moroccan chicken.
Noodles & Co. also allows guests to substitute a gluten-free fusilli for any noodle. The company spent 18 months sourcing the pasta, since most gluten-free noodles “are very rigid and taste like cardboard,” Graff says, and the rice and corn gluten-free corkscrew fusilli has the shape to carry sauce well.
Fazoli’s is considering whether to integrate its whole-wheat penne into specific dishes and is also looking at gluten-free pasta, all in an effort to offer more options to customers looking for lighter, healthier dining, Quinn says.
Piada is also contemplating a gluten-free noodle that would hold up well, along with some seasonal specialty pastas.
“Gluten free would have more traction at this time,” Bomberger says. “It serves another universal piece, for those who have celiac disease and those seeking a healthier lifestyle.”