CONTEMPT OF FOOD COURT

Your best bet here, I discovered, is getting a side of chow mein-soft noodles with some slivered cabbage, sprouts and carrots-and a side of the mixed vegetables. Next door, so to speak, to Chinese Cafe is Teriyaki Temple. The two places have the same owners and also the longest lines at lunchtime. I had the daily special: steak and chicken teriyaki, steamed white rice, veggies and a soft drink. At $3.75 it's one of the food court's better deals.

They heaped lots of grilled meat and chicken on my rice. But tell them to take it easy on the overly sweet teriyaki sauce. The veggies seemed a cut above the ordinary, with some discernible broccoli and mushrooms tossed in amid the cabbage.

The pot stickers would make a nice appetizer to share if you're lunching with a friend. They're grilled when you order, not sitting around already cooked and collecting grease. At $2.50 for six, they won't break anyone's budget.

I seemed to be the only customer who ever asked for the California rolls, since the woman taking my order asked me three times if I was sure I wanted some. Their version of this fixture of stateside sushi was six small, gummy rice balls with avocado and krab." The novelty wore off by the second ball.

By this time, my mother-in-law was taking frequent peeks at her watch, hoping we might need to speed immediately to the airport. But our early arrival at the food court gave us plenty of time to knock off a few more lunches.

And the last two lunch stalls had not a customer in sight to impede our progress.

Fajita Willy's serves dull Mexican fast-food fare at inflated prices, a combination that seems likely to keep the lines short.

A $2.15 chicken fajita came on a small flour tortilla, with a few tasteless pieces of chicken, a slice of green pepper, and a thimbleful of grilled onions. Even with some lettuce and tomato on the side, it would take at least three of these to put a dent in my appetite.

As for the bean burrito, I'd get no closer to this than I would to Chernobyl. A huge flour tortilla (the kind the fajita ought to have come in) enveloped a glob of indifferent beans. You'll need a plunger to help swallow it.

I thought I'd saved the least-promising vendor for last. The prospect of dining at Hot Dog on a Stick made fasting seem a reasonable culinary option. Anyone who has set foot in a mall has seen the cooking process: A Louis Rich turkey hot dog is impaled on a stick, swirled about in a cornmeal batter and deep-fat fried for three minutes. I brought it to the table and hesitantly took a bite. My goodness, I liked it. The juicy hot dog and the gritty batter, swabbed with mustard, made a potent duo. Even my mother-in-law perked up after a taste, and we agreed that in a world without waist sizes we'd scarf this down in a jiffy.

Only Dusty's remained, a dessert place that dishes out Miss Karen's frozen yogurt and Dreyer's ice cream. But it does make its own cookies and coffee. We sampled an unremarkable chocolate-chocolate chip, an okay chocolate chip and a forgettable chocolate chip, coconut, oatmeal confection called Dusty's special. At three for $1.90, they were no bargain. The coffee, happily, was potable.

It was now 1:15, and my mother-in-law and I headed off to the airport. I got her bags checked in and pointed her in the proper direction. I wondered out loud about Delta's dinner menu. She never looked back.

CHERCHEZ LA FEMME... v5-06-92

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