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Checking the boxes: The hand-pulled pasta is easily the stand-out star at Noodle Works

The lockdown’s second act brought back familiar scenes of empty shelves, and lines of people snaking around the entrances to supermarkets and big box stores.

For a restaurant business already running on fumes after nine months of limited operations, it was a return to empty patios and barren dining rooms.

The fallout was swift. Broken Trail Distillery closed its Uptown branch. The Range Café laid off 200 people. The coming weeks will surely bring more of the same.

The recent turn of events must be particularly maddening for restaurants that launched during the pandemic. Just last month, places such as Noodle Works, the Chinese restaurant that opened in July in a strip mall at Wyoming and Academy NE, had diners both inside and on the patio.

A few weeks later and a visit to the place, located in the former home of a Wise Pies pizza parlor, finds a different scene. The patio is bare and inside the clean, spartan space, most of the tables had been pushed off to the side. The remaining tables, lined up a few feet from the entrance, were covered with bottles of hand sanitizer, pens and a pile of menus.

Noodle Works is tucked into the corner of North Town Plaza, a strip mall that includes one of the city’s two Whole Foods Markets. The normally chaotic parking lot felt positively tranquil during a recent weekday lunch hour, business there tamped down by the pandemic’s upsurge.

Conceptually, Noodle Works is similar to Fun Noodle Bar, the restaurant that opened on Menaul in the summer of 2019. There are a handful of traditional Chinese-American dishes, but the hand-pulled noodles are the real attraction.

The menu is not nearly as voluminous as that of the typical Chinese restaurant. Proteins such as chicken, pork and beef are served over rice or in bowls of broth with broad, flat Westland noodles or spaghetti-like facet noodles. You order by checking off boxes on one of the disposable menus. The food was ready about 15 minutes after I ordered.

The bean jelly appetizer at Noodle Works with chile, green onions and sesame seeds. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Appetizers include a few unusual items, such as cold chili chicken ($7.98) and bean jelly salad ($5.98). The base for the latter is made with mung bean gelatin that’s cooked in blocks and sliced into translucent strips that soak up the soy-based sauce. Noodle Works’ ample serving comes with green onions, sesame seeds and minced red chile that adds quite a bit of heat. It’s a welcome respite from the usual spring rolls and cream cheese wontons.

An order of xiao long bao, Chinese soup dumplings. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

An order of xiao long bao ($10.98), also known as soup dumplings, gets you eight twisted, pleated pieces served with a cup of vinegary sauce. The magic act of getting soup in a dumpling is accomplished by adding gelatinous aspic to the savory ground pork filling. During steaming, the aspic melts into soup that explodes out of the dumpling when you bite into it. There’s an art to eating these that is outlined in a chart on Noodle Work’s wall. The short version: Place a dumpling on a spoon filled with a mix of vinegar sauce and soy sauce, poke a hole in it so the broth spills out, add some ginger and eat.

Noodle Works’ minced beef with noodles, julienned carrots and cucumbers. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

The noodle with minced beef dish ($11.98) showcases the preparation of Noodle Works’ namesake product. A tangle of lo mein noodles about the size of a grapefruit are served with shredded carrots and cucumbers under a spread of well-seasoned, finely minced beef. It’s a good, simple dish elevated by the quality of the springy, chewy noodles.

Noodle Works version of orange chicken is made with pieces of chicken breaded and fried and served in a sweet and savory sauce. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Noodle Works turns out a competent version of that mainstay of Chinese American cuisine, orange chicken ($12.98). It’s nothing too elaborate, just strips and chunks of chicken breaded, fried and tossed in a sweet-savory sauce that’s kissed ever so slightly with orange. The chicken pieces veered between tender and tough, and the broccoli accompanying them was almost raw. While that’s certainly preferable to being overcooked, it would have been better with a couple more laps in the wok.

Dessert consists of a very filling assortment of sweet buns, or bao. An order of milk buns ($5.98) consists of four chewy buns with a custardy, burnt orange-colored filling. The buns have a pleasantly mild level of sweetness, but they’re an awfully heavy way to finish a meal.

The menu has several vegetarian options. Gluten-free diners are, however, out of luck. With its homemade noodles and large portions, Noodle Works serves up the kind of comfort food the times demand.