A Visit to Noodle Charm and Spice & Dice by Cara Ober
I don’t know about you, but I like a good noodle. I am a pho fan. I am rapt for ramen. I will sweat for soba. I will upset for udon. I am a lover of rigatoni, linguini, and vermicelli. Although I love noodles from all over the globe, I will admit that my favorite come from Thailand and Vietnam.
A recent Yelp search revealed that some of the best Thai noodles of the region are located just north of Baltimore, in a generic strip mall across from Applebee’s on Joppa Road. Nestled between an urgent care facility and a comic book store, Noodle Charm and Spice & Dice, originally two separate Thai restaurants, have become one. The result is two menus combined, where you can order Thai soups, noodle bowls, rice dishes, and stir fries, described on Noodle Charm’s website as “Bangkok street food.”I dragged my husband and six-year-old there on a frigid Tuesday night in January. When we arrived at the strip mall, flanked by copious and weirdly unconnected parking lots, we almost left and went back home. We drove around in a circle, passing the front of the restaurant twice by accident before stopping to park. It’s easy to miss, surrounded by bland office parks and chain restaurants. However, once you enter, your experience is immediately transformed into something that feels authentic and charming.
It feels a little like going to Anthropologie, but instead of smelling like an overpriced candle, you’re enveloped by the umami scent of frying tempura, chilis, and fish sauce. Adorned with Buddhas and matte white wall sculptures, the walls are mostly a soothing navy blue and abound with colorful photos of food and Thai embroideries. There are cute chevron-patterned cushions in each booth and the tables and chairs appear to be made from reclaimed wood. The lighting is bright enough to see your food, but dim enough to be soothing.
On a Tuesday night at 6:30, it’s almost full. We are promptly seated at a central table near the front door, which exposes us to a cold draft when the door opens. My husband and son are both over-dramatic and keep their coats on, but I think it’s fine.
Our waitress is quick on the draw and helpful. We start out with ginger iced tea and lemonade. There is no liquor license at Noodle Charm, but I noticed other tables who had brought their own wine and beer, so I assume that there is a BYOB policy with a small corking fee. Next time I’ll bring a bottle of wine.
For appetizers, we order shrimp spring rolls and a bowl of the Galanga Soup from the Noodle Charm menu, a spicy coconut soup with galling root, mushrooms, and lime juice. You can choose all types of veggies and meat, and I went for the fried tofu. It all arrives after about ten minutes and we happily dig in.
There are four slender spring rolls sitting atop a doily, on a long rectangular plate with a reddish dipping sauce. They are hot and crispy on the outside, full of tendrils of mostly cabbage and ground shrimp on the inside. The sauce is red and tastes like old-school Chinese Restaurant Sweet & Sour Sauce (pineapple and sugar). It’s too sweet and could use some nuance. The spring rolls offer a great crunch, don’t fall apart, and taste fried and slightly bland, but the texture is satisfying.
The soup is fiery and perfect for a cold night. Every sip balances the creaminess of the coconut milk with the tartness of lime, while the chili spice opens up my nasal passages. (Seriously, bring tissues if you plan to order this.) The tofu is lightly fried and the mushrooms are plump and spongey. There is lime and some lemongrass and onion floating around and offering texture. An appetizer cup size, the amount is perfect and I’m ready for the main event.
My husband always orders Pad Thai with shrimp. No matter what, the world could be ending, he would still order this same meal. This means that, no matter how much I love Pad Thai, I have to order something different. I opt for Noodle Charm’s Bangkok Peanut noodles and my son gets the ‘small’ bowl of chicken noodle soup.
The Pad Thai arrives in a giant, asymmetrical oval bowl, like Fiestaware on acid. The shrimp are large and satisfyingly chewy, the noodles are well seasoned with a salty, fishy, sweet, and tangy sauce, but not slimy. There are little bits of egg, some fried green onions, beansprouts, and crushed peanuts on top. It’s a very traditional Pad Thai. It offers no surprises, but it tastes bright and fresh. It’s delicious and we devour it all.
My Bangkok Peanut noodles were an experiment in trying something new. It’s another giant bowl of curly Soba noodles in a creamy brown sauce and I ordered chicken as the accompanying protein. On a first taste, my reaction is that it’s too sweet. It’s very peanuty, which is good, but it could use more spice to balance out the sugar, which I should have requested. The chicken chunks are chewy, lightly seasoned bite-sized sections of white meat pounded thin and there are leafy sautéed greens woven into the noodles. It’s dusted with fried shallots and cilantro leaves. You can order the dish with beef or shrimp or a vegetarian version. I’m not sure if I would order it again, but I liked it enough to finish two thirds of a very large portion.
My son’s chicken noodle soup is the surprise winner and the ‘small’ bowl is huge. The broth is almost clear, like a normal chicken noodle soup, but it tastes slightly sweet, salty, and also sort of vinegary. After squeezing the accompanying lime, the broth is light and tangy and salty and sweet. Each mouthful is complex and pleasant.
We ordered Soba noodles, which are my son’s favorite, but you can order the soup with different noodle options like Undon or Ramen. Besides a pile of shredded chicken, the soup teems with beansprouts, cabbage, and green onions and there’s a fried wanton placed at the edge of the bowl as a garnish. My son eats most of the noodles but I cannot stop sipping this broth.
Halfway through our dinner, three young men with statement haircuts showed up and began setting up a drum kit in the front of the restaurant. They look to be of college age and their three piece band includes an upright bass, an electric guitar, and full drums. They are adorable. After the freezing in-and-out of setup, (my husband and kid are like, See? This is why I’m wearing my coat!) they start playing traditional ‘cool jazz’ and it’s oddly endearing.
I have no idea if this an ongoing Tuesday night performance or if it was a one-time thing, but it was another fun and authenticating part of our experience at Noodle Charm and Spice & Dice. The music wasn’t too loud, the musicians took themselves seriously and were very dignified, and it added an interesting twist to our night. The fact that this seemingly generic strip-mall restaurant inspired a live jazz performance speaks to the restaurant’s unique character and willingness to meet its diners more than halfway.Noodle Charm and Spice & Dice is a long and unwieldy name. It would make sense to condense their two menus, names, and websites into one, as they have done with their kitchen, but it’s their collaboration to negotiate and I’m not complaining.
Noodle Charm and Spice & Dice
1220 E Joppa Rd #108,