DEFCON Dining: Jenni's Noodle House

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Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning, and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt-work for you. It ain't always pretty.

I've really got to stop letting my little one pick where we eat. She's developed this uncanny knack for selecting restaurants that ride the fine edge of my willingness to tolerate them, disliked enough to be met with an utter dearth of enthusiasm, but not so despised as to warrant an automatic "NO." It's truly remarkable how keenly she's developed this skill. On any given day, she'll invariably choose exactly the right (wrong) restaurant. The day before, she may have needed to move three rungs up the ladder; tomorrow, she might be able to get away with a much less desirable eatery. Okay. That last bit was a lie. NEVER AGAIN.

For what it's worth, Jenni's Noodle House doesn't actually make it to the list of restaurants I actively dislike. My relationship with Jenni's is more one of near total apathy. I can't remember ever having wanted to go there, nor have I ever had a violent reaction to its suggestion. In fact, I can't remember meeting its recommendation with anything other than a detached, slightly resigned shrug.

So it was on a recent Tuesday evening when, after the marathon that is Girl Scouts Night finally came to a close around 8 p.m., none of us having supped, a tiny voice piped up from the back seat in response to the query of what to have for dinner. Shoulders duly shrugged, we made our way to Jenni's.

I can't even figure out what it is, exactly, that she likes about the place. There's nothing on the menu that grabs her attention, particularly. It's always a bit of a struggle to get her to eat her dinner, truth be told. In all honesty, I think it might be the rub-on tattoos supplied, free of charge, by the cash register. My daughter is a sucker for those things, gladly turning herself into a fresh-faced walking advert, noodle-wound chopsticks proudly adhered to her forehead.

While the older girl will occasionally venture out into uncharted territory, the little one sticks firmly with JJ's Slippery Noodles, a simple bowl of fat, ribbony rice noodles tossed with butter, soy, and grilled chicken. She usually picks out the chicken. Taking advantage of Jenni's offer of free veggies in any kids' item, I loaded her noodles down with broccoli and snow peas. She deftly picked them out and deposited them on a napkin beside her bowl. I insisted she eat a few. She declined. We called in Lieutenant Danny Roman. Three broccoli florets were consumed.

I must admit, I can see where the kid's coming from. There's a sort of instantly gratifying purity to the combination of noodles, salt, and fat, and that's what she's going for. It's easy to get right, difficult to mess up, and it can be counted on to taste good. My bowl of Miso Ramen was decidedly not as delicious.

Granted, it was an ill-advised order to place so soon after a trip to LA, where I had the best bowl of ramen I'd ever experienced, at Ramen Yamadaya. Given that Houston is not exactly known for its excellent ramen, and Jenni's is not exactly known for its excellent anything, I probably should have known better. I didn't.

It was pale and watery, and the only sign of flavor to be found was in the scattering of sweet and crunchy snow peas floating in the milky broth. None of the sweet, salty, savory pungency of miso shone through, and the cubes of tofu might as well not have been there. I must admit, here, that this was the first and only bowl of Miso Ramen I've had, so it may well be that it was a pinnacle of its form, and my untrained palate simply couldn't appreciate its subtle beauty. I highly doubt that.

In a way, that bowl of nothingness was a perfect encapsulation of my feelings about Jenni's Noodle House. There wasn't anything particularly objectionable about it, but there certainly wasn't anything to draw you in. Maybe I should have gotten a tattoo ...

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