When Nick Hansa and his wife, Pum, opened Chef’s Choice Noodle Bar in 2011, the goal was simple: Add a little spice to the downtown dining scene and introduce Bakersfield to a wide array of Thai food with an extensive menu, and do so without compromising the integrity of the food’s origin or overcharging patrons.
"When we opened, it was always my belief that you don’t need to Americanize Thai food," Hansa said.
Mission accomplished, and then some. Downtown has treated Noodle Bar so well, through word-of-mouth recommendations and wide-spread support, Hansa said, that he and his team have been able to expand the menu and start catering and holding events, all while serving loyal customers regularly. But even some of the most devoted of those regulars were skeptical newcomers at one point.
"The most common feedback is how unexpected it is," Hansa said. "That it’s vibrant, fresh, bold but not always hot-spicy. They think everything will put their mouth on fire, but (Thai food) is flavorful more than spicy. That’s the most common reaction.
"The other is the size of our servings," Hansa added with a smile. "That’s one thing we will Americanize. It gives you a value you can really sink your teeth into."
Besides the food, what makes Noodle Bar unique is that it offers fine-dining for an affordable price, Hansa said. With big portions, a $10 bowl of soup or $11 noodle dish can be enjoyed all in one go or saved as leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch. Customers love the taste and variety of Noodle Bar dishes, as well as the restaurant’s comfortable environment.
"You don’t have to dress up for a fine-dining experience," Hansa said. "You don’t feel like it has to be a special occasion that you have to save up for for months. You can come here on a date, with family, and it’s a nice environment. You don’t have to worry about the bill leaving you poor."
And now, with a recipe Hansa is sharing, Noodle Bar fans can enjoy the bold flavors of one favorite dish from the comfort of their own home. The Yum Beef Salad is a favorite at the restaurant, which sells about 50 to 60 of the dish a week, said general manager Nick Panici. The Thai spicy beef salad is also a hit at catered events.
"I don’t think anyone has not liked it," Panici said, explaining that they like "its uniqueness and spicy, bold flavors. It’s a simple dressing with crisp romaine lettuce. It’s mouth-watering."
It’s also versatile, Panici said. Home chefs can cook their own medium-rare sliced beef for the salad or use leftover steak of any kind. Shrimp, too, works with the salad, he said. The key is to not overcook whatever protein is used.
"You can use any meat," Panici said. "I like to encourage chefs at home to be creative. And if for whatever reason it doesn’t turn out, Chef’s Choice Noodle Bar is always around the corner."
But this salad is a simple dish and very beginner-friendly, Panici and Hansa assured. Every ingredient can be found at any grocery store, if it’s not already in the kitchen. The salad is complex but not complicated, unlike a lot of Thai food that can be difficult to make at home, Hansa said.
"Everyone’s going to be able to follow it," Panici said. "They’re all familiar ingredients, but definitely unfamiliar tastes."
And since this salad is a little spicy, what better way to cool down than with a cocktail? Since Noodle Bar got its liquor license last December, Panici has been experimenting with different ways to put an Asian twist on cocktails. One creation he’s excited about right now is the raspberry Thai basil mojito, which isn’t officially on the menu, though guests can still ask for it.
"I always like mojitos because they’re very refreshing," Panici said. "I thought about the ingredients and thought, ’Instead of mint, maybe we can use Thai basil?’ I saw raspberries in the kitchen and thought why not try to add a flavor to it?"
Mojito purists might raise an eyebrow at the drink’s lack of mint, but Panici promises the Thai basil packs plenty of flavor.
"People are almost skeptical until they taste it," he said.
The drink is popular for guests in the know, and now cocktail-lovers can try it themselves at home. Panici’s only word of advice? Follow the measurements and enjoy.