Teddy Eisenberg / Observer
“Even you shall bow before the Drive-Thru Dragon… I’ll have you eating burgers every day for the rest of your life,” bellows Noodlecat’s arch nemesis, the Drive-Thru Dragon, on the wall comics that adorn this Cleveland noodle house. Illustrated by Christian Woodruff, these cartoons hint at the vast amount of culinary whimsy leaping from Noodlecat’s menu; Chef Jonathan Sawyer’s self-described “mash-up” of American and Japanese.
Among the drinks offered at Noodlecat, the Grown-up Soda (GuS for short) is a highlight, offering a tarter, Coke-esque flavor without the unplesant feeling of sugar sticking to your teeth. To feel even more grown up, Noodlecat also has an impressive collection of Sake, the traditional alcoholic Japanese beverage made from fermented rice, available by the glass and bottle.
To start, two Onigiri Rice balls with a citric ponzu sauce and nori (an edible seaweed) provide a satisfying and simple appetizer. These balls taste almost like a fried macaroni bite without cheese, warm and slightly smoky tasting.
Noodlecat serves noodles crafted locally from Ohio City Pasta and in each of Chef Sawyer’s recipes, the spotlight is clearly on them. The Hokkaido Ramen has so many noodles that there is no civilized way to eat it, even split amongst two people. Serious chopstick skills are needed to tackle this huge bowl of noodles, roasted pork, cream corn broth and scallion. The corn brings a pleasant sweetness to the dish and an added playful challenge in the form of corn bones; imagine trying to eat corn on the cob with chopsticks. The pork is beautifully cooked and soaks up the cream corn broth in a fulfilling way, despite the bland taste of the broth itself. Indeed, the most central component of the dish falls short in comparison with its other elements, making this massive portion a somewhat tedious course.
Steam buns are also a traditional Chinese dish that Noodlecat prepares well. Ranging from a tangy, Tex-Mex-tasting pulled pork barbeque filling to a flavorful tempura battered Lake Eerie walleye, each bun is yeasty and doughy, yet light and filling. Not limited to just an entrée or appetizer, a special desert steam bun with honey, whipped peanut butter and banana is the best possible way to finish any Noodlecat meal. The savory peanut butter packs such a punch of taste, in fact, that a small cup of whole milk is included with the dish and proves to be the best flavor pairing of the entire meal.
Eating is not just a necessary part of living; it is an opportunity to satisfy the child-like curiosity for the new, fun and different. This fun is something Noodlecat understands well with its varied takes on classic Asian comfort food, even if some of their dinnertime flavors do fall short. Here’s to hoping that Sawyer brings this same understanding to the newly opened Trentina in University Circle.