Inside Mainely Noods on Congress Street in downtown Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A new question I’ve had to ask myself recently: Would I rather be greeted with an apathetic, “Huh?” or be ignored completely? It’s a tough call.

Over the span of a few days this month, I had both experiences at Mainely Noods, a fast-casual Portland noodle bar. Starting life in early 2020 as Noodle Love before a New York restaurateur objected to co-owner Li Yang’s use of the same name, this colorful, well-lighted shop has a tremendous amount of curb appeal.

At the start of its run, the business seemed uniquely well positioned to ride out the pandemic with its menu of easily transportable, pan-Asian noodle bowls. Every time I’d walk past this stretch of Congress Street back then, I’d catch sight of Mainely Noods’ cheerful staff and the Day-Glo neon ramen bowl flickering inside, and my brain would squirt out a little extra dose of dopamine.

Sometimes, I’d even feel hopeful about the future of dining out when I peeked inside, especially as I began to see diners return indoors for meals, snagging seats along the wall-to-wall banquette, mostly around lunchtime. I was genuinely buoyed by the restaurant’s success.

More than three years on, Mainely Noods, with its larger-than-life, multicolored chalk menu and loping strip of bright LED lighting overhead, remains aesthetically upbeat. But apart from décor, the restaurant seems to have shed most of its chipperness.

Along the counter where staff assemble dishes from prepped ingredients, toppled stacks of black melamine bowls create a chaotic atmosphere, while the hundreds of faded, now barely discernible pink-toned Polaroids of customers along the opposite wall make the space feel forgotten. Behind the counter, that neglect is echoed and amplified, and it’s not just the lack of a pleasant salutation when you arrive. Indeed, if your visit is similar to either of my recent ones, you might catch sight of staff sitting on crates, scrolling on their smartphones or worse: absent-mindedly frying dumplings.


If you’re lucky, they’ll remove them from the heat while they remain tender, as was the case with my order of soft, slightly underseasoned pork dumplings ($7). If you’re less fortunate, the kitchen might lose track of the dumplings, leaving them to blacken until their bitter wrappers toughen. Nothing can save a chewy, leathery dumpling, not even an evocative moniker like “Dirty Dumps,” which is Mainely Noods’ revolting name for a starter of pan-seared vegetarian, green-skinned dumplings doused in sweet peanut sauce and sriracha ($8.50).

The Nooooooods bowl at Mainely Noods. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

I wish unappetizing dumplings at Mainely Noods were a fluke. Instead, they’re more of an object lesson about what can go wrong in a restaurant whose best days appear to be behind it. Indeed, the business’ “Signature Noods” are just as hit-or-miss – and on balance, more of a “miss” than side dishes like unintentionally crunchy dumplings or a small bowl of pickled carrots and funky, tart daikon ($5) sliced so lackadaisically that batons in my portion weren’t even separated completely.

When it comes to noodle dishes, several factors conspire against Mainely Noods’ kitchen. One is seasoning. Take the Bangkok ($10.50), a loosely Thai-inspired bowl of ramen, crunchy bok choy and shredded chicken. These neutral-flavored ingredients gain nothing from the nearly flavorless coconut curry broth they’re served in. Instead, the dish relies on a scoop of fiery jalapeño “kimchi” to contribute salt and spice. I love condiments, but they shouldn’t be the sole source of flavor in a dish.

The Seoul at Mainely Noods. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The same blandness is the downfall of the udon-based Seoul noodle bowl ($10.50). Here, amid bloated white noodles stained pink by a large portion of garlicky kimchi and kimchi sauce, no other components seem to supply any of their own flavor.

The Tai Pei noodle bowl ($10.50) is a fortunate exception to this trend. Cubes of warming, pot-roast-like slow-braised pork shoulder contribute umami and fat, and a fragrant five-spice broth creates another layer of warming, savory flavor. Just don’t touch the noodles. Overcooked and distended, they collapse when you grab them with your chopsticks, tumbling back into the bowl in mushy coils.

Shredded chicken, the default protein in several of the noodle bowls, is also frequently overcooked to the point of catastrophe. I retrieved one stiff, jerky-textured length of chicken breast from my Bangkok bowl on my first visit and exiled it to a nearby napkin to keep it from ruining the rest of the dish.


Mainely Noods does a bit better with chile-and-white-pepper-spiced ground chicken, the protein in the restaurant’s ($9.50) brothless Sichuan bowl. Udon noodles in this liquid-free dish also fare better, although apart from the ground chicken, there is little flavor in the dish. My dinner guest, after picking his way through several bites of the Sichuan bowl and a side of equally tame spicy pickled cucumbers ($5) referred to this humdrum combo as “baby’s first spice.”

I’m not after eruptive, innovative seasoning, nor do I think it’s fair to expect a quick-service restaurant to produce precision-boiled noodles ladled into broth at their perfect bounciness and bite. But I do believe that Mainely Noods can do, should do and must do better. Better than unbalanced, underwhelming food, and certainly better than disengaged service. I hope it’s not too late to bring some of the love back to these noodles.

The exterior of Mainely Noods on a recent November evening. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

WHERE: 658 Congress St., Portland; 207-536-4014,
SERVING: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 4:30-8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; noon-9 p.m. Friday through Sunday
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers: $5-$8.50, Noodles: $9.50-$16.50
NOISE LEVEL: Intermission
VEGETARIAN: Many dishes
BAR: None
BOTTOM LINE: After nearly four years in business, Portland’s Mainely Noods is beginning to show signs of burnout. Its effervescent visual design aesthetic remains firmly in place, but fading photos and untidy workspaces lend the restaurant a neglected vibe. The menu isn’t much of an improvement. Dishes like Thai-inspired Bangkok udon noodles with bok choy or kimchi-spiked Seoul udon noodles lack seasoning. Proteins, condiments and even noodles themselves can be carelessly prepared, as can dumplings, which range from decent (pork dumplings) to tough and gloppy (the distastefully named “Dirty Dumps”). If you visit, stick to the decent, five-spice-scented Tai Pei noodles or brothless noodles like Sichuan-style ramen topped with mild ground chicken.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service, value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such):

* Poor
** Fair
*** Good
**** Excellent
***** Extraordinary

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously and never accepts free food or drink.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of seven recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at:
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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