Mention Noodle Box to any person remotely impassioned about food and you generally get a scoff. The chain - now with a second location in town after having expanded from Victoria - comes across only slightly better than a regional equivalent to a PF Chang's, offering what is assumed to be an offensive simulacrum of Asian fare in a city whose citizens know better.
But: we don't. It's easy to write Noodle Box off as a non-starter, as I often have, without even trying it. When pressed, most people I know that pan the chain have yet to set foot in it. And that ain't fair.
The primary issue with Noodle Box that comes to mind is one of authenticity. We hate it on principle - even if we've never tried it - because it isn't "authentic." As Todd Kliman recently put it in "The Problem with Authenticity," "authenticity is nothing more than a matter of the angle from which you choose to look. A purely arbitrary, purely subjective surmise of a purely impure thing." But it's still a hard issue to reconcile (witness the breadth of opinion on Bao Bei), particularly when, on their website, the Noodle Box owners give a testimonial about how they started the chain to offer the very foods they enjoyed in Southeast Asia, albeit with a "Canadian spin."
Their menu largely reflects that (the curry dishes specifically reference Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand) though with a more Pan-Asian bent (the stirfry dishes incorporate the usual Asian ingredients that have since found place in the Western vernacular: black bean sauce, peanut sauce, plum sauce, etc.). All of it finds its inspiration in Asian cuisine, though - for their sake and your's - none of what Noodle Box dishes should be treated as such.
Forget, for a minute, that pad thai exists, and try the Spicy Peanut Noodle Box (pictured above; $13 with chicken, but more on that later). The hearty serving, enough to feed two if pressed, is chock o'block full of peanut sauce, chopped peanuts, and other ingredients (fried shallots, bean sprouts, broccoli slices and other crunchy ones) that fight for its place in the bowl. On its own, the dish is acceptable, particularly if you are emphatic about peanuts and little else. But in comparison, Noodle Box's homage ('version' isn't quite the right word) is one-dimensional, without the complexity or depth that tamarind (or even ketchup) gives to the pad thai found around town, with but a lone lime wedge provided to give it any balance.
Try the same experiment with the Thai Green Curry ($11 with chicken and rice noodles). A bowl overflows with the same medley of bean sprouts, fried shallots, broccoli, etc., but served in a bowl filled one-third of the way with a green curry broth. The broth goes down easily with the first few spoons; by the end of the bowl, it is more properly described as somewhere in between a broth and a gravy, taking on more flavour from the mushrooms in the bowl than the absent lemongrass, a muddy taste that doesn't leave the mouth easily...no matter how hard one tries.
In other words, if you don't treat Noodle Box as offering Asian food, it's possible to eat there without being offput before you set foot in the door. Is it authentic? No, and it doesn't have to be. Is it good? No, and that's the real problem.
On an endnote, Noodle Box's website testimonial bears another flaw. "Darren BC" writes that "the Noodle Box is a great place to get filled up without emptying your wallet." The average dish costs anywhere from $10 to $15. Upgrade your protein to locally sourced? An extra $2 to $6. Skip on the carbs? An extra $3. Any other substitution or modification? $0.50. Split one dish into two boxes? $1. All in all, an average lunch at Noodle Box will likely cost around $15 to $20 per person (in comparison, a lunch entree at Hawksworth hovers in the low $20s), tax and tip in.
839 Homer Street (at Robson)