I would love to deck out my flat with LEGO‘s Modular Buildings as much as the next guy, but sadly I have neither the money nor the storage space to keep them all around. Therefore I have to settle on smaller fish and make do with the building-themed sets in the Creator 3in1 range and other series, but even that is an exercise in itself for similar reasons. There’s just an over-abundance of options, yet models like the latest Sanctum Santorum (76218) are out of my class, either, due to their price. For now let’s have a look at the Downtown Noodle Shop (31131) therefore.
Contents and Pricing
Unfortunately even these smaller buildings don’t come cheap and so you’d have to invest at least 40 Euro MSRP. That is before the price increase as since this very September 1st you have to add 5 Euro more on top. The irrationality of LEGO‘s greed is a discussion for another time, but of course it sucks having to pay even more. For now this is obfuscated by many retailers still selling it for the old price minus their usual discounts, but after the transitional phase this no doubt this wear off and prices rise, regardless, once consumers have been conditioned to just accept it.
In theory paying 40 Euro for 569 pieces isn’t half bad, but as you can already see in the overview image this number also is made up by many smaller elements that are good to have to detail and enliven the scenery, but do not contribute much to the bulk/ volume of the model. Even the walls are actually to a good extent just 1 x 1 bricks to build support columns and frame the windows. Realistically, you only have around two thirds of “substance” with the rest being decorations. Of course this is not an unusual ratio and on some level even good compared to e.g. some City sets. However, the lofty impression is furthered by the overall very open structure and no real big parts giving the package some “weight”.
With that in mind, hunting for discounts can be really worthwhile. Typically you will be able to find this for around 34 Euro, representing 20 percent off. I got mine for 31 Euro and at some point an online retailer fired it out for 26 Euro. This really helps, especially if you buy multiple boxes to either build all three models from the instructions or simply create a bigger house.
There are only two minifigures in this set, which is a little underwhelming, given the subject. You cannot even fill the little noodle stand completely, much less add some bustling activity in other areas. At the very least this should have had four figures and five would have been ideal. That way you could add a customer buying some Asian food, place a child near the bike buying some ice cream and so on. The minifigs themselves are just run-of-the-mill. You’ve seen the individual pieces used a million times and they get just remixed a bit like the lady having one of the new heads with the hearing aid printed on. In addition there’s a buildable dog, but as you well know I’d much prefer having a molded animal. After all, there’s enough different breeds available, it just seems LEGO are too hellbent on keeping Dachshund, French Bulldog et al exclusive to their Collectible Minifigures series and it takes so long for these to appear in mundane sets (usually as other color variants, no less).
The bicycle, or more exactly tricycle frame is another variation on the small food cart as already seen e.g. in the Heartlake City Organic Café (41444). Looking back at this set the green wheels/ tires look just odd in conjunction with the white frame (they may have worked better if the frame was Lime Green or Bright Green), so I’m glad we get “ordinary” Black tires here. The ice cone is an interesting build, but feels too heavy and overall whoever would drive this bike would be very unsafe, given that he barely can see anything. 😉 This would likely work better on a classic roof on four poles.
Important preface: For this article I’m going to focus exclusively on the primary model, the noodle shop. The alternate builds, a bicycle shop and a small arcade struck me as stylistically too similar and/ or too small to be worth going through the trouble of rebuilding the one set I had at hand into the other variants. I may consider buying another one of these when there’s another good discount and maybe then I can give those secondary models a whirl. Now on to the good stuff.
A trend that as someone who never can have enough colors at hand certainly views positively is the fact that someone at LEGO must have realized that skin tones are actually “real” colors and could be used for regular pieces and not just minifigure components as well. This change came about around two years ago when they started doing the LEGO ART packages and had to recolor all those 1 x 1 round plates and studs, anyway, and shortly after that they released the buildable “huge minifigures” Harry Potter & Hermione Granger (76393), containing more flesh-colored pieces for the hands and face. From there it probably took on a life of its own and simply became a standard thing. I’m pretty sure, though, that there was some heated debate on the matter internally, given how long they refused or had not considered producing parts in skin colors.
To get to a point: One of the things that attracted me to this set was the use of Light Flesh/ Light Nougat pieces. I just didn’t have any in my collection yet (yes, that price thing again preventing me from buying costly sets) and wanted to check out how it would look in person. To boot, there were some other interesting elements in useful colors like more Olive Green bricks, the Dark Red slopes and the flat “arch” slopes in Dark Green and Bright Green. At least my nerd genes would be stimulated and I could live out my obsession in that department.
The build overall is pretty straightforward, but also somewhat delicate. This is due to the building being very open to begin with and consisting of a lot of individual one brick thick walls that are not interconnected. This means everything is very wobbly and only stabilizes once you cap it off with the plates for the next floor or other transversal elements. Until you do so, things are prone to being pushed out of alignment again or snap off entirely. You have to have a tender touch to not apply too much force. In the end everything works out, but a little care goes a long way. The assembly order can also be a bit frustrating as it jumps across the model. It’s kind of structured in slices instead just finishing off one corner so you find yourself adding something to the noodle stand only to then be asked to add an Olive Green brick on the other side. Flipping a few pages ahead in the instructions every now and then can help to make this more efficient by doing multiple steps at once.
The default layout for this building is a sort of “cheat” square layout for a corner building. This is technically plausible with the main facade facing the main street and the noodle stand being tucked away into a branching side street or alley. However, this also exposes what perhaps is this sets biggest shortcoming: the lack of height. You never really believe (at least I do) that someone could live there above the shop and those rooms are at best a small business office for the snack bar’s owner. It’s also visually odd since in particular the right-hand side of the building with the stairs and the door has no thickness and doesn’t even pretend there would be something else. It’s like where there is the hollow in the back there should be the actual building and everything we see are just additions that were constructed later. Anyway, I think having a third floor would have helped hugely to avoid this impression and made things more functional and believable.
The small insert with the vending machine is only loosely attached with some pins and once removed you can play around with different configurations for the house. Because the model is built with hinges, you can just close it up. This would also be a good option for storing it since it prevents the interior from getting too dusty. In this closed state the kitchen sink under the stairs is at the back of the noodle shop and likewise, the second floor gets more logical as the previously unconnected door now acts as the entry to the living room. The big downside is of course that you cannot get inside and visibility of the interior is seriously restricted as well.
The second possible arrangement is simply forming a straight line. This looks nice, but all the same exposes the identical problem as the initial layout – the lack of depth. This really screams “Buy me a second set to extend the rear!”, a recurring theme with this package. In this configuration you would also have to adjust the width of the sidewalk for the building to be integrated into an existing neighborhood.
Since the building itself already is made up of mostly small elements despite a relatively high piece count, the interior isn’t hyper-detailed, either. Not that this would be too much of an issue, given that there isn’t much space, but you can somehow feel that the designers struggled and had to sacrifice one for the other to stay on budget. Not meaning to propagate stereotypes, but certainly a real noodle shop would be more cluttered and also have some more utilities. There isn’t even a fryer or a fridge anywhere in sight.
Incomplete as it may be, the living room on the second floor feels cosy. Similarly, the tiny hallway reminded me of those small British hotels – crammed and a bit stuffy, but always a table with fresh flowers near the window. The roof ladder/ emergency ladder also fits.
While overall this model is just fine and really captures that feeling of early 20th century American urban/ suburban buildings as you would find them e.g. in San Francisco or some areas of New York, the flaws/ shortcomings can’t be overlooked. They really show without looking for them even if you may not be able to exactly pinpoint what bothers you at first.
For one, the all too apparent lack of height by not having a third floor is felt immediately. As can be seen in the photos the building looks very square. Other buildings like the Townhouse Toy Store (31105) from two years ago were effectively not much larger, but never felt as vertically compressed. Arguably the balance just isn’t there in strict architectural terms. The second issue is the overall feeling of incompleteness. The building comes across as an half-finished skeleton of what it could have been. The many open spaces contribute to this feeling as does the lack of some “interior” when the building is at a 90 degree angle or perfectly straight. Certainly some inserts on the inside similar to the one with the vending machine would have made a huge difference.
All that being the case, the path to happiness most definitely is buying multiple packages of this set, but then it really becomes a question of whether this is still cost-effective. Buying two is certainly feasible, but adding a third already gets you dangerously close to the price of actual Modular Buildings or something like the big Sanctum Santorum (76218). Likewise, you could then find alternatives in other series and bash something together from multiple Friends sets or similar. In that regard one might even call this noodle shop a failure. If you get my drift: When it’s easier to cobble together a larger building from other sets, then the point of buying a dedicated set to that effect is defeated.
Unfortunately this set doesn’t quite know what it wants to be and the conditions when a purchase pays off will be very specific. Regardless whether you use it standalone or want to integrate it into your existing LEGO city you will have to put in some extra work to make it look nice. Therefore my view is that it would have been better had this been a slightly more expensive, but also more complete set in the 60 Euro range with at least some of the issues fixed. in fact even if they had just duplicated the second floor and given it a different interior this would have improved things a lot.