Scenes from a Mall
Photo by Anne Fishbein
The Hong Kong Plaza Food Court is located in a yawning, empty space the size of a grand hotel ballroom attached to a Chinese supermarket, a vast expanse of worn carpet, a few scattered tables, and a large-screen television in the corner blasting out the Lakers’ latest loss to nobody in particular. Boutiques selling batik and Taiwanese books are sometimes open, sometimes not, and halls lined with empty storefronts veer off from the far end of the room. Families wander in from the heat outside, often clutching cupsful of litchi slushies and strawberry sno-balls from the Tapioca Express in another part of the mall, and collapse into plastic chairs. The food court may not seem a likely site for a culinary epiphany — you could look through every Smart & Final in the county without coming across plastic spoons as cheap and flimsy as the tableware here — but if you were to get your hands on an order of mie medan at Janty Noodle or a dripping, ink-black skewer of grilled pork at Satay Fong, you might be inclined to disagree.
The shopping center itself, located in West Covina, is almost a textbook example of a failed mall, glamorous restaurant tenants long out of business, with marble walkways and marble walls and gleaming, water-spouting marble dolphins bearing testament to the excesses of the late-’90s boom. By the time I finally caught up to the plaza a year or two after its birth, it was already in serious decline. The vast marketplace adjoining the supermarket was a warren of deserted stalls, most of them selling tired jewelry or off-brand electronics, and I never saw another customer at my favorite of the mall’s boba shops, although the unusual flavored-vinegar drinks were delicious. Piles of bills and legal notices moldered outside the Chinese and Filipino restaurants that had gone out of business. Even the mall’s branch of the Hong Kong Supermarket, whose Rowland Heights store may be the most extensive Asian supermarket in the United States, seemed tired, shelves depleted of crucial chile pastes and exotic noodles, produce department shrunken, seafood counter cut down to fewer than half the species displayed on ice at the chain’s more thriving stores.
But Hong Kong Plaza always had tenants that made the mall worth visiting even in the depths of its decrepitude, including the superb Thai noodle shop Krua Thai and Penang, an outlet of the New York–based Malaysian-restaurant chain renowned for its sour-tamarind-based laksa noodles and its buttery version of the thin pancake called roti prata. And in what has become a center of the local Indonesian community, close to Indonesian restaurants and Indonesian markets and at least one place, Kristy’s Kup, that seems to be an old-fashioned American coffee shop that happens to sell the occasional plate of gado-gado, the deserted food court has become a de facto (if minimalist) hub of Indonesian street food. Even outside the food court, the solidly Taiwanese noodle shop 368, whose menu is largely devoted to the sort of squiggly snacks you might find in Taipei, prepares a half-dozen basic Indonesian noodle dishes, as if its customer base would collapse without the easy availability of a well-spiced plate of bakmi goreng.
Janty Noodle is the plaza’s specialist in Indonesian-style Chinese mie, dense, crinkly mats of egg noodles steamed with a little oil, some bean sprouts and a wad of fresh greens, then served with a few grams of chicken, piles of sliced mushrooms, or paper-thin shavings of barbecued pork and a peppery crumble of sautéed chicken in the version called mie medan, which is a pretty basic bowl of food but has the exact gummy texture and the exact sharply ripe funk of a dish you might find in a Southeast Asian hawker center around breakfast time. A foam container of clear broth is served alongside in case you feel like moistening the noodles; plates of utterly forgettable Indonesian fritters and fried won tons are available too.
But Janty’s slight bowls of mie are mere side dishes when compared to the sizzling, highly flavored platters turned out at Satay Fong across the way, sticks of grilled, marinated chicken or pork on a bed of cucumbers and steamed rice cakes, crisp wedges of the fried, egg-stuffed fish cake empek-empek in a tart soy broth, or smoking-black spears of otak-otak, house-pounded fish cake wrapped in leaves and grilled, served with a delicious, spicy ground-peanut sauce.
Like any Indonesian fast-food joint whose function is to feed people inexpensively rather than to provide them with an experience, Satay Fong’s menu revolves around variations on the basic nasi rames combination platter, plates containing dabs of three or four dishes, a mound of simmered rice and a plastic cup or two of one chile sambal or another — one murky, vaguely smoky sambal served with the coconut rice called nasi uduk was actually hot enough to close my throat for a few seconds.
The nasi gudeg plate is a classic combination from the area around Jogjakarta, chicken, boiled eggs and young jackfruit stewed in a dark, sweet sauce — Satay Fong even serves the classic accompaniment of slippery, soft krecek, long-cooked beef skin that has the texture of slithery Jell-O. Nasi kuning is built around a sort of dense, turmeric-yellow rice sprinkled with crunchy bits of fried shallots and served with a spoonful of the coconut-intensive Sumatran beef dish rendang as well as a piece of that Indonesian fried chicken that manages to be about 90 percent crunch. And the nasi padang, a platter in the style of West Sumatra, is just grand, a few chips of extremely well-done beef topped with a fresh-chile sambal, some spicy simmered vegetables, a spice-crusted baked chicken leg, and a mysterious but powerfully delicious roasted green-chile sauce hot enough to make the reputation of any Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles.
“What do we call that green-chile sambal?’’ the woman behind the counter asked with the testy patience of a great-aunt explaining for the 19th time why the sky happens to be blue.
“We call it green-chile sambal,’’ she says. “It goes nicely with chicken.’’
And it does.
Satay Fong, Hong Kong Plaza Food Court, 989 S. Glendora Ave. #18, West Covina, (626) 337-1111. Open Tues.–Sun., 11 a.m.–8 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Lunch for two, food only, $12–$13. Recommended dishes: chicken satay, nasi padang, nasi kuning.
Janty Noodle, Hong Kong Plaza Food Court, 989 S. Glendora Ave. #14, West Covina, (626) 480-1808. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m–8 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Lunch for two, food only, $10.
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