PASS THE PASTRAMI Good food in a strange place. Adam L. Weintraub

Eats Market Cafe
2600 SW Barton St, Unit B8
Tues-Fri 10 am-3 pm and 5 pm-9 pm; Sat 8 am-3 pm and 5 pm-9 pm; Sun 8 am-3 pm.

"My girlfriend and I get in a fight every time we go to University Village."

My cranky East Coast friend and I are talking about how malls make you feel yucky. So yucky in my friend's case, that bickering is an inevitable by-product of a trip to Williams-Sonoma.

Despite the fact that we're in a big shopping center, he and I are chatting amicably. This is in no small part due to the very nice Reuben we are sharing at Eats Market Cafe in the newly renovated Westwood Village, home of the West Seattle Target. Like U Village, which was designed by the same diabolical architects, WW Village is not just a strip mall-it's a strip mall with delusions of community. Think artificial streams, faux-communal courtyards, and happy earth tones wrapped around big-box stores and parking inlets.

In this environment, Eats seems misplaced. It's not a big chain franchise, but one of those family-owned restaurants that serves cozy, sometimes quirky food-the kind you normally find in a neighborhood storefront like Pair in Ravenna, Elemental @ Gasworks in Wallingford, or Dandelion in Ballard.

As a trickle of Russian dressing runs over my wrist, my friend and I are wondering if it is possible for a mom-and-pop restaurant to survive in the middle of a massive shopping center like this. One thing is for sure-we can't get enough of our sandwich, which shames most of the Reuben poseurs served around this city. The rye is perfectly toasted, there's a good heap of frisky corned beef on board, and, as my sticky wrist proves, no one has been skimpy with the sauce. It might be hard to ignore the Bed Bath & Beyond looming outside the window, but if you focus on your sauerkraut, maybe it doesn't matter.

The neat thing about Eats is that the food sounds plain on the menu, but it comes out tasting much better than it reads. Along with the Reuben ($7.75), there is yummy pastrami on rye ($7.75), and even the tuna melt ($7.25) is done proud with good bacon and cheddar and bits of pickle.

What's more, someone here really knows how to bake. (That would be the co-owner, Toby Matasar, who used to be the pastry chef at Dahlia Bakery.) During the day the kitchen window is crowded with pastry plates filled with all manner of sweet Americana: cookies, layer cakes, brownies-go for the ones with slightly salty peanuts on top ($2.00)-and coconut macaroons by the dozen. Back in the freezer, they've got ice-cream sandwiches made with giant chocolate chip cookies ($5.50). Best of all is the peanut butter and jelly éclair ($2.50), which sounds like a retro-chic disaster, but turns out to be altogether glorious, crammed with just a little more squishy, nutty pastry cream than is possible to eat with dignity.

All this yumminess comes with a catch: Eats' space. Tables and booths are awkwardly jammed into two narrow alleys surrounding the oversized kitchen; the first thing you see when you walk in the door is a bus station. During the day-when you might be stopping by after picking up some underpants at Target-this total lack of feng shui is acceptable. But what works over coffee and an egg-salad sandwich at lunch doesn't cut it at night, when you're paying 17-odd dollars for an entrée. Then something just doesn't add up. Is it the cosmically lonely feeling of all that empty asphalt outside? Or the kitchen lighting that glows as harshly as a street light into the darkened dining room? Or just the sneaking suspicion that if things don't work out for Eats, the space could become a Panda Express?

At least the items on the dinner menu are still tasty, especially a tart ($8.75) topped with crispy ruffles of baked prosciutto, braised brisket ($16.50), and a slobbery kiss of a skirt steak served atop a sour cherry kugel ($16.50).

So to come back to the question, can a restaurant in a mall hold onto its independent spirit? It's possible; University Village has two-decade-old Mom's, a '50s-style diner and a reassuring island of humanity amid the warren of expensive chain stores. The food there is okay coffee-shop fare-milkshakes and meatloaf sandwiches and some super-lacy thin pancakes-but I always feel well taken care of by Mom's earnest teenaged waiters. Perhaps Eats, with less atmosphere, but better food, can play the same role at Westwood Center. But first it needs to do something about that bus station. ■