At a time when malls are shutting down so often that "spooky abandoned mall photo" is the most basic urban explorer merit badge, the food court at Crossroads in Bellevue is thriving.
Part of its success has to do with the fact that the collection of international flags above the big "Public Market" sign are not just for show. The Crossroads food court really does represent people and food from all over the world. There is Island Grill for Hawaiian barbecue, Bulgogi Korean BBQ, Oh! India Eat Street (with vegetarian menu items), Torero's Taqueria, and more than a dozen others. Like Northgate mall's food court, they have a Piroshky Piroshky, but unlike Northgate, there's also a Starbucks.
With a whole world of cuisines to choose from, the greatest use of the food-court medium I have seen is Blazing Bowl, a Laotian hot pot restaurant.
Like at some popular sushi restaurants, there is food on a conveyor belt and you are charged by how many plates you take. But unlike at sushi restaurants, some of the items on the conveyor belt are squares of uncooked ramen noodles, luncheon meat, and beef tripe.
"Laos has some strange taste," I thought on a recent visit, wanting to see what the restaurant's take was on a square of uncooked ramen. Luckily, before I put it in my mouth, the owner explained that while they got the idea for the conveyor belt from sushi restaurants, this food was not meant to be eaten like sushi. Blazing Bowl is a purveyor of conveyor belt hot pot. The squares of ramen were uncooked because I was supposed to add them to my soup.
In front of every chair at the counter is a mini induction furnace with its own control panel, so you can choose the heat of your individual soup. They offer broth options of chicken, beef, vegetable, Laotian spicy beef, and tom yum.
Unlike most "experiential" dining and retail businesses, Blazing Bowl does not rely on gimmickry. The conveyor belt of ingredients is a novelty, but the soup stocks are made from traditional family recipes good enough to be eaten without adding anything else.
It would be a fun math exercise to figure out how many different soup combinations you could make from the five base stocks and the countless ingredients rotating past on the belt. I saw quail eggs, lamb slices, Loligo squid, shrimp (with options of shell off or on), dumplings, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, bok choy, ong choy, shimeji mushrooms, enoki mushrooms, button mushrooms, beef tripe, and various other creatures of land, air, and sea. By each furnace was a set of instructions on how long you should cook each ingredient.
Blazing Bowl is providing the ultimate service of a food court restaurant—helping you find food you wouldn't normally know about. As Laotian conveyor belt hot pot does not exist anywhere else nearby, I'd never know to go looking for it at a restaurant. But at Crossroads, it's the kind of thing you can bump into even if you originally came for a piroshky.