The last time I was at the Orlando address that Noodles and Rice Café calls home, Jephanie Foster's acclaimed Blue Bistro & Grill was in the building, serving innovative twists on modern American cuisine in a notably blue venue.
Today the setting has an Asian accent — from the menu to the hot-pot tables to the heated case of cooked chicken, ribs and slabs of meat. Seating is a mix of comfy, large booths and cooking tables, which are under a wooden pergola. In the back is a station to blend your own sauce.
In March I introduced you to hot-pot cuisine with a review of Winter Park's Hotto Potto. The setup at Noodles and Rice Café is far better and the staff more patient and skilled at explaining the ancient Chinese cooking process, which is ideal for foodies who like to control every aspect of their meal. Here's the drill: Choose a broth ($3.50-$4.50) and raw ingredients ($1-$4.25) including vegetables, meat, fish and shellfish. Dunk the ingredients into the hot liquid. The broth becomes more intriguing every time something is added. And at the end of the meal, you have an unbelievable soup with layers of flavor. Don't leave it behind — get a to-go container.
The namesake noodles and rice menu items are excellent as well.
We went off point with the salt and pepper shrimp ($5.95), delicately fried (with shells on) for an appetizer. The seasoning was light but effective and the small plate of large shrimp easily shareable.
The chicken pad Thai ($8.25) was a mild interpretation with tender rice noodles stir-fried with peanuts and thin slices of poultry. The dish has nice notes of tamarind, fish sauce and restrained pops of red chili pepper on the palate.
We also ordered a pound of barbecued pork ($8.50) with steamed vegetables ($5.95), a mélange of vibrantly colored bok choy, brown mushroom caps and sweet carrots. The vegetable assortment changes daily according to the chef's fresh purchases. This was a lot of pork — most of which went into a to-go box. For a group, this is great platter to build a meal around. Add bowls of sour and spice tum yum soup ($2.95), small plates of seaweed salad ($3.95), edamame ($3.50) or a curry vegetable samosa ($3.50).
The barbecued pork is also a great takeout option for building your own meal at home.
A colleague ordered the soy sauce chicken and rice platter ($7.50). The presentation was plain compared to other dishes we saw coming from the kitchen. Don't let appearances fool you. The roast chicken was succulent. Cut up the poultry and toss with the sticky, short-grained rice and your signature sauce concoction takes on a new life.
Because the chef doesn't work with a heat lamp in the kitchen, dishes come out as they are ready. The process added character to the experience and food flowed efficiently.
From bubbling do-it-yourself hot-pot fare to traditional Asian carbohydrate loading, Noodles and Rice Café in Orlando's Mills 50 district offers lots of options for lunch and dinner.
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Noodles and Rice Café
*** out of four
Where: 813 N. Mills Ave. Orlando (between Park Lake and Illinois streets)
When: noon-10 p.m. Sunday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
How much: $4.95-$11.50
Beverages: Soft drinks