Thankfully, one of the first things Robert Griego and Ky Quintanilla did when they secured the keys to the place was strip away all semblance of trailer park décor and decorum from their new digs and replace it with a soothing, you're-gonna-want-to-eat-here-all-the-time atmosphere. And while the shell of the building remains virtually unchanged but for a little landscape tidying, Nouveau Noodles' inner sanctum is as inviting and unique as they come. Absent are pedestrian nods to Asian culture, Chili's-style antiquities or the ubiquitous rustic East Mountain motifs that give the impression of some dusty mining town. Nouveau Noodles exudes class without the sass, upscale without the pretentiousness. It's your dining room away from home, complete with a kitchen you never have to slave in and a “family” that serves up fresh, house-made salads, soups, appetizers, creative noodle-based entrées and desserts that can only be described as out of this world.
Griego and Quintanilla opened Nouveau Noodles on Sept. 22, 2003, with the intention of offering something completely different to East Mountain residents and Albuquerque diners. The initial buzz was more than positive, but building a steady clientele with an utterly unique restaurant—located in an area that could be called the epicenter of the Land of Mañana—proved to be a slow process.
“There are people who've driven by over and over again thinking, ’Oh, I meant to stop,' and when they finally do, they love it,” Griego says. “Having people fully realize what our menu is about—not just generalizing it as Asian food—and getting them in the door has been the challenge. But now I've easily got 200 names on a mailing list as a way to keep in touch with people from time to time, and let them know about some of the things we're doing.”
But by the middle of March of this year, Griego found himself faced with another challenge. His partner left the business and he suddenly found himself running front-of-house as well as the kitchen operations. For years before opening Nouveau Noodles, Griego worked in the restaurant industry outside the kitchen, but in rubbing elbows with some very talented chefs, he was unconsciously stoking his own cooking fires. “I came out of Santa Fe, so I got to work alongside many great chefs,” he says, “It's funny, one of my waitresses calls me a ’closet chef,' which pretty much sums it up. I picked up things over the years that I didn't realize I'd picked up. And I still have friends in the business that I talk to sometimes, just to bend their ears and find out what they think, so that's helped.”
“It's been really, really fun, actually,” he says of his trial by fire. “It's made the time go by really fast. At first, I was a little uneasy, thinking ’Oh, man, what am I getting myself into?' But it was like the person who goes to Mexico and doesn't realize they know as much Spanish as they really do. That's exactly what it's like. I didn't realize I had it in me until I was forced to do, and I haven't really run into many glitches at all.
Nouveau Noodles, being essentially a noodle house, Griego has had to work extra hard to convince patrons that an entirely new and vast array of flavors awaits them when they walk through his door.
Of the cuisine he refuses to simply classify as Asian (and for good reason), Griego says, “For me, it's all in the sauces. They've all got their own unique concept to them. I've got about six sauces that I work with right now that are the basis of my dishes, and I'm expanding every time I come across one I like. And I use different noodle pairings with the sauces to create new dishes. I have a fairly small kitchen, but there are lots of things you can do with noodles.”
“We've also done a lot of [experimenting with] our specials,” he continues, “with things like seafood—swordfish, snapper, tuna, salmon—and flank steak dishes and lots of other things like that. We'll be doing more of that kind of thing in the upcoming winter months when we bring in more of the heavier dishes.”
Nouveau Noodles also hosts monthly wine dinners, which have been quite successful, not just in terms of introducing innovative cuisine to hungry customers bored with the same tired fare available on and around I-25's “Chain Row,” but also introducing them to unique and flavorful pairings. “We like to keep [the wine dinners] fairly intimate, you know, four or five courses,” Griego explains. “I bring in obscure wines that people haven't heard of. I use a really small distributing company in Santa Fe, and they generally handle more intimate-style vineyards that don't want to deal with the big boys and get lost in the shuffle. Then, to challenge myself, I try to develop different flavors to compliment those wines with dishes that people haven't seen or heard of before.”
Griego's next challenge is the nine-course “Taste Tempter” dinner he has planned for Nouveau Noodles' first anniversary dinner on Wednesday, Sept. 22. It's an extravagant event that, according to Chef Griego, is likely to provide further evidence of the culinary magic that can be worked in caring for and combining simple, fresh ingredients “The most we've done at the wine dinners so far are four courses,” he says. “This nine-course dinner is appetizer portions, with some larger than others. Basically I just want people to get the feel of all the different flavors that we have working—the different bursts going off in their mouths.” And once they get that feel, chances are excellent that they'll return to Nouveau Noodles time and again for maintenance doses.
Nouveau Noodles' Nine-Course “Taste Tempter” Dinner Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2004
Spicy Crabmeat and Seaweed Salad
with light sesame vinaigrette
paired with Aveleda Vinho Verde, Portugal
Tropical Curry Seafood Soup
paired with Montelvini Venegazzu Rosé, Italy
Thai Fish Cakes
with chile-orange sauce
Three-chesse Stuffed Calamari
squid, three cheeses, cashews and chiles with spicy salsa
paired with Roja Bella, Spain
Vietnamese Shrimp Egg Roll
with chile-orange sauce
Duck and Vegetable Bundles
seared duck with fresh matchstick veggies, wrapped in sauteed leeks in a blueberry sauce
paired with McManis Cabernet, California
Lamb and Mint Lettuce Wraps
with apple chutney
Stewed Asian Pear with Star Anise
Nouveau Noodles is located at 12216 North Highway 14 in Cedar Crest. Call 286-5886 for First Anniversary Dinner reservations.