Meals In Malls
A food court odyssey with perogies and discount sushi
by Aidan Morgan
I used think that food courts were a venerable institution but it turns out that they’re just entering middle age.
The first modern food courts, positioned at the intersection of retail lanes and featuring an array of deep-fried, high-calorie food, appeared in the late ’60s and early ’70s in American malls. They were invented to keep shoppers from drifting off to restaurants. If mall patrons could be convinced to shovel piles of sugary glop into their faces in between visiting stores, they could marshal their energy and shop all day. Voila: the food court. The quintessential merger of commerce and nutrition.
But what’s the state of food court nutrition these days? Are there food court outliers in the city, stubbornly serving up interesting and tasty stuff? Equipped with an empty stomach and a good book1, I set out to discover the hidden possibilities of Regina’s food courts.
CORNWALL CENTRE FOOD COURT: INTERNATIONAL HOUSE OF CORN SYRUP
2102 11th Avenue, 2nd floor
The Cornwall Centre’s food court is the grandest in town, with a kind of squashed Frank Lloyd Wright architecture and a whopping (whopping!) 15 kiosks of high-cal goodness. The place is usually filled up with exhausted parents and their sugar-sucking spawn, mall employees, plus a few clusters of regulars with no particular place to be. These people seem to live on a combination of A&W burgers, Mmmarvelous Mmmuffins coffee and Cookies by George. Good for them.
You’ll search in vain for an independent business2 or truly unusual fare at the Cornwall Centre, but there are a few that function as my go-to fast food choices. Umi Sushi Express carries a selection of pre-packaged maki rolls, from green dragon to spicy tuna and beyond. Towards the end of the day they start offering a “buy one, get one half-off” special”, but the taste and texture is usually seriously degraded by that point. Avoid anything with tempura batter if you’re going for the deal.
On either side of Umi Sushi Express lie Extreme Pita and Thai Express, which aren’t half bad. The lineup at Extreme Pita is ridiculous at lunch time, so avoid it during peak times. As for Thai Express, I love the curry selections and the eye-watering heat of the green curry dishes, but eat in moderation. A noodle bowl from Thai Express is mostly sugar and fat.
At the other end of the food court — wait, no. Don’t go all the way to the end and get snared up in Manchu Wok. Veer to the left, where your options are more appetizing: Edo Japan and Opa! Souvlaki. Edo Japan is one of Regina’s most ubiquitous food court outlets, but so what. It gives you the immense satisfaction of watching your noodles and teriyaki-whatever get cooked in front of you. The whole experience fulfills some deep need for low-key ritual, from the first sizzle of the grill to the ladelling of Mystery Sauce over the plate at the end. Edo’s neighbour, Opa!, has surprisingly hearty plates for a food court, with combos of Greek salad, souvlaki, calamari and a standard side of tzatziki. Opa! may not blow you away, but I’ve been to stand-alone Greek restaurants with worse food.
NORTHGATE MALL FOOD COURT: THE IMPOSTER
489 Albert Street N.
Just off the food court proper there’s a little coffee shop called Colony Coffee & Tea. It’s all wood accents and slat walls, and the coffee isn’t half bad. You can get a cup of coffee there. Or a pound of beans, maybe. Or you can stock up on a year’s worth of Keurig K-Cups® and sit at home with your plastic cylinders of brew, slowly wasting away into a caffeine-infused stick of human jerky.
That’s about all I can recommend for the Northgate food court. The rest is a buffet of franchised sameness: A&W, Subway, Manchu Wok, Orange Julius, Mrs. Vanelli’s. There’s also an Edo Japan in a pinch. The most interesting thing I saw there was a T-shirt that read “Milwaukee Vibrator.” I’m resisting the urge to Google that one.
VICTORIA SQUARE SHOPPING CENTRE “FOOD COURT”: THE OLD BEAR
2223 Victoria Avenue
You who enter Victoria Square: prepare to leave behind your sad, preconceived notions of time. Every moment there feels like 4:45 on a Sunday afternoon. Post Labour Day weekend. In 1989.
A snazzy blue neon sign hangs over the food court entrance, but it feels a bit like overreach. Along the far wall, three kiosks alternate with “For Lease” signs. The Trifon’s Pizza is closed for the day, or maybe forever (a sign advertises fries and “ion rings,” which makes it sound like a CERN-themed diner). The Supreme China Bistro offers an assortment of fried and sauced meat and noodles. It’s pure and perfect mall food, a hit of starch and protein that will fortify you against retail-induced collapse. As far as I can tell, it’s a locally owned enterprise, which makes it a rarity in a business dominated by franchises and chains.
Then there is Kraut Haven, a food kiosk out of Mall Dreamtime. Kraut Haven feels like no other food court business in Regina — it’s a stubborn holdout in an age of glitz and standardization. Kraut Haven offers perogies, bratwurst on a bun with a healthy dose of sauerkraut, brown borscht piled high with cabbage, cabbage leaves enclosing masses of meat and rice, and milk that comes in styrofoam cups. Styrofoam cups!
I order the biggest special on the menu: three perogies, one cabbage roll and one bratwurst, which comes to $6.20. A bowl of borscht is another $2.45. The young woman behind the counter tells me it will be a few minutes while she makes more perogies. No problem, I say. It gives me the opportunity to discover that the Victoria Square Shopping Centre has two leather clothing boutiques.
When I get back, having wondered about the possible circumstances that could result in two leather stores in one small shopping centre, the woman has arranged everything on the tray with such precision that I must be in the presence of an artist or an OCD sufferer. Not only does everything line up at right angles, it’s all shades of brown. From the oil drops on the surface of the borscht to the deep chocolate of the tray itself. Against all that brown, the dollop of sour cream and white plastic cutlery leap out at the eyes.
SOUTHLAND SHOPPING CENTRE FOOD COURT: THE ENFORCER
2965 Gordon Road
On my visit to the Southland Mall, I run into a friend of mine who claims that the Southland food court is the cleanest in town. I have no idea whether he was right, but as I enter the food court area I find a phalanx of cleaners in shirt sleeves and latex gloves, wiping down a table like it’s a biohazard. So that’s nice.
For the most part, the Southland food court feels like a rehash of the Cornwall Centre, with a few variations to keep things interesting. The coffee shop that used to take up a little nook has been edged out by a Subway. The rest of the court is ringed with the usual suspects: Orange Julius, Manchu Wok, Booster Juice, Edo Japan and so on. The Robin’s Donuts flashes the same late ’70s yellow-and-brown colour scheme that it’s had since the ’80s (at least).
And then there’s Taco Time. Okay, Taco Time. Let’s sample some of your Mexi-fud.
I approach the booth with high hopes, but my stomach curls up in fear when I look over the menu. A blueberry empanada for 99 cents? That can’t be a thing I’m seeing. Just to make sure that I’m not hallucinating, I take a quick picture of the menu with my phone.
“Sir? Sir, are you clicking on us?” the woman behind the counter asks. She points at my phone. “Are you clicking with that thing?”
I consider telling her that I’m a food critic writing a review of the Southland Mall Taco Time outlet, but that would instantly mark me as a budding mall crazy — still able to dress myself but not up to the task of parsing reality. Next up I’d be screaming about shoelaces and punching security guards.
“I just want to remember what’s on the menu,” I say, which is technically true but somehow even lamer than the full story.
“I will give you a copy of the menu,” the woman says in a polite but unmistakably terse voice. “It is not allowed to take photos, sir.” She looks a bit embarrassed to be enforcing the rule, but she’s going to enforce it all the same. After all, who takes pictures of a fast food menu?
She sorts through a stack of tray liners, picks out a few and hands them to me. Each liner advertises a different set of items in a garish Southwest gothic. I accept them gratefully, order a hard shelled chicken taco and a bottle of water, and scuttle over to a table as far away from Taco Time as possible.
I eat the taco with as much nonchalance as I can muster, half-expecting a hand on my shoulder at any moment. Paranoia really improves the flavour of mall food.
1. I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams by Mark Dery (University Of Minnesota Press, 2012)
2. My editor points out that Trifon’s is a Saskatchewan company. Whitworth says that makes them at least sort of independent. Do 12 Regina locations (16 province-wide), standardized menus and kinda generic food truly reflect a small, local business spirit? “Close enough,” says Whitworth.