Excerpt from Newspaper reviews
THE YEAR OF THE NOODLE
by David Belman, National Restaurant Association
Americans' passion for pasta and all things Italian continues to burn. In 1990, the United States passed Italy as the world's leading consumer of pasta -- last year, Americans consumed more than 4 billion pounds.
And now Asian noodles -- from China, Japan, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, Korea and the Philippines -- are finding their way into diners' hearts. Whether it's Hong Kong-style noodle parlors, upscale soba houses or fusion cuisine, Americans are screaming for somen, raging for ramen and fixating on pho.
In 1992, when trendsetting chef/owner Mark Miller opened Red Sage in Washington DC, the tastes of the American West arrived in the capital of the West. Before Red Sage, Miller was best known as the first operator to feature Southwestern cuisine in a restaurant outside the Southwest. And today, his Coyote Cafes in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Las Vegas and Austin, Texas, continue to lead the Southwestern stampede. But witness the passing of the West and the rise of the East. It is a new Asian concept that Miller envisions taking across the country -- not a Southwestern-style operation. This fall, Miller and partner Diana Goldberg will open Raku: An Asian Diner. Careful to point out that the new venture "is a diner, not a restaurant," Miller explains that Raku will bring the street foods of Southeast Asia to Washington DC -- and that means noodles. The flagship store will be followed by two more DC locations and a late 1996 opening of an Asian bistro in San Francisco's Ghiradelli Square. Plans are already in the works for Raku diners in other U.S. cities, with Las Vegas and Austin next up on the drawing boards.
"The San Francisco bistro will be fusion," says Miller. "Because if you think about it, San Francisco has been experiencing and experimenting with Asian foods for years, and the city already understands Asian fusion. But the Raku diners won't be fusion. We're working very hard to bring something new to the consumer and to maintain the integrity of all the cuisines that will be featured in the diner."
Although Miller says his current interest in Asian food is a natural culmination of a lifelong love affair with Asian cuisines, he readily admits that the cuisines answer a number of questions and problems in the contemporary American culinary landscape. "What we're trying to do is introduce Americans to simple, healthy, inexpensive Asian street foods. At Raku, there will be no dairy, no stir-frying, and meat will be used as a seasoning and garnish, rather than a main item," he says. "That means I can use 1 or 2 ounces of meat in a dish, rather than 8 or 10 ounces, and I can serve a delicious meal for only $7 or $8. We'll have Indonesian, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Thai dishes that feature rice, noodle soup and cold noodles."
Original fast food
Asian noodles are not new to the culinary world or to North America. "There have always been noodle shops in New York's Chinatown," says Leslie Nathanson, an authority on Chinatown restaurants who has studied the area since the 1970s and has taught a course about Chinatown intermittently for the past 12 years. "There were noodle shops in New York as early as the mid-19th century," says Nathanson. "But the beginning about 15 years ago, there started to be more of them, and recently, they've left the confines of Chinatown and appeared all over Manhattan."
Nathanson traces the growth of noodle shops to changing patterns of immigration and business trends. While the original l9th-century Chinatown inhabitants were predominantly Toi Sanese, an extremely insular people, "recent immigrants to Chinatown are from Hong Kong, and they have a much, much wider outlook," says Nathanson. "They realize you can make money outside of Chinatown."
Noodles also have an almost universal appeal, and pasta's recent success has helped propel the Asian noodle into public view. "Noodles are inexpensive, attractive and immediately accessible," says Nathanson. "For the restaurateur, noodle dishes are very simple to prepare -- and they are always high-margin items."
Although noodles enjoy widespread appeal, not all noodles and noodle establishments are created equal. Most experts are careful to distinguish noodle shops from noodle restaurants. Kohari Koichi, owner of New York City's Honmura-an, a three-star Japanese restaurant, is quick to point out that his establishment is "not a soba house (considered street-vendor food). We are a high-end noodle restaurant," he says.
Nathanson agrees. "There is a big difference between a noodle shop and a noodle restaurant," he says. "A noodle shop is like a classic American bistros. If you look around New York City, I think you'll find the real bistros are some of Chinatown's noodle shops They're crowded. They're noisy and they serve lusty food that isn't frightfully expensive.
Koichi says Honmura-an serves a "very specialized, high-value niche," and he doesn't see much growth in that area. "It may be another 100 years before such a restaurant appears in Kansas City" he says, noting that he does see "steady growth in low-end quick-noodle restaurants."
A little-known California company is partly responsible for the noodle growth. In only 12 years, San Jose-based Aureflam Corporation has grown from one small undercapitalized unit into a chain of 41 Vietnamese noodle shops operating under the Pho Hoa and Pho Cong Ly names. The company began franchising the Pho Hoa concept three years ago, and Aureflam "has been adding six to 10 new stores every year," according to Dan Nguyen, manager of operations for Aureflam.
"We are a noodle-soup restaurant," says Nguyen. "For variety, our menu has seven non-noodle items, but the main thing we sell is soup. We want to be identified as the noodle-soup restaurant, just like Pizza Hut is known for pizza."
While that goal may seem overambitious -- Pizza Hut has roughly 11,324 units compared to Aureflam's 41 -- Nguyen does manage the largest noodle-shop chain in North America, and the customer base is growing. "We are starting to bring this concept into the non-Asian market, which is a much bigger market for us," says Nguyen. "And we are starting to find success." Five years ago, only about 10 percent of Pho Hoa's customers were non-Asian. Surveys from restaurants opened within the past three years show that depending on the location, 50 percent of lunchtime diners are non-Asian.
"When we open in a new city. we hope to capture the Asian populations first. Then we hope to attract the non-Asian professionals. There is a better chance that they have been exposed to different cultules and different foods," says Nguyen. "Last, we try to interest the person who only knows Asian food through a full service Chinese restaurant. These customers are becoming more adventurous. When they try pho (dried rice noodles), they see this is something that is very easy to try and that they can familiarize themselves with it very quickly."
Nguyen agrees that the growing Asian population in the United States is one factor in the success of pho, but he also sees a number of other factors contributing to the steady growth of noodle shops. "Value is one of the factors that has helped restaurants like ours succeed," he says. "If you compare a bowl of noodle soup for $4 to a fast-food hamburger, you can see the value. Also, we think noodle soup is health conscious. It is a very light, nutritious, well-balanced meal. When we ask our non-Asian customers what they like about our items, thev say pho is a health-conscious choice."
Slow to give noodles the nod
Even though noodle know-how and interest are growing, Asian noodles are predominantly found in urban centers on the coasts. "Asian noodles are trendy and ... they can be found all across the spectrum of check averages," says Shinobu Wagu, president of MOS Foods West, Inc., the Los Angeles-based parent company of Mikoshi Japanese Noodle Houses. "And more types of noodles will be introduced and become popular" in this country, he says. "But it will take time. Just like sushi, it will take a long time for noodles to become familiar."
Aureflam's Dan Nguyen says, "It takes time for people to get used to our food. Right now, for our non-Asian customers, this is a once-a-month item. We would like to bring that customer back more often. We think we can, but right now, noodle shops are still a very young idea in this country."
David Belman is a communication specialist at the National Restaurant Association.
Reprint from Restaurants USA, Vol 15, No. 8, September 1995, a publication of The National Restaurants Association.