I’ve been visiting a lot of strip malls lately, wandering their acres of parking and their boxy plazas, reading menus posted at the doors of their restaurants.
For my debut as a restaurant critic, I checked out two dumpling houses in shopping centers. For me, this was a natural choice. Lots of people hate strip malls. To many, they are a no man’s land. When I see a strip mall, I see something else: a community.
After my family escaped the Vietnam War in 1975, and fled to Silver Spring, Maryland, strip malls were where I found people who looked like me and sounded like me.
In the late ’70s, my parents both held two jobs. Luxurious family meals, when we had them, were held in strip malls because those plazas were located along the bus lines, convenient for their work schedules. My parents would meet my two sisters and me for dinner in between their shifts.
We’d eat Chinese food, then I would walk two doors down to buy enough banh mis for my entire week of school lunches, before heading to the coin-operated laundromat on the corner to finish the last load.
We already knew that the food at these places was good. It took the late, great restaurant critic Jonathan Gold to make eating in these suburban landscapes cool. Gold afforded taco and chicken shacks in malls the same newspaper space that he gave bistros headed by James Beard Award-winning chefs. His writing pointed out that strip malls held far more than teriyaki and bubble teas.
You can find dried seafood waffles, crepelike uttapam and…
… Chickpea shrimp pancakes
I first sampled these chickpea snacks in Spain and Italy but never realized how easy these were to whip up until I saw a line cook at a Middle Eastern/Italian American pasta joint in an Atlanta strip mall throw a batch together in the open kitchen. The oversimplified version below can be cobbled together in a pinch.
1 cup chickpea flour
1 cup water
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup of raw shrimp, cut lengthwise or just chop them into smaller pieces
1/3 cup of scallions or/and chopped dill or other herbs
Fish sauce (optional)
1. Sprinkle a couple of dashes of fish sauce over the shrimp then combine with the scallions/herbs in a bowl.
2. In another bowl, combine flour, pinch of salt and pepper and water. Whisk to a thin pancake-batter consistency. Let the batter settle for at least 20 minutes in the fridge. When you are ready to fry, drop the shrimp and herbs into the batter.
3. Turn heat to medium-high. Heat about two tablespoons of olive oil in pan. Drop in a ladle of the batter. After the edges crisp up, flip the pancake over to finish. Serve immediately. Takes about five minutes.
Perhaps I can inspire you to go on more strip-mall dining adventures if I outline how my two reviews were born.
I was eating at Vietnam House in Asian Square, in the Chinatown International District (one of Seattle’s best Vietnamese restaurants for rice dishes, by the way) and I wondered aloud why we don’t have Vietnamese pizza like they do in Orange County, California, and in New York City. A customer’s tip led me to an Asian street food cafe, Fire & Ice, at the Great Wall Shopping Mall in Kent. While there, I wandered a few doors down to Mama Dough, where I was treated to remarkable soup dumplings.
While tracking down a different tip about a strip-mall find, I stumbled upon Northern Dumpling House, which will soon crank out these Frankensteinish giant soup dumplings that will require the use of a boba straw to suck out the porky broth. A few stores down I found the Iranian-owned Aria Food & Bakery, which does Persian-inspired pizza, and Cafe Bahar, which specializes in Hakka noodles and other Indo-Chinese comfort food.
The lesson: Your interesting and unexpected discoveries will increase exponentially if you make strip malls part of your dining exploration.
In recent weeks, in my ongoing quest for strip-mall nuggets, I’ve driven as far north as E.C. Plaza in Edmonds (Dumpling Generation gets a thumbs up) and many mini plazas along Highway 99 (one of the big-name restaurants to debut this summer is Buerjia Chinese Sauerkraut Fish in Asian Food Center on Aurora Avenue North.)
Traffic made these drives exhausting at times, but they were almost always fulfilling. Upon arriving home, I would jot down my finds and after a long night, reward myself with a refreshing drink.
Cognac and ginger ale (that refreshing drink)
Cognac is popular in Asian cultures. I’ve seen a few strip-mall restaurants swap out vodka to make a cognac version of the Moscow Mule. This drink, though, tastes better with a high-quality ginger ale.
1.5 ounces of V.S. or V.S.O.P. cognac
4-5 ounces of Fever Tree ginger ale
Pour cognac in glass with ice, top with ginger ale and garnish with lime wedge.
Many refugees I knew got their start in strip malls. Some turned into entrepreneurs by seeking out unpropitious spaces with low rents to open pho and sandwich shops. Others walked down the squat rows of storefronts like door-to-door salesmen, inquiring about dishwasher openings, or any gig that required pidgin English instead of a résumé.
Now the faces in these places are changing. In other parts of the country, young chefs are opening next to dollar stores and dry cleaners for the low overhead and the swath of free parking, or to avoid the high taxes and skyrocketing real-estate prices in hipper cities. (Does that sound familiar here?)
Southern California is at the forefront with big-name chefs such as Ludo Lefebvre and Roy Choi taking up shop in strip malls. Around there, mall food can mean smoky baba ganoush, lobster dumplings and…
… Fried sticky rice cakes
I first spotted this dish at strip malls around Orange County, California, but many mall restaurants in Little Saigons across the country make a variation of this, either as an appetizer or in place of steamed rice. The most famous version is at Tan Dinh bistro in New Orleans, a popular hangout for chefs around The Big Easy. Its sticky rice cakes are scented with coconut milk and served with roasted quail, salmon and other entrees.
Other takes I’ve seen:
One cafe filled the sticky rice with cooked ground pork, then balled it up and fried it like arancini, serving it with Maggi sauce.
Another spot used it like a Chinese doughnut stick to soak up the curry soup.
At home, I make the recipe below or I wrap a slice of prosciutto around a thick, sticky rice cake, crown it with a fried egg and eat it with knife and fork. Breakfast of champions.
Leftover sticky rice
1 tablespoon of soy sauce
1 tablespoon of rice vinegar
1. Mix the leftover rice with garlic powder then shape the sticky rice into a patty, as thin as a diner burger if you want it cracker-crispy, or thick like a half-pound burger if you want a more substantial bite.
2. Turn heat to medium high. Let the olive oil sizzle in the pan and fry the patty like a burger. You want a golden-brown coating.
3. For dipping sauce, mix the soy sauce and rice vinegar together.
Just how much these places matter was underscored for me years later, when I was writing about refugees for this newspaper. The people I interviewed frequently asked that we talk at the strip malls near New Holly. After six of these interviews, I finally understood why: These people wanted to meet here because the coffee shops and pho houses were within walking distance from their public housing and convenient since they didn’t have cars. The plazas were also their town squares, where they could catch up with friends over pho or iced coffee and mahjong. One mom who befriended a restaurant owner left her child in his dining room while she dashed off to pick up some overtime.
This was like how my parents had used these places, decades prior.
It’s not a stretch to say strip malls provide a community service in one form or another.