The other day as I was taking my car out for a spin (if you must know, I drive a semi-rusted neon green Chevy Corsica that has 469,000 miles on it), when my special Sexy Armpit communicator a.k.a my iPhone, began blinking bright green and making gross squishing noises. It was Sludgey Facetiming me. He said a bunch of my blogging cohorts sent me a message via our super secret pneumatic tube network (not so secret anymore, oops!). I hoped it wasn’t anything serious. “I’ll be right there Sludgey,” I said in my best Bale Batman voice.
Once home, I rushed into the apartment and grabbed the message from Sludgey’s barrel. “You are selected to win a million dollars a year, FOREVER, sincerely, Publisher’s Clearing House” clearly it was the wrong piece of paper. I shuffled through the other messages and finally found the correct one.
TO: Sexy Armpit
We are enlisting you for a mission. Review Chinese food restaurant at your local Mall food court. Go. Now.
And that was all it said. In the case that you ever receive a cryptic message like this, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. I hopped right back into the Corsica and sped off to the world renowned Menlo Park Mall. If you never get the chance to visit Epcot Center, you could do some mind altering drugs and just head to the food court at Menlo. There’s always something for everyone. All types of cuisine are offered, and most notably, Chick-Fil-A. But I couldn’t get distracted by spicy chicken sandwiches and sweet tea right now, I needed to stay focused.
The beauty part about Menlo Park being “My mall” is that I can often use one of my favorite lines from Mallrats, alter it a bit and sub out the Easter Bunny part, like so: “All I said was the Chinese food at the Menlo Park Mall was not appealing and she just threw her tray of chicken and toothpicks up in the air and knocked me down.”
Of course, I’m referring to the sample girl, standing in front of ASIAN CHAO. She was offering everyone meat, but she wasn’t at all enthusiastic about it. In fact, I don’t think this girl could’ve been angrier about the thought of brightening the day of passerby with free food samples. She reminded me of Nicole Bass. She was brutish and imposing. Her fiery visage seemed to harness the flames from that Bourbon Chicken sign behind her directly toward me. I wasn’t sure what I was in for by declining her free sample, but walking up to the counter probably gave me immunity from whatever sort of weirdly uncomfortable beat down that I would’ve received from Nicole.
At first I thought Asian Chao was a really bad ethnic sounding stereotypical name, but after some investigative bloggerism I discovered that the term Chao does indeed refer to a Chinese stir-frying technique.
As I leaned up against a pillar waiting on line to order, I momentarily zoned out. My mind took a trip back in time. Ever since Henry P. Mall (I’m sure that’s his name) came up with the idea to put a roof on the good old outdoor strip mall, malls have been these magnificent structures with endless opportunities to buy all kinds of crap, provide a place for teenagers to get each others phone numbers, or in my case lend its catacombs as a setting for a couple of films I made. I even worked at the movie theater at Menlo for about 6 years of my life. I have some great memories there, a place that feels like my backyard.
I remembered how years ago, on any given weekend, the mall food court was absolutely theeee place to be. It was usually mobbed with people. Although I’ve lived mere seconds from two of the most popular malls in New Jersey for my entire life, a mall outing used to be a pretty big deal. When I wasn’t working at the theater adjacent to the food court, I used to spend all day there sometimes with my friend Sgt. E. We’d get lunch at the food court and then some Icees. We’d pick up some comics and stop in the arcade to play a few games.
My local malls are in a sad state of affairs now. What once existed as the only logical solution to everyone’s shopping dilemma, is now more of a place people go to do something when it’s shitty weather. If you needed to buy 27 gifts during the holidays, without hesitation you’d go to the mall, whereas now you can go to Target or WalMart. The financial crunch is sucking the life out of these malls. For instance, all the fountains have been removed from Woodbridge Center, fountains that I tossed thousands of pennies and nickels into during the course of my entire life, and all the trees have been removed from the food court in Menlo Park Mall. Those damn trees provided such ambiance. Now the food court has been castrated. Maybe too many birds were making homes in them? Maybe they were real trees and their roots were about to crack the floor open and suck everyone into the abyss? It’s sad, both my malls are decomposing.
More on the “Crab Rangoon” later…and yes, I used air quotes
Oh shit. I forgot that I needed to decide what I wanted to order. Now the pressure was on. I had the ultimate booking power for this plate and if I didn’t get my shit together it seemed like the aggravated woman was just going to start tossing random food onto it for me. I wasted all that time reminiscing about mall memories and now I was being harassed by the server behind the counter about what I wanted. I was on a Chipotle-like assembly line and I needed to be part of the flow or get kicked off the line.
There’s a specific part of your id that compels you to get Chinese food. You know how it is. Sometimes you just get that craving. When it happens to me, I go to Ling’s Kitchen in Fords. It’s a legend around these parts. I’m a bit spoiled in that respect, so I have a hard time settling for any Chinese food that’s too much of a departure from how Ling’s prepares their food. When it comes to Chinese cuisine, I’m a total creature of habit. I order the same thing every time: General Tso’s Chicken with brown rice and broccoli. Sometimes places are stingy with the broccoli though.
This photo I took could be the front cover of their menu, that’s how appealing this food looks,
but looks are deceiving as we will find out…
At Asian Chao I had the option for rice and two of the main items. I went with Sesame Chicken because I felt that was a safe bet. Then I added in Chicken and Broccoli. Some of the usual offerings weren’t available, or should I say they weren’t even cooked and/or put out in the serving trays. I’m not a fan of orange chicken or sweet and sour chicken, so those were off the table. I also never order beef or pork if I’m doing Chinese, so my choices were as limited as sample girls angry facial expressions.
First, the Sesame Chicken. The sauce was pretty weak, and to me, that’s a vital component. Aside from a spicy kick, there wasn’t much flavor otherwise. Completely absent was the bold flavor that its rich appearance conned me into believing it had. The chicken itself tasted like the turkey in Christmas Vacation, overcooked, dry, and tough to chew.
Next on the plate was many peoples old standby, Chicken and Broccoli. To best describe this one, imagine a beige rubber car mat from the floor of a 1986 Buick, cut up, soaked in soy sauce, and cooked with broccoli that had been steamed in elementary school water fountain water. Not so good.
I took the liberty of adding a side dish. I’m not a big fan of egg rolls and they’re so common, so I opted for something I never ordered from a Chinese food place before: Crab Rangoon. No idea why I bothered, but I wanted to sample something sort of offbeat and I remembered that I tried this once 10 years ago with Miss Sexy Armpit, which was the first time in my life I had ever actually heard of it. Even when she mentioned it, I thought she was referring to a prequel to 1995’s Beyond Rangoon. I don’t usually eat crab either, but I figured what the hell, I was on a special mission.
If you notice the pattern here, you’ll have an idea of just how underwhelming the Crab Rangoon was. I didn’t think it was possible for this to suck so bad, but the outer shell tasted like two damp, dustless Doritos fused together and stuffed with a tiny ball of cream cheese and crab meat. For some reason, I think the two specific rangoons they served me were the same ones that the manager laid out on the ledge of an open window in his apartment when it was drizzling. Then he realized he was late for his shift and he shoved them in his pocket and brought them to the serving area once he arrived at work.
Even the rice was average at best. How do you screw up RICE?
It probably seems like I’m exaggerating for effect, or being too picky, but it was all so laughably sub-par. Actually, maybe it is on par with what mall food court Chinese food is supposed to be like? Either way, Asian Chao isn’t doing the food court in Menlo any favors. If malls want to come back in a big way, they need a damn good Chinese place that makes mouths water. Everyone has their own concept of what their Chinese food needs taste like, and mine is definitely not at Asian Chao.
I didn’t even eat the majority of the meal and wound up going home unfulfilled. All wasn’t lost though, because this experience caused my mind to replay a line from one of my major all-time crushes, Marisa Tomei.
“I bet the Chinese food here is terrible” – Mona Lisa Vito, My Cousin Vinny (1992)
Make sure you stop by all my friends sites to read their reviews of Chinese food places at their local mall food courts:
Matt at Dinosaur Dracula
Brian at Review The World
Will at Veggie Macabre
Molly at Swaggermom Tales