Since June, Tacoma’s Pacific Grill has operated Noodle Bar, a separate menu offering Japanese style street eats, a menu that’s vastly different from the restaurant’s core upscale steak and seafood menu. It’s a neat idea – a restaurant offering multiple menu concepts.
The Noodle Bar menu is like nothing around town – and reminds me of dining at Ping, the hot spot in Portland that serves inventive Japanese street food with Southeast Asian and Chinese twists. My last visit to Ping found all kinds of small-bite wonders – grilled skewers with short ribs, quail eggs and fish balls, small plate duck egg salads and tea-steeped eggs. At Pacific Grill, Noodle Bar offers similarly themed street food and snacks such as snake beans, which are Chinese long beans battered and crispy fried and served with a delicious hot mustard and sweet “mai tai” sauce ($8), house-made wasabi peas ($3), okonomiyaki, a Japanese stuffed pancake ($9), takoyaki, fritters filled with shrimp and scallions ($9) and other hybrid versions of Japanese street food.
And then there is the soup. Owner/chef Gordon Naccarato injects unusual twists into his noodle menu. It’s Japanese with a whiff of Southeast Asia and a swipe of Chinese. “Obviously we are not a traditional ramen or noodle house,” wrote Naccarato in an email when I asked him about the Noodle Bar concept. “I learned to love ramen traveling to Hawaii and eating in ethnically diverse noodle bars in Honolulu’s Chinatown that served Thai chile sauces, fish sauce, Sriracha, and hoisin—all on the same table. Hawaii is a melting pot of Asian cultures and visitors, so you could add all these different ethnic variations to your ramen –taking it in a pho direction adding hoisin—or a Thai direction where I have also traveled extensively – which appealed to the chef in me … to make the noodle soups a background canvas that the chef or guest can add and choose from a diverse palette of additional flavors.”
Riffing on that DIY diner theme, Naccarato guides diners to mix-and-match assemble whatever soup sounds pleasing. Broths are a choice of classic ramen, a straightforward miso and a complex coconut-curry-lime. Diners have a choice of classic, springy ramen noodles or the more chewy-slippery Japanese wheat udon noodles. Shredded carrots, daikon radish, house-pickled jalapenos (divine little things), meaty mushrooms and an assortment of herbs are included in the broth. The cost is $12 for the broth, noodles and vegetables. Want meat? There’s another add-in menu section for that. Choose shrimp ($2.50), pork char sui ($1), duck ($2.50), chicken breast ($1.50), beef ($2.50) or order your ramen Godzilla ($5) and get all the meat choices.
The classic ramen ($17) was my first experience at Noodle Bar, and it was a fragrant, delicious bowl of soup that arrived in a deep bowl set on a beautiful wooden tray accompanied by a small dish of sweet vinegar and devilishly hot sliced chiles, an Asian soup spoon and chopsticks.
The flavors may be delicious culinary mishmash, but the presentation stays true to the clean and beautiful Japanese aesthetic. The broth was so deeply flavored, it reminded me of a kind of Vietnamese jus. Naccarato described, by email, the process for making the broth on the “classic ramen,” which really is a misnomer because Naccarato’s broth is much more flavorful than the traditional clean and understated Japanese ramen broth. Naccarato draws inspiration from Southeastern Asian ingredients –something he said he learned years ago cooking at the Vietnamese restaurant Le Colonial in Beverly Hills -and builds a deliciously fragrant broth by simmering the Noodle Bar’s baby back ribs with chicken stock, dried shiitakes and vegetables, along with lemongrass. In concert with that delicious broth, bouncy ramen noodles filled the bowl, and came topped with the shredded vegetables mentioned above. I ordered mine Godzilla style, and the bowl was laden with tender slivers of chicken breast, shredded pork, meaty hunks of duck, thinly sliced beef and fresh, juicy shrimp that snapped.
On a second visit, I sampled the spicy coconut curry broth, Godzilla style ($17), and was flavor floored by the curry broth that was far more a bright Thai style curry than a mild Japanese curry, in keeping with Naccarato’s penchant for the flavors of Southeast Asia. The broth was creamy yellow and punctuated with a back-of-the-throat note of chile heat and the bright flavor of kaffir lime leaves (a staple in Thai curry), tempered by creamy coconut milk. Reheated the next day (the portions are enough for lunch, dinner and lunch again), the flavors reminded me of Singapore noodles, the chewy noodle dish with the piquant curry sauce.
Whether classic, traditional or not, the beauty of the Noodle Bar menu is the diner gets to choose his or her own noodle destiny. For me, make mine springy ramen with that creamy coconut-lime broth and some of that meaty duck and I’m a happy noodle slurper.
Where: 1502 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
Info: 253-627-3535 or pacificgrilltacoma.com