The Stranger

Nestlé Toll House Cafe by Chip vs. Mrs. Fields Cookies

As a child, if I successfully managed to beg my mother to buy the golden bag of Nestlé chocolate chips instead of the ugly generic brand, life was good. We would bake Toll House cookies, and I'd eat them straight out of the oven, warm and gooey. Nostalgia is a bitch, I thought to myself as I crunched my way through a dry, nearly burned, stale-tasting chocolate chip cookie from the Nestlé Toll House Cafe by Chip. Disappointment carried me to the Mrs. Fields storefront, where I ordered up a semisweet chocolate chip cookie with walnuts. "Do you bake these cookies?" I skeptically asked the older South Asian woman helping me. "Oh yes, every one," she said, handing me a waxy paper bag. She went on to explain that, while she shows up for work at nine, she holds off baking as long as possible before the store's 10 a.m. opening. Mrs. Fields is located close to one of the mall entrances, where gusts of winter air routinely come rushing in, wreaking cold havoc on the baked goods. "But feel your cookie," she said with a wink. "Still soft." And indeed it was—chewy and salty sweet, far superior to the Nestlé Toll House cookie, and obviously imbued with love. ANGELA GARBES

Auntie Anne's Zone D vs. Auntie Anne's Zone F

It may be of some comfort in this cold, uncertain world, to know that no matter which of Alderwood Mall's two Auntie Anne's pretzel stands you might be patronizing, a pepperoni pretzel always costs $3.93. At both Auntie Anne's stores, employees will extol the merits of lemonade, iced tea, cheese topping, and marinara sauce. At both stores, the employees will claim their pepperoni pretzels are better than the other store's pepperoni pretzels. Yet when you are in possession of two pepperoni pretzels, one from each store, one in each hand, the first pretzel will be absolutely indistinguishable from the second. Each will have the same airy dough that collapses into nothingness at the first sign of teeth, the same extra-thin-sliced and flavorless pepperoni, the same hypersaturation of butter and grease. I set the pretzels down on my notepad and pressed my fingers into them as if I were being fingerprinted by the pretzel police; the oily prints from each hand were vivid and identical. ELI SANDERS

Emerald City Smoothie vs. Jamba Juice

Emerald City Smoothie, Mango Mania ($5.03): Light on mango, heavy on coconut, which is fine. But also, holy shitweasels, REALLY HEAVY on protein powder. Protein is important, but a complete two-day supply in a single cup seems excessive. My mango craving is unsatisfied.

Jamba Juice, Mango-A-Go-Go ($5.19): Mmm, mango. There's some citrus and maybe pineapple, but the mango (aka the perfect unicorn Jesus fruit) is flavor number one. It's sweet and delicious. There is probably way too much sugar, but fruit is healthy so I'm sure it all balances out somehow. And did I mention delicious? The main difference I am seeing between the two places is that this smoothie rules. KATIE ALLISON

P.F. Chang's vs. Panda Express

One good thing about P.F. Chang's: The jasmine blackberry green iced tea ($2.95) required no sweetener. The food, however, was a disaster. The hot and sour soup (free with entrée) was, somehow, musky. The egg rolls ($4.95 for two) tasted okay, but they couldn't even be charitably described as warm. The spicy chicken lunch ($9.95) didn't taste as bad as it looked, which was lucky, because it looked inedible. The menu promised "fresh" food. The food begged to differ.

Everything about Panda Express surpassed the P.F. Chang's experience. The rubbery, pungent orange chicken ($5.79 for a Panda Bowl with rice-like brown rice) delivered all the tastes you've come to expect from fast-food Chinese: a wave of sugar fading into pure salt undertones washed away by rivers of fat. The egg roll ($1 with Panda Bowl) tasted worse than the Chang's variant, but it was warmer than the iced tea, at least. Even the cookie fortunes were better. Chang's promised that my "charm this week will lead to benefits," while Panda Express's cookie read, in its entirety: "YOU ARE BRIGHT AND WITTY." If you're going to lie, you might as well lie big. PAUL CONSTANT

Starbucks (Zone D) vs. Starbucks (Zone E) vs. Starbucks (Zone F)

Situated just outside, Zone E Starbucks offers visitors a soothing respite from the festive bustle of Alderwood Mall. Sunlight was arcing through the windows that line the south wall as I sat down to my purchase—one slow-roasted ham and Swiss breakfast sandwich and a peppermint mocha. All memory of the meal faded soon after I finished.

Zone D Starbucks is angular and dark, sexier than Zone E Starbucks. From where I sat with my chestnut praline latte and frosted snowman cookie, I could neither extend my arms fully in any direction nor rise unencumbered to a standing position. My latte was salty. “Have you thrown up lately?” one nearby lady asked another. “Not lately,” the other replied. My heart tightened to a clench. I bit the snowman’s head off. It was sweet and lively.

Zone F Starbucks is a kiosk. The seating area was all armless chairs and end tables—a few magazines short of a waiting room. Giant ovoid snowflakes dangled above. They looked like pollen spores, and for a moment I was suspended in the air beside them. Eggnog lattes are all nutmeg, rabid and angry, holding me hostage, barking questions. “I don’t understand, nutmeg. What do you want from me?” A pretzel dog skidded across the floor. I forced Birthday Cake Pop into my mouth. KRISHANU RAY

Nordstrom eBar vs. Nordstrom Cafe & Bistro

This isn’t quite fair. I was supposed to compare the two dining options housed inside Nordstrom, but they’re in whole separate categories. So I’ll get the eBar out of the way first: It’s a rinky-dink espresso stand situated right at the main entrance, nothing more, nothing less.

The Nordstrom Cafe & Bistro on the second floor is an altogether different beast, and if you must sit down for a proper meal at the mall, you could do a lot worse. Forgoing the man-cave atmospherics of the overpriced sports bar/burger joints downstairs (and blessedly free of any flat-screen televisions whatsoever), the bistro has a comfy cafeteria/dining-hall vibe, where you order at the cashier and your food is brought out. I got a decently executed Bistro Club, with chicken, bacon, avocado, and inexplicably—to these taste buds anyway—green beans. The tasty herb-flecked fries were a low-rent version of the hoity-toity shoestrings that are all the rage right now, though the fancy mayonnaise (read: aioli) they came with could serve as a metaphor for the mall as a whole: competent, predictable, and tragically nondescript. For what it’s worth, the Bistro is rated higher than Canlis on Yelp. KYLE FLECK

Cool Bliss Frozen Yogurt vs. Cold Stone Creamery Ice Cream

This is clearly an unfair fight—how can sweet, sensible yogurt compete against the richness of actual ice cream? In consideration of this conundrum, I hit Cool Bliss Frozen Yogurt first, figuring yogurt would stand a better chance of impressing me if it wasn’t battling an active memory of ice cream. Set free at the self-serve Cool Bliss dispensing machine, I chose two flavors: a foolproof old favorite (espresso) and a kooky new thing (salted caramel pretzel). Both were delicious, which is their job. But the full deliciousness of the light but densely flavorful yogurt was not revealed in full until I took my first bite of Cold Stone Creamery’s own salted caramel ice cream, which landed in my mouth like a frozen blob of flavored cream cheese. The salted caramel flavor barely made an impression, as it was seriously muted by all the heavy-cream richness. I was shocked to learn with my own mouth that Cool Bliss Frozen Yogurt kicks Cold Stone Creamery’s ass when it comes to flavorful frozen desserts. Live and learn. DAVID SCHMADER recommended