Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How to eat well at the mall

Posted By on Wed, Jan 23, 2013 at 8:43 AM

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I am generally a fairly pleasant guy. But there a few things which I absolutely loathe: Oompa loompas. Grocery carts with rickety wheels. Ke$ha...and malls. Yes, that megatropolis of merchandise and make-up, the teenage parade of hormone-powered high schoolers, the circus show of glamour, glitz, and gaudiness. I am not a big fan of malls. However, I am also bound by matrimony to a woman whose heart rejoices at the mere whisper of shopping and shoe stores. Thus, I find myself skulking around a seemingly endless stretch of one-day sale wasteland more often than I would otherwise care to do. Perhaps if one could only find that thin silver lining around an otherwise ominous and incredibly gloomy cloud. Perhaps the promise of a decent meal could act as a soothing balm to an otherwise painful and torturous existence. But eating well in most malls is extremely difficult...and central Arkansas shopping centers are no exception.

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If you are doomed to spending an afternoon at a central Arkansas mall, do your best to convince your captor that all shopping can be done at the McCain Mall in NLR. For myself, this mostly involves convincing my wife that whatever she’s in need of can be found at some outlet other than The Gap...but just do what you need to do to get there. Here's why:

The food at McCain Mall is, generally speaking, not overly impressive. This is not destination dining. But diligent and patient shoppers may find that some meals to be had here are actually quite good, perhaps even warranting a return trip when shopping is not required whatsoever.

First off, if you enjoy meat in tube form, go to Mr. Dunderbak's. This newly resurrected, quasi-German restaurant has returned with much fanfare and excitement on the parts of long-time central Arkansas residents. Frankly, I have mixed feelings about the place. Their sausages are, without a doubt, worth scoping out. When you approach Dunderbak's, you'll first notice the large flat-top in the front of the house, grilling up dozens of sizzling, succulent sausages. The sounds of spattering sausage grease and searing pig flesh is music to the ears of any respectable carnivore. Apparently, they have vegetarian hot links, which I can't speak to, but the ones filled with dead animal are fantastic. A sizable list of sausage options is listed on the board. Each comes in a soft bun and can be topped with a handful of toppings including sauerkraut, grilled or raw red onion, ketchup or mustard. As far as sausages to select, you can't go wrong with the Italian. It's darker in color, but is laced with fennel and oregano, the herbaceous mixes adding a lovely flavor to the tender, juicy meat. The traditional Polish dog is similarly delightful...bright red and spicy, it's perfectly suited for a crown of kraut and mustard. Each link is grilled fresh, with a faint char on the delicate, snappy casing. If you are in the mood for something to satiate your sweet tooth, Dunderbak is importing baked goods from the lovely Silvek's Bakery in Hillcrest. And yes, a bakery in a Kroger is shipping to a brat house in the mall...hey it works, trust me.

Pretzel deluxe from Mr Dunderbaks
  • Pretzel deluxe from Mr Dunderbak's
I'm less impressed with Dunderbak's pretzels. Though they are made fresh during the day, too often I've found them to be tough, overly chewy, and rather bland. You can get the "deluxe" version, with cheese spread, summer sausage, and pickles, but I don't feel this improves the outcome all that much. The cheese spreads are surprisingly bland, lacking much sharpness or richness. Honestly, I am much more enticed by the pretzels at Pretzelmaker around the corner. While not outrageously good, they are almost always served warm, soft, and with the right amount of salt. Have you ever walked past that place without being seduced by the smell of fresh pretzel and melted butter?

For chocolate lovers, you'll be pleased with a visit to Ozark Candies and Nuts...in fact, I'd argue that this place may actually warrant a visit to the mall in and of itself. They do a large number of candy-coated items, with many of the usual options making an appearance. Here you find chocolate-coated raisins, peanuts, almonds, pecans, and cashews. You can choose from both milk and dark chocolates...but of course, if you have any sense at all, you'll stick with dark. I'd recommend the dark chocolate-coated cranberries. These are tangy, dried cranberries with a rich, deep chocolate that complements the dried fruit perfectly. Honestly, I could eat 3 pounds of these things at one time...but a half-pound bag is just enough to sustain me while I trail my beloved spouse around the bowels of Dillard's. Peanut butter fans will want to take note of their thickly coated, peanut butter malt balls. They carry a fairly hefty mouthful of sweetened peanut butter with each bite,

Peanut butter malt balls from Ozark Candies and Nuts
  • Peanut butter malt balls from Ozark Candies and Nuts
but they also make a tasty snack for the weary shopper. Lastly, their maple fudge is also a personal favorite. It's intensely flavored with sweetened maple, but it's thick and slightly buttery tones make for a wonderful gift to give yourself for surviving a full afternoon of dressing rooms, hand lotions, and stilettos.

Don't expect anything close to authenticity, but the humble Chinese outlet, First Wok, is not completely horrid...in fact, I've enjoyed some of their food more than I should probably admit to. Their dishes sit bathing under heat lamps, begging to be ordered like stray puppies at an animal shelter. They've got a smattering of grilled or breaded, crispy-fried items, most of them sopping with sugary-thick sauces, none of which you'd be surprised to see in a mall food court. They don't overcomplicate the names of anything here: sesame chicken, teriyaki chicken, "spicy" chicken, and honey chicken. The egg rolls are decent, and generally served crispy. The spicy chicken is probably my favorite item as it's actually rather spicy, as advertised. When the turnover is high (think lunch and dinner hours), it is served crispy and avoids the soggy mess that can come from time spent soaking in excessive amounts of sauce. The bourbon chicken is not bad either, an unbreaded, salty-sweet grilled dish that blends fairly well with a side of fried rice. Again, I'm not promising Momofuko quality here, or even Mr. Chen's for than matter, but it will at least get you through your stay inside the mall.

My life has been made considerably better by online shopping, but sometimes a person is forced to get in a dressing room and try on jeans all day. It's an arduous process, but occasionally it must be done. Eating at the mall, while never an ideal setting, does not need to be as painful as the rest of your experience here. At least, you can enjoy some fabulous people watching as you slurp down sausages and spring rolls.

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