White Snow, White Rice, White Noise
Sometimes, when a flavor craving hits, it hits fast and ferocious. A foodie like me will let absolutely nothing get in the way of a fix. All day on TV, the weatherman kept interrupting regular programming with dire warnings that snow would continue to fall indefinitely, building on the two-and-a-half foot thick layer of the white stuff already covering the earth. The Idaho State Police were recommending that for the sake of safety and sanity, everybody ought to just stay home, venturing out only in extreme emergencies. Yes, kind officer, I’m afraid I do consider an unstoppable yen for a Sweet & Sour Chicken Rice Bowl at Noodle Express to be an emergency. Throw in some pot stickers, and it’s a full-on China syndrome. Actually, it’s more like a Pan-Asian panic.
So I bundled up and began digging my car out from the snow, an especially thick and heavy brand the Eskimos call “tlarin”, which loosely translates as snow that can be sculpted into the delicate corsages Eskimo girls pin to their whale parkas at prom time. I careened wildly up Government Way, praying for the God of Green Lights to be kind since I knew every stop was another opportunity to end up stuck. My car isn’t exactly the winter-friendliest of vehicles anyway, but the knee-deep mess clogging city streets was nearly enough to test my spirit of adventure and make me reconsider my agenda. Realistically, I should just hit the quickie mart for teriyaki jerky and Funyons and call it good. But no, the Sweet & Sour urge is too intense, I must keep going.
The Hayden Noodle Express, located on the far west corner of the Prairie Shopping Center, is part of a small chain conceived as a fast-food offshoot of the Montana-based Mustard Seed chain of restaurants. Growing up, the Mustard Seed was my favorite restaurant. We’d dine at the Spokane Valley location about once a month during shopping excursions to the U-City Mall, which in its heyday was a pretty hip place with such gone but fondly remembered stores like the Crescent, Newberry’s, and whatever shop sold those little plastic Smurf figurines.
The Mustard Seed was the perfect place to let the shopping fatigue wear off with some Maui Chicken, a divine dish that I ordered on nearly every visit. Noodle Express has shrunk the portion a bit and rechristened it as simply “Sweet & Sour Chicken”, but otherwise I’d swear it’s the same thing as the Maui Chicken I enjoyed so many times in my youth. I was elated to discover this fact when they opened in Hayden opened a couple of years ago, and I’ve been a regular ever since.
It was between lunch and dinner time but the place was as active with people as the sky was with snow. It was reassuring to see that there were others like me, insane enough to ignore the bad weather and put their lives at risk for a taste of one of Noodle Express’ delectable Asian bowls. I love how they’ve put together a big photo album for diners to look through featuring lurid shots of every item on the menu, leaving nothing to the imagination. Of course, I already knew what I wanted and the cheerful counter girl brought it out to me in the time it took approximately 3, 476 snowflakes to fall outside my window, in other words very fast. She set the ceramic bowl in front of me with an endearing little hand presentation, her long sparkly silver fingernails clicking against the table as she bowed slightly and smiled, “Enjoy!”
My meal was engagingly hot and the steamy, ambrosial fragrance wafting off the Sweet & Sour Chicken was strong enough to make me momentarily forget about the two screaming terrors and their overbearing mother who had taken over the table next to mine. The magic lies in two areas: the sublime, slightly tangy citric glaze and the light delicacy with which the tender white chicken pieces were coated and deep fried, just kissed to a golden brown by the freshest, cleanest cooking oil. The included pineapple chunks are like back-up singers, providing perfect harmony with the main act. The Asian slaw includes crisp chunks of cabbage, cucumber, celery and carrots in a lightly sweet dressing, its coolness providing a nice contrast to the warm, fluffy rice. I was so famished that for a minute, I was totally absorbed in my meal. I was brought crashing back to reality by the bowlful of Macaroni and Cheese that landed at my feet after being flung violently by one of the neighboring bratty urchins. A sudden peace lit upon the room after the scolding mom swiftly grabbed both kids by the mittens and yanked them out the door.
As I ate, I examined the menu and noticed all the wonderful stuff I’ve never even tried due to the fact I habitually order the same thing. That’s foolish, since rice bowls featuring the likes of Singapore Style Beef and Sweet Thai Shrimp sound absolutely scrumptious. The bowls make up the majority of menu options, with either noodles or white rice served underneath your choice of meats (or tofu for the veggie-types) prepared with sauce options like Teriyaki and Osaka. Every bowl also includes Asian Slaw, and you can “make it a meal” by adding an egg roll or pot stickers and a bottomless drink for a few dollars more. Other appetizers include Shrimp Wontons and Green Beans, which I’m guessing are not the sickly canned variety, but more like an edamame sort of thing. The Potsticker Soup sounds temptingly interesting, and the Thai Chicken Curry is at the top of my list of things to try next time.
As I’m leaving, a couple of trucks come about an inch away from sliding into each other as an ambulance screams up US 95 toward an accident, and three more cars pull into the Noodle Express lot, full of brave souls willing to put their well-being in fate’s hands and risk the roads for a taste of the good stuff.