As I drove north on I-5, I realized that I wasn't just making my way to the Alderwood Mall. I was making a beeline for its food court at 75 miles per hour, my mind racing. The fried egg on toast I had eaten an hour before was already a distant memory; my thoughts had turned to the fast-food delights I secretly love: the Whopper Jr. (my favorite), the KFC Famous Bowl, a gooey calzone and fountain Coke from Sbarro...
Upon arriving at "the Terraces," Alderwood's inexplicably named food court, I was momentarily disappointed, then pleased. There was no sign of Burger King, KFC, or any of my fast-food go-tos. Instead, there are places like Blue Olive Mediterranean Cafe, Chipotle, Anthony's Fish Bar, Sarku Japan, and Charley's Grilled Subs—a mix of small minority-owned businesses, big corporations, independently owned franchises, and regional chains. Mall dining options have evolved to reflect the increased diversity of the ethnicities and incomes of the people who walk its tiled floors, hungry and slightly dazed.
The sign said Thai Go, and I went, because the menu of hot noodle soups got me excited for second breakfast. I was drawn to the pho, thinking of the many bowls I savored on tiny stools on sidewalks in Vietnam, where it's a traditional breakfast dish (that pho is not a Thai dish was something I was more than willing to overlook). But the man behind the counter, who was eager to chat with me about congee, his own traditional Chinese breakfast porridge, put in a sincere plug for the tom yum soup ($6.95), so I took his advice. He was right—the broth was aromatic, infused with lemongrass and red chili; the rice noodles tender and slippery; and the mushrooms and chicken slices pleasantly firm, clearly cooked in the hot soup to order. While the broth wasn't complex enough to make the whole bowl interesting from start to finish, I was able to give the dish a boost with fresh lime, scallions, and cilantro from Thai Go's condiment station—all of which had obviously been chopped by hand that morning.
The mild heat of the tom yum left me craving more spice, so for lunch I headed across the Terraces to Masala Express for a combo platter of paneer tikka masala, yellow lentil dal, basmati rice, and naan ($7.99). The naan was flaccid and damp, the dal watery, the rice old and clumpy, and the masala sauce tasted suspiciously like a can of Campbell's tomato soup. I was in awe; you almost have to be trying to make food this terrible. The mother and son duo working at Masala were as disengaged from their customers as their food was from any semblance of flavor. I almost marched back to the register to ask them both exactly when it was that they stopped giving a fuck about anything.
Thankfully, the need for a third meal forced me to move forward from these dark thoughts. I decided to try out Claim Jumper, a classic mall restaurant that prides itself on "legendary service" and "huge portions." Also huge: the restaurant itself. As I walked underneath massive chandeliers made of deer antlers during the two-mile journey from the entrance to my booth, I asked the host what the maximum capacity of the space was. "Six hundred and eighty," she replied. "Excluding staff." She went on proudly to say that they routinely reach maximum capacity on Thanksgiving and Mother's Day.
The Claim Jumper menu—a laminated, spiral-bound book that weighs as much as the Holy Bible—is overwhelming. It is a minefield of calorie-laden crazy with items like the Widow Maker Burger and Three Cheese Potatocakes, but there is also a stash of real food—much of it made from scratch, as my server Zach was quick to point out. (And kudos to Zach for managing to be genuine while shackled to a corporate script that requires him to push featured cocktails made with Fireball and a side salad or cup of soup at every opportunity.) Despite having eaten two full meals in the three hours immediately preceding my visit to Claim Jumper, I massacred a platter of tri-tip steak (cooked to a perfect medium rare), mashed red potatoes laced with butter and actual bits of potato and skin, and roasted zucchini, red onion, and carrots that all maintained their distinct textures and flavors ($12.99).
After, as I maneuvered my way back to I-5—past rows of indistinguishable strip malls, chain stores, and one giant, gleaming Whole Foods—I felt strangely soul satisfied. For all the subsidized food products, horrifying dishes, and deep fryers found in the mall, there are as many people doing real cutting and cooking, taking pride in what they are doing—nourishing hundreds of people a day. I was proud to have eaten their food.