Hidden within Los Angeles' seemingly infinite number of mini-malls and mega-malls is a staggering amount of good eats. The food court in the basement of Koreatown Plaza is a neon wonderland of potent kimchi and oversized bibimbap bowls; the food court at Mercado La Paloma, just south of USC, inspired long pilgrimages just for Chichen Itza's cochinita pibil or the lomo saltado at the old Mo-Chica. Detailing all the Chinese food courts that dot the terrain from downtown all the way past El Monte would take a dumpling-filled lifetime.
But when holiday shopping season starts, and you need to buy that video game for your nephew, or some perfume for your grandmother, these hidden food courts probably won't be of much help. Like the rest of us, you'll have to slog through the crowds at the real mall, a land where Hot Dog on a Stick, Auntie Anne's and Cinnabon are your most prominent options.
Our top 10 places for mall food-court dining might not be the most spectacular eateries, but when it comes to making the best of a bad situation, these places offer a tasty respite from the usual food-court fare.
10. Mongolian Grill – Burbank Town Center
What is a mall food court without Mongolian BBQ? It may not be the highest form of cuisine, but the art of carefully working down the line of toppings, packing flash-frozen meat, vegetables and a swirl of chow mein noodles with maximum efficiency is the name of the game at this Burbank food-court eatery. A grill cook slides your mixture on a sizzling slab of metal, mixes it with a long pair of chopsticks, then presents the finished, fully customized product in full glory. 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 466-5577.
9. Café Creole – Westfield Culver City
The most recent addition to the impressive food court at the mall-formerly-known-as-Fox Hills is this purveyor of steam-table Southern food, which is a bit like a Boston Market with greens, sweet yams and mushy cornbread. Your best option is to pass on the combo plates and go for the blissfully crunchy oyster po' boy, which is (surprisingly) cooked to order. There are even sugar-dusted beignets for dessert, though don't hold out for any chicory in your coffee. 6000 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City.
8. BBQ Express – Eagle Rock Plaza
The food court at this mall might be best known for its selection of Filipino fast food — Jollibee, Goldilocks and Blue Ribbon Bakery all have branches here — but the longest lines are for BBQ Express, a Chinese food take-out spot that improves on the usual Panda Express combo formula. Garlic potatoes instead of fried rice? No problem. The ever-popular orange chicken, covered in sweet, gloopy sauce, has a shorter turnover than the Lakers' coaching staff. 2700 Colorado Blvd., #279, Eagle Rock; (323) 254-3318.
7. Charlie Kabob – Westside Pavilion
If you plucked Charlie Kabob out of its food-court habitat and placed it alongside the row of Persian restaurants located further north on Westwood Boulevard, you probably would find it rather decent, which, we suppose, is all you can really ask. Thick beef koobideh kebabs come wrapped tightly in pita, or piled on a mound of saffron-tinted rice and roasted tomatoes. Falafels aren't bad, but stay away from the gyro. 10800 W. Pico Blvd., L.A.; (310) 234-1919.
6. Kyochon – Westfield Culver City
More fried chicken with sweet/spicy sauce? Yes, but this time it's Korean — specifically the kind from a branch of the super-successful Kyochon chain, whose wings and drumsticks covered in soy-ginger glaze or fiery red pepper paste are big hits. We admit to a somewhat perverse fascination with the spicy crunchy chicken wrap: a few crispy tenders burnished with avocado, lettuce, red onion, tomato and a heaping handful of mozzarella cheese, bound inside a starchy flour tortilla. 6000 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City; (310) 391-2449.
5. Take a Bao – Westfield Century City
Bao, those pale white buns folded over things like barbecue hoisin pork or teriyaki chicken, are an ideal food for eating on the go. At this Take a Bao, the menu isn't as ambitious as at the larger brick-and-mortar in Studio City, but you can still split a few bao with a friend and watch the bustling Century City crowds. If something more substantial is needed, try the veggie-packed rice bowls. 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; (310) 551-1100.
4. Curious Palate – The Market at Santa Monica Place
When The Market at Santa Monica Place opened last summer, the buzz was that the gourmet shopping and dining tier could be the equivalent of San Francisco's Ferry Building or Manhattan's Chelsea Market. While it's home to some decent shops, the lofty plans fell far short. Luckily, one of the remaining food-court options for Santa Monica shoppers, Curious Palate, is a terrific spot for a counterside lunch. The crunchy grilled Brooklyner, made with smoked salmon, goat cheese, red onion and roasted tomato is the perfect sandwich for a foggy winter day. 395 Santa Monica Place, Santa Monica; (310) 395-2901.
3. Obika Mozzarella Bar – Westfield Century City
This international chain flies its mozzarella in from Italy three times a week (smoked, creamy and burrata are but a few types) and dabbles in everything from thinly sliced prosciutto to fresh-made pasta. It might be fairer to categorize Obika as a small casual restaurant in the middle of the mall, especially at its higher price point, but who cares when you can have a glass of Barbera to take the edge off after a day of navigating the crowds at Banana Republic. 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; (310) 556-2452.
2. Fritzi Dog – Original Farmers Market
The canopied pathways of the Original Farmers Market hold many delights: Singaporean mee goreng, braised carnitas tacos, burgers stacked with applewood bacon and comté cheese. Chef Neal Fraser recently upped the ante further with Fritzi dog, a sausage stand that offers links made with beef, duck and other proteins, topped with things like jalapeño relish, violet mustard and bacon aioli. It's the ideal mixture of chef-driven ingredients and a classic food-court staple. 6333 W. Third St., #742, L.A.; (310) 555-5500.
1. 101 Noodle Express – Westfield Culver City
Alhambra residents might not get what all the fuss is about, but for those who've taken the long haul into the SGV just to order their famous Shandong-style beef rolls, the Culver City branch of 101 Noodle is nothing less than a godsend. Things have improved in the year since it opened: The zesty cilantro relish now is served in little plastic cups, and the menu has added other specialties including broth-filled xiao long bao, and a bowl of dan dan noodles slicked with hot chile oil. Save your gas money and order an extra roll. 6000 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City.