Louis Kao's formula for his new restaurant, Noodle Theory, is simple, and the result, I figure, of a life spent pondering what it is that people actually like to eat. By phone, Kao described himself as a "restaurant brat," a kid who grew up in a family engaged in a string of eating places as diverse as a burrito shop and a 24-hour diner. What he's come up with for his own tiny Rockridge cafe a handsome space in the shape of a pie wedge that once housed an ice cream parlor is pretty much the glorification of the cup noodle.
Consider Kao's grilled Niman Ranch beef udon in a coconut-lime curry broth. It's a dish whose vivid flavors bleed well beyond the limits of simple cup-noodle logic. The flavors are northern Thai, even if its slurping vehicle udon is the chunky wheat-flour soup noodle of Japan. The broth balanced fire from what tasted like Thai red curry paste with a mellow bath of coconut milk tinted a middling shade of turmeric's orangey-yellow. It skewed sweet and sour on punch-ups of lime and sugar, and turned fierce from a garnish of grilled, sliced beef. Fierce, since the meat showed up at the right degree of charred, blasted to within a centimeter of its life in the gas-fueled flames of the open kitchen's tiny grill. The meat's savage hint of char saved the broth underneath from any hint of cloying, and radiated a diffuse flicker of authenticity. It was an effect that seemed plausibly like the taste branded onto flesh at some street vendor's brazier in a place far, far from the stroller-topia of Rockridge.
Kao is particular about the beef long before it comes near his grill. It's Niman, of course, of a cut known as "flap meat," the thin layer of belly muscle also called bavette steak. The meat perched upon my tangle of udon was thicker than some flaps I've had the dubious pleasure of tasting. Kao is meat fussy, like I said: After a few deliveries of thin flap that cooked up leathery, the chef said he hectored his sales rep until he got pieces measuring one-and-a-half to two inches thick. The payoff for persistence on my visit, anyway was beef with the loose fibers that characterize the head end of filet, with the richly animal taste of extreme-flavor cuts like ribeye.
You can trace most of Noodle Theory's excitement back to the big fire of that diminutive grill. Another dish, a noodle stir-fry with a hefty moniker grilled Fulton County chicken over ginger noodles with crushed peanuts channeled the fierceness of the beef, only in poultry form. It's a dish I ordered twice. The first bowl's skin-on breast slices had a gorgeous, fire-lapped bitterness wrapped around the subtly husky taste of chicken that's been allowed a bit of exercise. The bird's texture was gelatinous in a good way: a hit of moist, quivery softness. Bowl number two, I couldn't exactly say; the strips had cooled and dried out by the time I got around to munching one the consequence of ordering too many dishes, a critic's folly. But the char was just as luscious.
The noodles underneath (again, udon) had their own technique-induced appeal. The pudgy strands had been seared in a hot wok, picking up a beautiful case of wok hay. That's the condition that cookbook author Grace Young translates as "the breath of a wok," the quasispiritual aura of sear that pervades a carefully staged stir-fry. A little scorch, an appealing touch of bitterness, together layered over the noodles' black-soy saltiness: the grilled chicken's perfect shadow.
That was the one untarnished example of meat-and-noodle fusion I tasted at Noodle Theory. Non-udon dishes suffered from noodles that, for my taste, had slipped past toothy into overcooked. A salad of grilled salmon with mixed greens and skinny wheat noodles had a double personality. The compact rectangle of fish had the reliably tasty mark of the grill, and its wasabi-miso vinaigrette was lively without hogging the mike. But the cold, thin noodles clumped into a pale nest were terminally soft.
Texture plagued another salad, cold soba noodles in a roasted sesame dressing with asparagus. Soba, Japan's buckwheat-flour noodles, are tricky to cook they can go from underdone to mushy in the time it takes to carry a pasta pot to the sink. These weren't mushy. Still, they'd slipped a few notches beyond al dente, a perilous balance between yielding and resistant. In a broth, they probably wouldn't have bugged, but a salad as simple as this one needed soba of a particular textural integrity to stand up to the broad sweetness of the dressing and the soft, subtly vegetal pieces of asparagus. Yeah, noodles are simple. But noodles are hard.
Ramen also flubbed the texture test, or maybe that's too harsh. Let's say that ramen noodles were imperfect elements in a couple of deep bowls that brimmed with other charms. Grilled salmon was tasty, and its big, big broth buzzed with yeasty, salty yellow miso. After a few slurpy passes, I found myself eating around the semisquishy ramen strands. Same with grilled pork ramen after its seriously delicious slices of loin were gone.
You can catch a glimpse of the kitchen's strengths in a couple of noodle-free dishes, both steamed dumplings. Pork and Chinese chive dumplings seemed alive with flavor: wrappers whose rich egginess you could taste, and a filling ripe with porky goodness. Same with shrimp and Chinese chive dumplings, with their firm little nuggets of sealike sweetness.
There's something inherently likable about Louis Kao's little noodle shop. For one, it's a little noodle shop. It offers the satisfaction of eating a meal out of a single bowl, one you can sink your face into. And it's a place where Kao's meticulousness is as evident as the workings of his open cooking line you can taste it in his grilled meats and chicken. Plus, the owner is right there on the line, personally imparting wok breath into the stir-fries, a neighborhood restaurant owner who seems to be lavishing all his energies on busting out bowls of noodles. Whatever theory Kao might have worked out about what his customers want to eat, what'll keep them coming back has everything to do with practice.