American Noodle Bar. In fact, I recall when the first sign went up on a small space in one of the dodgy, 1950's era "MiMo" style hotels along Biscayne, it was for something that was going to be called "Pineapple Express" and promised an opening date of "January 2010." The name changed. And so did the projected opening date, which dragged out for months.[*]
American Noodle Bar finally opened Wednesday night. I usually avoid opening nights; I also usually like to give a place a few visits and at least a few weeks, sometimes months, to find its footing before writing. But the lengthy period of anticipation left me eager to try it, and to provide a long-awaited "first look." (I also feel incredibly guilty that it seems like it's been months since I've written about a Miami restaurant).
The chef behind American Noodle Bar is Michael Bloise, a StarChefs "Rising Star" who is best known for his work at Wish on South Beach. His new project is something very different. The space is a tiny wing of the Biscayne Inn motel, into which he has squeezed one large communal table, a line of counter seating along one wall, and an open galley kitchen along the back wall. It's a got a funky, DIY aesthetic, with bonzai trees on the table and a bamboo tree print on the wall providing the primary decoration. There is also outdoor seating in front facing Biscayne Boulevard. (For those looking to get their bearings along Biscayne, it is right next door to Kingdom, and I suspect you can smell their burgers grilling from the outdoor seats). Service is semi-fast-food style: order at the counter, and they'll bring it out to your seat when it's ready (right now, at least, in plastic bowls and cardboard boxes, though I'm not sure if that's intended as a permanent state of affairs or just an opening week thing).
The menu at American Noodle Bar is superficially simple, but actually presents many more choices than might be immediately apparent. The focus - no surprise, given the name - is on noodles, though presently of only one variety. A bowl of noodles can be had for $7 with a choice of one sauce and one "add-on." But here's where things get complicated: there are nearly ten sauce options, and just as many "add-ons" (a couple vegetable options but mostly various proteins). Additional "add-ons" can go in the bowl for another $1 each.
There were so many possible to directions to go: if I spent less time focusing on food and more on math, I could maybe tell you how many. Nearly paralyzed by the seemingly limitless combinations, for my inaugeral meal, I had a bowl with sriracha butter for a sauce, and roasted duck and Chinese sausage for the "add-ons." The noodles (I did not ask questions as to their provenance, though I'm curious; I doubt they're made in-house) were of a lo-mein style variety: a bit thicker than a typical ramen noodle, but with that slightly springy texture, versus the more supple smootheness of an Italian pasta. They were hearty and pleasing, but on their own, nothing to get too excited about: it's really the sauces and toppings that will make or break things.
Duck, Chinese sausage and sriracha turned out to be a pretty good combination - the duck meat slow-roasted and tender, the coins of thinly-sliced sausage generously scattered throughout. The sriracha butter was way too timid, though, particularly when mixed up with all those noodles. I was expecting more heat here: anything with "sriracha" in the name should not be timid.
I made a return visit the following evening, and tried a bowl with "bacon sauce," garlicky pork meatballs and mixed vegetables. The bacon sauce brought a buttery emulsion flecked throughout with a dice of bacon, cooked soft rather than crisp. The pork meatballs were a nice textural balance between springy and firm, with a strong whiff of garlic; the mixed veg brought a nice complement of mostly shredded carrots and some leafy dark greens. All good, but I once again found myself longing for a little more oomph. Both times, if I tasted the broth on its own, it was great - but with noodles, the flavors seemed more diluted.
But it's not all noodles at American Noodle Bar. There are a few sandwiches, including a banh mi which used as good a baguette as I've had anywhere in Miami: light, with a crust that was crisp without being overly crusty. It was filled with "deli meat" (is there a more accurate name for that baloney-like mystery meat that is standard issue for banh mi?) and paté, pickled carrots and cucumbers, cilantro, mayo, and sriracha. Some of the pork meatballs would have made a worthy addition.
I also tried, because I couldn't help myself, the "fried cheeseburger dumplings," which tread dangerously close to something you might find at TGI McFunsters, but manage to stay just on the right side of the line. I won't lie: I liked them. Quite a bit. A green curry mayo makes a nice accompaniment, but possibly even better was a simple salad of julienned cucumber and tomato, lightly soaked in a dressing redolent with fish sauce, that came alongside too. Just about as good were the light, crisp edamame hushpuppies, which came with the same green curry mayo and a kimchee ketchup for dipping. There's a nice selection of craft beers for about $5-7 a bottle, as well as the ubiquitous hipster accessory, Pabst Blue Ribbon, at $3, plus a small selection of wines and sakes.
American Noodle Bar is certainly not the only casual, Asian-influenced restaurant to open up of late in Miami. Maybe if it had managed to open in January 2010 it could have laid claim to "first," but in the meantime, Sakaya Kitchen, Chow Down Grill, Gigi and still others beat it to the punch. And it undoubtedly shares some similarities, including Sakaya's fast-food style counter service and chalkboard menu. But there's enough to distinguish each of these places from one another that I could happily round out a week of eating visiting each of them.
From my first experiences at American Noodle Bar, I find myself thinking the same thing I said after my first meal at Sakaya Kitchen: "Fortune favors the bold." This is not the place for subtlety. I enjoyed the flavors of everything I tried, but I did often wish that I could find a volume dial so I could turn up those flavors even more. I also think that a few "composed" noodle bowls with some items pre-selected by the chef would be a great idea. It's a nicely assembled menu, it's a funky space, it's a great addition to the neighborhood, and a good change of pace, even from the other casual Asian places that have cropped up the past year or so. Chef Bloise has a lot of talent, and I'm sure with a little time he'll find the right spot on the dial for these flavors.
American Noodle Bar
6730 Biscayne Boulevard
[*]Back in July, the opening date was "some time next month." Only a few months off. Ah, the joys of attempting to open a business in Miami.