Considering the enduring success of Noodles & Company, it’s somewhat surprising there haven’t been more attempts to emulate the chain’s appealing concept of tasty noodle dishes at modest prices. If for no other reason than doing just this, the recently opened Kinsen Noodles & Bar in Uptown deserves recognition.
I found a variety of interesting Asian-inspired noodle dishes that are well-conceived, priced for the times, and, most importantly, not shy when it comes to spicing. Owned by the same couple that operates Kindee Thai in the Mill District, this compact, stylish spot centers on a comfortable arrangement of tables, an open-view kitchen, and floor-to-ceiling windows. And the service is first-rate: outgoing, knowledgeable, and notably attentive.
The primary draw is the ambitious collection of one-dish meals in four categories: broth noodles, street noodles, stir-fried noodles, and rice bowls. Each category has roughly a half-dozen options, quite a few of which should be shared. As is often the case at restaurants of this kind, we barely made a dent in the extensive menu. One of the consensus favorites was the yum sen—a room-temperature street-noodle salad featuring delicate, shimmering glass noodles tossed with shrimp, calamari, tomatoes, cilantro, and scallion in a slightly sweet, assertively spicy chili dressing. There wasn’t a bite left. Also earning a star: the peanut noodles—a similar mélange of al dente ramen noodles bathed in a lip-smacking, but not-too-nutty, peanut dressing and topped with a colorful garnish of cucumber, sesame seeds, black garlic, and pulled chicken. The textural dimension is terrific.
Of the two classic Thai curry choices, we opted for the sen beef brisket curry, a substantial bowl of pleasantly piquant coconut and red curry broth swimming with morsels of tender meat, egg noodles, and bean sprouts. It’s a rather rich dish, and a little goes a long way. Other Thai classics included an order of pad Thai—a dry version marred by slightly chewy pork—and a bowl of shrimp tom yum. While the exemplary soup broth was quite enjoyable, with just the right amounts of sour and tang, the inclusion of thick udon noodles interfered with the preparation’s feng shui. We discovered, after the fact, that the kitchen is happy to mix and match noodles, which would have benefited this selection.
The dish with the least legs was the kao na gai, a stir-fry of relatively bland chicken strips, assorted mushrooms, pickled jalapeno, and an over-cooked fried egg served in a bowl over jasmine rice. Also, our sampling of the largely run-of-the-mill appetizers was fairly forgettable, with two exceptions. The tempura green beans were fresh, crisp, and paired with an unconventional chili-lime dipping sauce. And the vegetarian-curry triangles proved a delight—the lightly fried turnovers filled with a creamy mixture of curry and mashed yams were plated with homemade mango chutney. Although the flavor accents were subdued, the originality won us over. There are several other specialties that I will look forward to next time: scallion pancakes, BBQ pork steamed buns, Thai basil stir-fry, and a soup of braised pork, tea-infused hard-boiled egg, crispy pork belly, and rolled noodles in a five-spice infused broth. Kinsen is definitely worth a visit. 1300 Lagoon Ave., Mpls., 612-367-4595, kinsennoodles.com
When it comes to traditional Japanese noodle shops, Tanpopo in St. Paul’s Lowertown area has reigned as the local standard for more than 10 years. A recent visit confirmed that this noodle house is still very much a chart-topper for traditional Nipponese comfort food.
When it comes to soups, it’s very much about the broth, and the overall quality here is excellent. Although there are only a handful of choices, all offered with either soba or udon noodles, they have a rich depth of flavor and are fresh and substantial with balanced ingredients. Whether it’s the tori soba built around tender chunks of sliced, pan-fried chicken breast or the shrimp udon topped with the kitchen’s delightfully light and crispy tempura, it’s hard to go wrong. And it will be a crime if a stand-out daily special of ramen noodles submerged in broth with roast pork, egg, spinach, and bamboo slivers doesn’t find its way onto the permanent menu. Sprinkle on some of the proffered pepper chili oil, and it’s heavenly.
The collection of hot and cold starters includes an addictive crunchy chilled spinach salad tossed in a balanced ground-sesame sauce, a skillfully prepared rendition of fried tofu in broth, and starter portions of the crisp tempura. You’ll also find a half-dozen dinner combinations, some daily sushi specials, and a couple of rotating desserts such as ginger or green tea tempura ice cream and a palate-cleansing sesame flan.
The décor is your standard warehouse conversion—it’s compact, comfortable, and well spread out. As for service, no complaints—the wait staff was uniformly upbeat, helpful, and unfailingly adaptive to our incessant special requests. 308 Prince St., St. Paul, 651-209-6527, tanpoporestaurant.com