West Valley City • I always take a keen interest when a restaurateur revamps a seemingly successful venture. Pho Green Papaya was arguably one of the more popular Vietnamese dining destinations in the Salt Lake Valley, but during the second half of 2013, the restaurant was rebranded as Noodle & Chopstick, with “fast, friendly and delicious” being the promised outcome.
The more formal Pho Green Papaya menu, home to ever-so-slightly dangerous-sounding dishes like fried quail or tamarind soup, has been replaced with a laminated thing full of brightly colored images. No need to question a dish’s intricacies with your server, it’s right there before your eyes in multicolor simplicity. Just point and order.
Not that I’m against dumbing down — I’ve family members who regard certain vegetables as invaders from an alien world. There’s certainly a place at the table for accessible introductions to worldly cuisine. And that’s precisely how the menu begins.
Many of the appetizers have an instantly forgettable quality. You’ve seen these same egg rolls (pork or veggie, $2.50), crispy shrimp rolls ($3.50) and pork potstickers ($3) a million times over. All suffer from the same basic failure to inspire, and do you really need me to tell you what a deep-fried egg roll tastes like? Probably not.
A couple of exceptions included the basil wings ($4) and string beans ($4). The latter sautéed beans seasoned with soy were a happy respite from the deep frier; the former a delicious heap of onions and chicken wings in a Thai basil sauce. One unifying note among the lot was price. You could afford any of these with change looted from under a sofa cushion.
There’s no alcohol at Noodle & Chopstick, a curious thing as, if my memory serves, beer and wine were available previously. And technically speaking, this is still Pho Green Papaya — from the sign above the door to the name printed on your receipt. In fact, as admitted by our server one evening, the restaurant is something of a test operation for potential future expansion of the concept.
In lieu of a cold beer, I turned my attention to the delicious boba drinks now available ($3.95): thick, creamy smoothies laced with black chewy pearls of tapioca. Play it safe with fruity flavors like mango and strawberry or take a walk on the wilder side with red bean or avocado. Mind you, I can’t imagine the same folks perturbed by quail bones wanting to slurp down a thick starchy taro boba.
The intent to create an easily replicable and repeatable menu is obvious. There are grilled pork, chicken, teriyaki chicken, kalbi beef (Korean-style short rib), luc lac beef (thinly sliced sautéed filet mignon), tofu and shrimp. You will see these same items repeat across rice bowls ($7.50-$8.50), vermicelli noodle bowls ($6.50-9.50), stir-fried noodle dishes ($8-$) and banh mi ($4-$5.50) — each with slight reworkings of the same core components.
My favorite entree was the banh mi — a sandwich that greedily raids the pantries of Paris and Ho Chi Minh City. At Noodle & Chopstick, the rendition is decent. The French baguette is merit-worthy, a crisp exterior yielding to a softer inside. Your choice of protein is layered with expected goodies like pickled carrot and daikon, cilantro and cucumber — but no rich paté or striking heat — resulting in the final product lacking that real bite of authenticity.
Many of the dishes I sampled lacked the depth and spark of their true selves. While sibling restaurant Bucket O’ Crawfish (Fat Fish and Sapa are also part of the same group) sticks a crawdad in your face and demands you suck out the brains, Noodle & Chopstick seems wary of upsetting guests with pungent fish sauce and eye-trembling spice. In reworking the business to scale with mass appeal, this appears to be intent rather than oversight.
Pho ($5.50-$7.95) noodle soup is perhaps the most authentic of the dishes on offer — especially the house special (dac biet, $7.95), which adds thinly sliced brisket, meatballs, tendon and tripe to the lightly flavored broth. Seven safer versions are offered with more sedate proteins like chicken ($7.50) or steak ($7.50). Again, I found myself craving a more complex flavor.
Certainly one element impossible to fault at Noodle & Chopstick is the pricing; nothing here will have you rummaging through your checkbook with a worrying eye on the mortgage payment. It’s noticeably cheaper than Pho Green Papaya. Service was as keen as the dollar signs, quick to refill water glasses after a bravado display with the sriracha bottle.
Under the merits of the intended concept and execution, it is difficult to complain too loudly about Noodle & Chopstick. I’d take the eatery’s approach to scaling Asian cuisine over a host of national operations any day of the week. The simple question you have to ask yourself: Is this the right concept for you?
Stuart Melling also writes at www.theutahreview.com and can be found on Twitter @gastronomicslc
Noodle and Chopstick
Food • Hhj
Mood • Hhj
Service • HH
Noise • b
Accessible pan-Asian cuisine served with service as keen as the prices. Try the boba, basil wings, vermicelli bowls and banh mi.
Location • 2000 W. 3500 South, West Valley City; 801-886-1543
Online • noodleandchopstick.com
Hours • Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Children’s menu • No
Prices • $
Liquor • No
Reservations • No
Takeout • Yes
Wheelchair access • Yes
Outdoor dining • No
On-site parking • Yes
Credit cards • All major