It’s a clever conceit: a fast-casual noodle shop that offers virtually every type of popular Asian noodle (udon, thin rice, pan mee, flat rice, Hokkien, and more) with housemade sauces and your choice of protein (shrimp, pork, beef, tofu). From pad thai to Sizzling Mongolian, chow fun to coconut curry, there are 10 noodle dishes to choose from at Tam Noodle Box in the Central District (412 Broadway, 257-5729), and they come in Chinese-style takeout boxes with flaps that ingeniously unfold into plates to eat on. But while the space itself is bright, modern, and inviting, the food itself veers into shopping-mall food-court territory.
The Sizzling Mongolian, with thick-ish, slightly chewy Hokkien noodles, doesn’t deliver on its promise of being wok-charred and spicy, and the “master recipe Mongolian sauce” is one-note and unmemorable. It’s loaded with onion, bell peppers, and scallions (on the soggy side), and the beef is bland. It’s also, surprisingly, on the sweet side. Pad thai fares a bit better, with generous-sized, plentiful shrimp and the requisite sweet/sour peanut- and egg-studded sauce, but you’re apt to find better versions at local Thai restaurants. Then again, I’ve always felt pad thai to be overrated.
The creamy peanut noodles were among the best of our sampling, the wide flat pan mee soaked in a satay-like sauce (though not as cloyingly sweet) and served with a medley of veggies including bok choy, carrots, broccoli, and bell peppers. Again, though, the vegetables were woefully overcooked. Ditto for the chicken. The topping of roasted peanuts, though, is a nice touch.
Tam’s pho had the most intriguing description: “No-Broth Pho—Our take on this classic pho—Flat rice noodles, Tam’s pho sauce, bean sprouts and fresh lime. ” Yet it was the biggest disappointment of all. Instead of the explosion of herbs and the signature savory, fragrant essence, it’s a ghost of the soup. Here was a lost opportunity to pack the flavors of pho—intensify them, even—into a sauce rather than a broth. At the very least, they could have added more fresh herbs. Besides the lackluster sauces, the proteins don’t exude quality. They’re the typical providence of many Chinese-American and Thai restaurants, secondary to the thick gravies and starches.
The upside: large portions at good price points and an atmosphere that makes fast-casual feel a little more special, with pretty tiles, take-out boxes as wall art, and wood tables. It’s also a nice primer on noodle varieties, with helpful icons on a chalkboard menu. For families with less discerning children, it could be a fun, easy outing (my daughter liked the noodles quite a lot). Tables are thankfully outfitted with bottles of Sriracha, which I ended up using to copiously douse all my noodles. Other menu items besides noodles include popcorn chicken, egg rolls, potstickers, and a wide variety of Asian milk teas, Thai iced tea, and Vietnamese coffee.
For locals looking for a quick, filling lunch, it’s a decent option. But if it’s genuinely good, inventive wok-cooked noodles dishes you’re after, you’re far better off heading to a spot like Trove on nearby Capitol Hill, where invention and taste collide into something truly special.