When peripatetic Richard Baribault was wandering around Asia in the 1970s, he never guessed that one day he would reign as king of the Cleveland noodle houses. But one thing led to another--there was the export business, his eastside "Toogies" pizza parlors, and a foray into publishing--and now, here he is, making a living ruling benevolently over what he calls his "Nu-Asian diner."
Of course, it's a small kingdom. As far as Baribault can tell, his tiny Tea House Noodles is the only noodle house in Cleveland, although he hints that could change, if his plans for expansion get off the drawing board.
And that would be a good thing, because the simple food at Tea House Noodles is simply delightful.
The basic dish of the house is a blend of crisp, freshly steamed bok choy, napa cabbage, snow pea pods, carrots, onions, bean sprouts, and jicama, loaded onto mounds of nutty California brown rice or firm Thai rice noodles and wet-kissed by Richard's original sauces. Vegetarians can leave well enough alone. Carnivores can add chicken or shrimp, or both, to their noodle or rice bowl.
To drink, the diner's juice bar offers a selection of hot teas, freshly squeezed juices (if you haven't had fresh carrot juice before, this is the place to try it), and cold smoothies made of yogurts, banana, and various fruit juices. And if you can't decide, why, then, have them all. At the prices Baribault charges, you can afford to!
The driving force behind the noodle empire is Baribault himself, a thin fellow of 49, with an unruly mop of graying hair; weird, white-framed glasses; and the appearance of being in motion even when he's sitting still.
I tell him that when I first entered Tea House Noodles, with its simple foods and prominent juice bar, it reminded me of places I had seen in Laguna Beach, California. Likewise, my fellow chowhound said the tiny space reminded him of spots in Amsterdam or New York City. And, in the tea house's "good vibes," I also picked up strong undertones of Kent, circa 1969. Baribault beams at the comparisons.
"Those are all good places to be," he nods. "I like that."
Although he isn't comfortable being called a spiritual man, Baribault's own take on matters of the soul permeates his noodle house and makes it endearingly quirky. His philosophy turns up in the slogan on the company T-shirts ("A Simple Alignment . . . Spin 33 Clockwise"), the items he chooses to serve (no red meat), the music on the stereo (new age), the wall art (most recently, a series of colorful mandala prints), and even in the how-to-order instructions he has mounted on the big menu board behind the cash register:
* Choose rice or noodles
* Choose a sauce
* Add chicken or shrimp (or don't)
* Feel good
It turns out the ordering instructions aren't just philosophical but are practical, too. Newcomers are sometimes overwhelmed by their choices, Baribault says, and need help figuring out what to do.
"The instructions make it easier," he allows, "plus they give people something to think about."
In fact, giving people something to think about is one of the things Baribault likes to do best.
"People need to pay more attention," he says. "That's one of the problems with going to a fast-food restaurant and just ordering the same old burger. You don't have to think about what you are doing.
"But here, you have to think about what you order," he says. "I give you choices. If you pay more attention to your food and what you eat, you'll get more benefits from it, not just nutritionally, but in how you feel. And when you feel good, that's when you can grow spiritually. If there is a spiritual component to my food, that's it."
Baribault says he went into the noodle business after deciding Clevelanders needed a place to get healthy food.
"I was in the Arcade working for The [Downtown] Tab around 1994 or 1995," he says. "I saw all these people passing by and thought it was too bad they didn't have something healthy to pick up for lunch. So I told the guys I was working with that I wanted to get back into the food thing, and I decided to try Asian cooking."
He patterned his new venture on the ubiquitous noodle shops he had seen during his travels in the Far East.
"Everywhere I went in Asia, there were noodle shops," he says. "Singapore, Japan, Thailand. They were on practically every street corner. You could see exactly what you were getting, and the food was easy, quick, and good. It was like our fast food, only healthy."
He initially set up a wok and started selling stir-fry in his Arcade location. But as his customers continued to clamor for fat-free steamed foods, the wok, quite literally, was relegated to the back burner.
Hoping to attract more walk-by traffic, he left the Arcade late last fall and opened the East 6th Street location in March. Since then, it's just been Baribault, his wife Kathy, their loyal staff, and the steamer.
"I figured what the heck, I'd get rid of the wok." He shrugs expansively.
Tea House Noodles is open weekdays only, from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Although he has experimented with extended hours, Baribault says they just haven't worked out.
"Downtown is a strange situation," he declares. "It's dead on the weekends and weird at night. We even tried doing delivery after 5 p.m., but there just weren't enough customers."
Today, the food preparation counter, where folks wait in line to place their orders, takes up most of the floor space.
That's where Kathy, Richard, and their staff quickly assemble the bowls of rice and noodles and pack them into plastic boxes. At the end of the counter, hungry guests can pick up their orders along with paper napkins, packets of plastic flatware, or the infinitely more amusing wooden chopsticks.
For those who choose to dine in, several minuscule tables and stools line the blue-and-white tile walls. Baribault says he can seat seventeen, but only, I suspect, if they are feeling pretty friendly. But then again, "friendly" is the feeling you get at Tea House Noodles.
Baribault creates his assortment of delicious, Asian-inspired sauces in kitchen space located on the second floor. They include the thick, smooth Thai peanut sauce, a spicy Rica Rica sauce from Bali, an Indonesian curry, a Philippine sweet-hot sauce, a delicate chicken broth with lemon grass and ginger, and a smoky miso broth with shiitake mushrooms.
Those in the know can mix and match their choice of sauces. Kathy recommended I try the nutty Thai sauce mixed with the hot Rica Rica on top of my noodle bowl. Like successful lovers, the two flavors went together perfectly--a little bit spicy, a little bit sweet.
Baribault says he got help developing his recipes from a friend, Frank Zifer, now the executive chef at Winsor's in the nearby Wyndham Hotel.
"I knew I wanted to use ingredients like lemon grass, cilantro, and ginger," he says. "Frank helped me put them all together. While I wouldn't call these authentic Asian recipes, they are definitely Asian-inspired."
In addition to the noodle or rice bowls, customers can choose dishes like the low-fat Spicy Rock Shrimp Salad or the lively Sesame Ginger Noodle Salad. All the salad bowls come with a choice of homemade dressings, including Lemon Grass Vinaigrette and an exotic Mango Cream.
Daily specials emphasize the same wholesome ingredients as the regular menu. On one of our visits, we especially enjoyed Smothered Asian Chicken: slow-cooked, shredded chicken, onions, and peppers, in a broth seasoned with cilantro and ladled over brown rice.
"I never thought I'd do rice," Baribault muses. "This is a noodle shop, ya know? But after a hundred people requested it, I decided to do the brown rice. It's good, and now people have a choice."
And on blustery winter days, the throngs that line up outside his door during the noon hour gratefully receive his homemade soup bowls, including Chicken Broth spiked with lemon grass and Miso-Mushroom.
Rounding out the offerings are imported Steamed Buns: little puffs of warm, delicate, white rice-flour dough with sweet or savory fillings. Baribault says the buns come from Taiwan by way of the local Asian market and are the only items that aren't made fresh on the premises. The Vegetarian Buns contain chopped green vegetables and can be topped with your choice of savory sauces (try the peanut); the Sweet Buns are stuffed with a mild red-bean paste and can be topped with a fruit syrup (Kathy recommends mango).
Many of Baribault's customers are "regulars" who return time and again for the healthful foods and lively atmosphere.
"Yeah," Baribault smiles, "I have lots of people who come by every day. That's what I like to see. For me, that's the good stuff."
Oh, and about that T-shirt slogan?
"It's a chakra alignment," he explains. "Spin 33 times and it will give you balance, like the dervishes used to do. It's an exercise, like the food."
All hail the noodle king. Now go, and feel good.