LYNNWOOD — Ah, the mall food court. There was a time when the food court served as the epicenter of teenage networking. I was reminded of it while watching the latest season of “Stranger Things” on Netflix this summer, where Starcourt Mall (and Scoops Ahoy) is practically a cast member. Now it feels like the humble food court has been replaced by the hipper “food hall” (to varying results; see our take on Bellevue’s Lincoln South), but there is one place where it reigns supreme: Lynnwood’s H Mart.
The H Mart grocery store opens at 8 a.m., but nearly all the food-court vendors — save for Le Bon Patisserie, which also opens at 8 — don’t open until 11 a.m.
The food court is located to the right of the grocery store as you enter the front doors. It’s a fairly large space. The eateries — spanning Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean cuisines — are around the perimeter with seating in the middle. A window-filled fishbowl of sorts provides the only natural light, complete with more tables off to one side. The vibe is a bit … deflated. We got there just after 11 on a Thursday when things seemed to be getting started for the day, yet nearly all the tables were dirty. Many bussing stations were already filled with dishes. But the smells emanating from the various kitchens were intriguing and everyone working looked friendly and happy.
This is no fictional seemingly idyllic Starcourt Mall. There are no fake plants or water features or kids trying to play it cool as they gulp Orange Julius. There is, however, Japanese milk bread (and a sign that warns would-be squishers “don’t poke the bread!”) at Le Bon Patisserie; a cheerful woman who lovingly overfills your Beard Papa’s cream puffs while Christian rock plays aggressively in the background; lines of men decked in business casual and lanyards eagerly awaiting fried chicken; and families attacking massive platters of food.
It might be devoid of frills, but it is well-loved.
Shortly after we entered, a woman walked by with a platter of sushi and, boom, a plan was formulated. Scoping out what everyone else was eating was the best way to inform our decisions when it came to winnowing down the extensive choices.
The sushi was from Oshima. Their menu features an extensive list of sushi rolls as well as teriyaki, bento boxes, udon soups and more. The fresh fish is showcased right in front, and you can watch the sushi chefs as they make your rolls. We got the Washington Roll ($8.95), featuring salmon wrapped around rice, with crab, avocado and cucumber on the inside.
There was already a line building at bb.q Chicken across the way, so we headed there while waiting for our sushi order. This stall has been open since early summer and replaced a pho joint. Despite not being capitalized, the bb.q is an acronym for “best of the best quality.” The South Korean chain specializes in fried chicken by the bucketful; double fried in olive oil and sauced post-fry in secret spicy, hot spicy, hot pepper, honey garlic, soy garlic, ma-la hut or stir fried (with onion and garlic). You can also get rice cakes and fried cheese balls. Pickled daikon is available for just 50 cents. Get the pickled daikon.
While waiting for chicken we took a look around to see where we might end up next, ultimately heading to Hometown Korean for a shrimp and green onion pancake ($10.99) and the hot stone bibimbap ($10.99).
A quick stop at Beard Papa’s for five cream puffs filled with classic vanilla cream ($6.25) and we were ready to sit down.
Across the board, the portions were substantial. Highlights? The fried chicken from bb.q; the secret sauce was sticky, clinging to every crag created from the double bath in olive oil. The sweet just barely edged out the spicy and the chicken underneath was juicy. The daikon provided palate-cleansing crunches in between pieces. Unfortunately, the longer the chicken sat, the more the breading softened. A side effect of all that sauce perhaps. My recommendation would be to inhale that chicken pronto for maximum crunchiness and then go order more food.
The Washington Roll we ordered was one of the most restrained on Oshima’s menu; many rolls come gussied up with sauces, crunchy toppings or the dreaded cream cheese. This one with crab, cucumber, avocado and salmon had clean flavors and rice with good texture. It made me want to go back to Oshima to see what else they had.
The Beard Papa’s cream puffs were predictably delightful in that toothachingly sweet way that you’d expect.
However, the bibimbap and pancake from Hometown were undeniably lackluster. The pancake’s shrimp had that stale pre-frozen taste to them, the cooked batter overly greasy. The green onions were tough with many more dried-out green ends than tender white roots. The pickled daikon and kimchi banchan was limp and tired. The miso soup was a tepid cloud. The bibimbap was dotted with unseasoned sprouts, carrots, zucchini and radish, with gray beef hiding under a blanket of cold fried egg.
By the time we left, the food court was humming. Steaming bowls of udon noodles and bento boxes from Oshima further bolstered my opinion to get back there. I’ll definitely be back for fried chicken, too.
H Mart Food Court; 11 a.m. -8 p.m. daily; 3301 184th St. S.W., Lynnwood