The loneliest evening I ever spent in New Orleans was on my first visit to the city, at the glistening food court into which the great soul-food cook Buster Holmes had been transplanted, half a century on Burgundy Street boiled into a tiny stall in a converted waterfront brewery. "I cooked my garlic chicken for presidents,'' Holmes told me. "I cooked it for kings. One time, they flew me all the way to New York City, just to cook my garlic chicken.''
"You could cook that chicken here,'' I said, hoping beyond hope that he had a piece or two hidden behind the drumsticks it looked like he'd picked up in an outlet complex out past Slidell.
"Are you crazy, boy?'' he said. "All that garlic, they'd throw me right out the mall.''
The intersection of cuisine and big business is rarely a happy one in Los Angeles either, outside the San Gabriel Valley at any rate, and the biggest developments here tend to play host to the blandest of franchised cuisine. Santa Monica Place is clotted with satellites of midlevel restaurants from the Bay Area, and both it and the mammoth L.A. Live complex feature Mexican restaurants imported from New York. The restaurants in Century City, Warner Center and the Beverly Center might as well be in Scottsdale, Ariz. (where the best restaurants often are in malls), and it is hard to remember the last time anyone I knew stopped by the food courts in the Glendale Galleria or the Westside Pavilion for a bite. Airports around the world try to give passengers in transit at least a modest flavor of the city they are transferring through, but the endless procession of Cinnabons, Chili's Toos and Wolfgang Puck Cafés could be anywhere.
So it is kind of cool to wander through the remodeled Westfield Culver City, what generations of Angelenos grew up calling the Fox Hills Mall, amid the Stride Rite and the Custom Comfort and the H&M and an Abercrombie & Fitch too cool to post an obvious sign, and find a food court that looks like L.A. After 60-odd years in Los Angeles, the city that practically invented the modern shopping center, a developer finally gets it.
Fox Hills has always been among the most multiracial of Los Angeles malls, downhill from the posh African-American homes of Baldwin Hills and Ladera Heights, close to the Asian and Muslim enclaves of south Culver City, in proximity to Westchester and the Marina, Inglewood and Playa del Rey. In addition to the food court, you will, inevitably, find Mrs. Fields Cookies, Auntie Anne's Pretzels and Qdoba in prominent spots downstairs. A mall is a mall, even if there is a stall for Britney-approved Millions of Milkshakes next to the popcorn stand.
To diners of a certain bent, the most exciting feature of the remodel is the first Westside branch of Five Guys, a D.C.-based chain that is probably as good as it gets in those parts of the country deprived of In-N-Out. The standard Five Guys burger is cooked to a kind of tan crumbliness, slicked with a crazy quilt of standard-issue condiments and piled into a squishy bun, but there is something genuine about it, I guess. The walls are papered with rave reviews, and a blackboard notes the Idaho farm on which the potatoes that go into the soggy fries were grown. This is the kind of revelation we are used to from our malls, and I suspect the Denver locals on whom multiple Johnny Rocketses are inflicted feel very much the same.
The Fox Hills dining terrace isn't a Singapore hawker center, or even an all-Chinese Rowland Heights food court for that matter, but take an escalator, walk up a ramp, take a left at the Burger King, lower your expectations a notch — and you're at Kyochon, whose Koreatown mothership is regarded by many people, including me, as serving the best fried chicken of any sort in Los Angeles. In Koreatown, you wait in line for a table, then wait for what seems like an eternity while your chicken is cooked to order: chopped into tiny pieces, steeped in a garlicky marinade and double-fried to a glassy, thin-skinned crunch. While you wait for your chicken, you may entertain yourself with a bowl of crunchy, pickled radish cubes, which become less entertaining by the quarter-hour. In Fox Hills, your options are basically limited to drumsticks and wings (go with the wings; please avoid the ghastly chicken wrap, which will remind you of Taco Tuesdays in your junior high cafeteria). The wait is fairly short, and while the crunch and the gush of juice may not be quite what they are in Koreatown, it is Kyochon chicken on the Westside, which is enough.
So you've ordered a box of wings. Will you amble to 101 Noodle Express for an order of the beef rolls and a bowl of the springy noodles with slivered cucumbers and a home-style sauce of minced chicken? You will, and you will beg for as many tiny containers of the spicy pickle as the woman behind the counter will let you have. It feels almost illegal, eating something as good as this Shandong-style roll (a Chinese pancake rolled around slivers of stewed beef and smeared with a sweet, house-made bean paste) within sight of a Panda Express, although it must be admitted: The (better but distant) Alhambra original is tucked into an old bowling alley.
A couple of stalls down, Viet Gourmet Express serves very creditable versions of pho, bánh cuðn with shrimp, and bánh mì with grilled lemongrass beef, in addition to cups of strong Vietnamese iced coffee — not Little Saigon, but probably better than anything west of Silver Lake. Stone Oven makes barbecued brisket sandwiches on hot focaccia baked to order in its fiery open-fire oven: not bad. There is a halal burger stand, a gyro place and a Hawaiian barbecue counter from a chain popular in the San Gabriel Valley.
When you walk by Sarku Japan, a counterperson may hand you a sample: a California roll impaled on a stick. At the unfortunately named Mongrill, which has streamlined Americanized Mongolian barbecue into a Chipotle-style operation, you choose meats and vegetables from a cold-table and watch them take a spin on the giant metal grill — it's not unlike sitting behind the glass at a car wash, waiting for your car to be sprayed with carnauba wax. And then you go downstairs for a milkshake.
Brilliant: not quite. But other mall operators would do well to pay attention.
WESTFIELD CULVER CITY | 6000 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City | westfield.com/culvercity