Kudzu Noodle Bar

By on 4 March, 2015 in Bars, Food, Kate and Stephen, Restaurant Reviews with 1 Comment

IMG_3692Alabama’s always been a place where food matters. A lot. Southern food traditions are considered to be some of the most culturally important in the world. Got a doubt? Ask five people what the best cornbread tastes like, and you’ll likely get five different answers (e.g., fried, sweet, cake-like…). Food is intimate, fun, tied to family and heritage in complicated ways, and occupies the intersection of culture and commerce in a variety of endlessly interesting ways.

In the time we’ve lived in Montgomery, the food scene has exploded. There’s a Facebook group with thousands of members devoted solely (in theory) to where you should eat lunch. Proliferation of camera phones means that everyone can take endless digital photos of food. Social media allows people to share those photos and miniature food reviews with everyone else. Televised food shows (and networks) combine with the growth of a food-based Internet niche, resulting in the evolution of the concept of “the foodie,” in which a growing number of people think of themselves as having refined (and demanding) tastes. And as seasoning to this gumbo, you have continued globalization. Everywhere you look, new restaurants are bringing non-traditional tastes to our beloved Capitol City – mostly Korean, but also Chinese and Latin American.

Sadly for us, many of these new restaurants don’t offer a lot in the way of vegetarian food. That’s part of the reason we were so excited to see the menu at the new Kudzu Noodle Bar in Old Cloverdale. We were thrilled to see that there would be vegetarian ramen, with tofu offered as a protein for many of the dishes. Another reason we were excited is that some time spent in Japan a few years ago had us thirsting for noodles. Sure, we make our own, but between ordering miso from the Internet and trying to find the best fresh noodles, it’s more work than we’d like – especially for a busy weekday dinner. If we now have the opportunity to pay professionals, we had to check it out.

On a cold night last week, we hit up Kudzu for our first try. The space is small and intimate, nicely designed with wooden booths and a few tables. When we walked in, we found out that there was a wait. No problem there – we were told that we’d be “called” from the restaurant next door, True (soon to be re-named the A&P Grill) if we decided to go there for a drink. Sold. At True, we found a helpful bar staff and a charming red phone that was used to page folks when their table was ready. We’re not sure if this Bat-Phone will be there forever, but it was a nice touch. We actually hadn’t been to True in quite a while, but were happy to sit at the bar with a delicious cocktail while waiting. We didn’t wait that long before the red phone rang, summoning us next door for noodle time.

We decided not to hold back, to put the place through its paces. We started with the Kudzu Salad and spring rolls to start, with the Southern Beauty sake to accompany our meal. The spring rolls just might be the best in town. They are crispy, small bites full of flavor and fried to perfection. Although freshly made, they carried none of the oiliness that sometimes can ruin a good appetizer. The sake was a bit sweet for our taste, but worth it as a pricy experiment. Next time, we will try something a bit more dry. The salad is joyous, full of shaved veggies and tossed lightly in a snappy dressing (and our photo makes it look smaller than it is). We got ours with tofu, and thought it would also make a great lunch.

Needing a ramen fix, we both ordered the Kudzu Miso Honey Ramen with accompanying “spice bomb” ($1) and soy marinated egg ($3). First off, it’s important to note that the noodles are fantastic. They come from internationally known noodle vendor Sun Noodle – next time we may even order extra noodles. It was a little entertaining to watch ramen newbies figure out how to a) eat them with chopsticks (though we assume forks are available on request) and b) slurp the noodles — something decidedly outside the average Southerner’s politeness comfort zone. Although meats are a traditional ramen staple, we remain especially enthused for this vegetarian ramen option. The broth is a little on the sweet side – you can taste the honey. We got the spice bomb, which is fantastic and extremely hot. Although we consider ourselves huge fans of exceptionally spicy food, we decided that one spice bomb apiece might be overkill and next time we’d split one between us. We also ordered the house-made kimchi on the side. This is a must-order, even if you’re new to kimchi. The kitchen nails it with the sweet/hot/crunchy veggies, an especially welcome side if you’ve gone the spice bomb route. For a city with as many Korean restaurants as we have, we should be known for a variety of places with great kimchi. Kudzu offers the best that we’ve had in Montgomery and other restaurants should take note. It’s really exceptional.

The ramen was good, although (as noted) a bit sweet – the honey taste overpowered the miso a bit for our taste. Customization is always good. The egg was delicious, but we were disappointed to learn that a $3 add-on only bought us half an egg. That seemed a bit much to us. One of us, who prefers his yolks a bit more firm, thought it should have been more hard-boiled, while the other liked the way the yolk ran into the soup. Choose your own adventure here. A boiled egg is amazing in ramen, but at $6 per whole egg, that’s pushing it on the price point.

We wanted to add a bun to our already-crowded dinner table, but this was the one spot on the menu without a vegetarian option. We hope that they add one in the future.

Overall, we loved our experience. The service was timely without being intrusive, and the kitchen is clearly ready to serve the massive demand we saw on a weekday night. We ordered a ton of food and the most expensive bottle of sake, so our bill was likely not representative of an average night’s dinner. Even so, we thought the price and atmosphere were well-aligned with the high quality of food and service we received.

Some folks online have said the place is too loud, but we didn’t feel that way. One slightly nerdy aesthetic issue: It seems that they are showing Japanese television clips and movies projected on a big wall of the restaurant, which we thought was a cool bit of visual decor. It turns out that they aren’t showing whole movies, only edited excerpts on a looping reel. A brief snippet of Mothra quickly fades into random Japanese TV commercials, which then flips back into another seemingly-random highlight. To which we thought: “Come on!” Is it really such a big deal to slip in the whole Mothra DVD and let it play? We’re not there to watch movies, but the mixtape approach to visual stimulation is less cool than screening full artifacts, with all of their attendant quirks. A minor quibble, obviously, but we’d like to see them move away from the prepackaged media “highlight reel,” to a more consistent and sustained audiovisual experience.

That said, the most important part of any restaurant is the food, and we’d consider Kudzu to be a hit. It’s popular and delicious and we’re very excited to welcome Kudzu to the neighborhood. We’ll be watching for the next evolution of the True restaurant space and we’ll definitely be back.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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  1. Shane says:

    I’ve been several times now for ramen–I’ve tried all but the honey-miso. It just misses the mark for me–though the noodles themselves are fantastic, yes. 🙂 I’ve enjoyed the buns a lot. Also, just a comment: is their kim chi made vegetarian, or do they put an oyster or fish sauce type thing in it? Not sure if fish products bother y’all…more a heads up than anything else. I enjoy reading your reviews!

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