Noodle Nexus is a cheap nosh. But steer clear of the chopstick hazards.
Noodle Nexus is a cheap nosh. But steer clear of the chopstick hazards.
Stephen Karlisch

Underground Lunch

It's futile eating spaghetti with chopsticks. The procedure might seem doable at first. After all, there are countless examples of Asian noodles that have a striking resemblance to spaghetti. Yet these Asian noodle specimens, often made from rice or egg, seem tackier, so they adhere to the sticks more readily than spaghetti. Spaghetti is long and more susceptible to tangles, snags and knots. This makes it tougher to pull out of a bowl with a pair of sticks.

Noodle Nexus, a counter-service noodle cove that beckons waiting diners with those pulsating LED pagers, adds to this snarl by making its spaghetti Bolognese not out of spaghetti pasta but out of what looks like tagliarini, the flat, narrower brethren of tagliatelle. The planed surface of these pasta strands adds to their slickness. They can't be had, no matter how you work your sticks: Twirl them around the sticks while pressing them against a spoon, and they fail to coil, sliding back into the sauce; pin the pasta with the sticks against the side of the bowl, and they slither out like aquarium eels before you can crimp them. The only way chopsticks can be used effectively in spaghetti feeding is if you first cut the strands with a fork to make them a more manageable length, but this seems a ludicrous duplication of efforts. Better to just twist the rangy threads on fork tines and be done with it.

Yet the chopsticks are useful against the moist meatballs. They're easily partitioned with the narrow points, unveiling flecks of onion imbedded in the ecru meatball depths. The meat sauce was good--not at all sweetish--though a bit more zest would have been welcome. It's smooth and consistent, ably clinging to the strands.


Noodle Nexus

325 N. St. Paul, Republic Center underground

214-871-7222. Open 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday. $

Spring roll: 99 cents
Thai peanut salad: $1.25
Spaghetti Bolognese: $5.25
Korean chap chae: $5.95
Oriental chicken noodle soup: $6.25

Noodle Nexus is a strange clash of stripped-down Asian and Italian sensibilities. It offers a speckling from each domain ranging from spring rolls and Korean chap chae to "meaty cheesy" ravioli and Italian pesto pasta. The smells meet in a malodorous clatter, with sharp cheesy bouquets twisting in aromas of ginger and rice vinegar.

But the dissonance dissipates on the plate, or more accurately, in the bowl. Thai peanut salad may sound like a goober pile, but it's actually just a tossed salad: tomato, romaine lettuce and curls of white onion drizzled with a sharp, curry-infested peanut dressing. It's simple, but effective.

Spring rolls are less succinct, but only marginally. Packed fat with carrot, basil, rice noodles and a juicy strip of grilled chicken breast, the roll suffered from a limp, slightly soggy rice paper wrapper that came undone at the seam.

Korean chap chae is a brown tangle of thin cellophane noodles coiled around carrot slivers, onion, spinach and scallions dusted with toasted sesame seeds. The dish successfully navigated the perilous peccadilloes of sauce application: too little, and the noodles are pasty; too much, and they're soggy. The garlic and ginger flavors were clean. Strips of beef were tiny and hard to find, but then again this dish barely leans into six bucks.

Oriental chicken noodle soup, with carrot splinters, bits of bok choy and bell pepper and shiitake mushroom slices, was easier than the spaghetti to parse with chopsticks. Maybe that's on account of the egg noodles. The broth was rich with a spicy bite, and though the chicken was moist, it had a strange rubbery sponge texture, which actually seems to enhance its chopstick-worthiness.

Noodle Nexus is a modest little find tucked in the bowels of Republic Center. It's outfitted in plastic chic, like some starkly hip subterranean nightclub, only this one is for midday hunger pangs instead of the randy ones nursed in the sweaty dusk. Plastic chairs surround black tables (some sticky). A curved illuminated wall is paved with corrugated plastic panels that serve as a backdrop for snaked strands of curved rebar. And there's nothing in this nexus that costs more than six and a quarter. It's a cheap lunch dungeon, where the echoes from those screaming dollars and stumbling chopsticks fade hauntingly.


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