813 N. Mills Ave. | 407-895-8833 | noodlesandricecafe.com | $
There’s little left to the imagination when you walk into a place called “Noodles and Rice Café,” or so we thought. Turns out the name of this Mills Avenue restaurant belies a significant culinary offering, and one that’s gaining popularity in our fair city – hot pot. I suppose we were expecting something more along the lines of an urbane Momofuku-like noodle bar, so we were a bit surprised to see a dedicated area with tables devoted to Asian fondue. Judging from the list of dipping meats, veggies and carbs, as well as all the patrons hovered over their bubbling bowls, I’d say the hot pot here rivals that at Hotto Potto, but as tempted as we were to give the cook-it-yourself experience a go, we ultimately took our seats in a wobbly-backed booth and scoured the traditional menu’s list of noodle and rice dishes.
Our effusive waitress offered suggestions, including a number of intriguing small-plate samplers, then pointed us to the “salsa bar” where a do-it-yourselfer could have a field day mixing and matching the variety of sauces (chili-garlic vinegar, teriyaki, kung pao, shacha, sweet Thai chili, Korean chili paste) and add-ons (salty cabbage, green chilies, horseradish, cilantro, scallions and more). While such concoctions are great embellishments to hot pot, the chili-flecked vinegary solution I created was necessary to fully enjoy the Korean seafood pancake ($5.25). The squid-and-shrimp-stuffed hotcake was a bit bland, but not so after a thorough dip in this liquid asset. Sauces were served with the vegetable spring rolls ($2.95) and curry vegetable samosas ($3.50), but neither fried starter really stood out.
What we did like of the small plates we ordered were the slices of glazed and tender-soft barbecue pork ($3.95) and wonderfully fatty Korean short ribs ($5.95). We also tried Hong Kong style cheung fun ($3.95), or rice noodle rolls, lathered in peanut sauce, arguably the most difficult food item to pick up with a pair of chopsticks. Unlike the delicate and almost silky cheung fun rolls you see on dim sum carts, the tightly packed ones here resembled fattened cylinders, necessitating a good chopstick stab to lift them into our mouths.
But we were most eager to sample the noodle bowls. We opted for the “house special” spicy lo mein noodles ($9.25 with beef), darted with a spicy red hot sauce, and the ramen noodles ($7.95 with chicken) – hey, we had David Chang on our minds. Apart from the orange-hued lo mein noodles being a smidge overdone, both of these simple stir-fried and soupy creations, particularly the latter, were thoroughly gratifying meals. As far as rice dishes are concerned, we were sold on the “Hong Kong Famous Young Chow Fried Rice” ($8.95), though it was hardly as exciting as the name made it out to be; pork, shrimp, peas, carrots and scallions made for a fairly straightforward rice dish.
The dessert lowdown: While fried mango purses ($4.95) filled with cream cheese had a bitter smack we found disagreeable, we’d order both the tempura-fried bananas ($4.50) and the butterscotch shooter ($3.50) again in a heartbeat.
There’s a lot more to sample at NARC, and we’re keen on trying more of the Hong Kong barbecue and the hot pot on future visits, but blow for blow, this is really a place to get your noodle on.
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