Me and four other bloggers visited the food courts in our local malls. Our mission was to review the Chinese food joints that are always a part of those food courts.
I bet you didn’t expect me to open with that paragraph today.
We had good reasons to do this. Shopping mall food courts are bizarre and beautiful. They exist more as entities than mere “places,” and the hearts of these entities are always the Chinese food joints. Most of the establishments at food courts come and go with alarming frequency, but the ones that sell Chinese food are blessed and cursed to be a part of them for as long as they stand.
They are constants. Magical constants bathed in twenty-year-old neon lights.
For my end of this five-part series, I chose the food court in the Staten Island Mall.
I don’t go to this mall often, I guess because it’s the one I grew up with, and there’s a thirty-year minefield of lost acquaintances just waiting to give me the “DO WE KNOW EACH OTHER?” head-tilt the second I walk in there. (My worst nightmare. It even tops the one where sharks share my flesh with a big mean orca.)
I had a job to do, so I soldiered on.
I must have seen over a hundred restaurants live and die at this food court. I’ve seen a Roy Rogers change into a Wendy’s, and then change again into a Burger King. I also lived through that awful stretch when half of the booths sold yogurt.
Throughout it all, or at least most of it, the Chinese joint stood tall and firm. While its neighbors eked out a meager existence from the chopping block, “Master Wok” had no concerns. Not everyone wants fried rice, but there are always enough people who do.
I’m not sure if Master Wok is part of a chain. Google reveals thirty thousand restaurants using the same name, but the logos are pretty inconsistent. I wouldn’t presume that the “Tony’s Pizza” in Philly is run by the same guy who owns the “Tony’s Pizza” three blocks away. I should extend the same caution to Master Wok.
While fact-checking may prove this to be a yarn of epic proportions, I’m still gonna claim that Master Wok has been here for decades. For the purposes of this review, it’s important to believe that. It means that Master Wok was in this mall back when I was still trying to fish Wingnuts out of piles of Splinters at KB Toys. That is oddly important to me.
The menu screens were delightfully aged. The boxes that had words were fine, but the ones that displayed photos of food were faded to the point where I wasn’t certain that they hadn’t time-traveled here and were just then being ripped from the space-time continuum. What I mean by this is that I couldn’t tell if Photo #2 represented chicken, beef or a sandcastle.
The food looked okay. I’ll admit that I briefly considered the notion that it had been sitting out for eight full hours, but this had less to do with Master Wok and more to do with the countless rumors spread by everyone who has ever eaten anything. Besides, Chinese food is so Teflon that even words like “reheated” and “congealed” just make it sound more delicious.
I would’ve taken more photos of the booth, but the three people who worked in the kitchen kept popping up in the little window. I didn’t want them to mistake my mission for some berserk form of voyeurism. I felt like I was playing Hogan’s Alley with my camera.
I wanted something “classic” for my food review, so I ordered the General Tso’s Chicken combo.
The thing is, Master Wok didn’t call it that. He simply called it “General’s Chicken.” I knew this was a leap of faith, but it paid off. That was definitely General Tso’s Chicken.
Actually, I think Master Wok is onto something. I still don’t know how to pronounce “Tso’s.” Any time I order it, I just spit out three variations in rapid succession. “I’ll take a large General So’s Chicken General Sow’s Chicken General’s Too-So’s Chicken. And a diet Snapple because that will obviously make up for everything else I’m about to eat.”
Master Wok’s abbreviation helped me avoid that nonsense.
It was gloppy and good, but I’m an easy sell. I like food with that lukewarm buffet temperature. It’s hot enough to eat, but never so hot that I have to bookend each bite with “ah ah” sound effects.
If you’ve never had General Tso’s Chicken, it’s a basically a bucket of chicken nuggets refried in a sweet and spicy sauce. If you’re lucky, there will be slivers of incredibly hot dried peppers in there. I wasn’t so lucky, but Master Wok made up for it by providing enough fried rice to feed fifteen Matts.
Master Wok didn’t skimp on the extras, either. The duck and soy sauces are common, but when one of these places gives you hot sauce without being asked, you know it’s a keeper.
For the full experience, I felt it was necessary to actually eat in the food court. Scary Mary. This was something I’d normally never do. I enjoy food courts for their multi-cultural mashes and their gorgeously cheesy neon lights, but generally, it’s only from afar.
I have some agoraphobic tendencies, and they never peak harder than when I’m surrounded by a giant wheel full of hungry people. Remember the spinning room that drove Geoffrey Rush to madness in House on Haunted Hill? A food court is my version of it.
I felt more at ease after looking at my neighbors. Contrary to what 95% of my brain was insisting, nobody was watching me eat. Nobody was sitting there with a little pad and pencil, taking down notes on how often I chewed, or if I made lip-pop noises between sips of Snapple. At least, not until I started photographing my styrofoam container like it was a sleeping koala at the zoo.
I’ll give Master Wok an “A.” It had everything I could want from a Chinese joint at a shopping mall food court. A gritty neon sign. A menu with haphazardly abbreviated terminology. A soda dispenser that had as much Hi-C as Coca-Cola. In the ever-changing jungle that is the Staten Island Mall’s food court, Master Wok is a steady rock, oblivious and unaffected.
Now, go check out everyone else’s food court adventures:
Thank you. I’m still full.