In the past year or so, the Westfield Santa Anita mall in Arcadia became home to two upscale restaurants from mainland China. Meizhou Dongpo and Hai Di Lao are big chains in their country of origin, and these San Gabriel Valley outposts are enormous, always full of people and usually with lines out the door. Adding them to an American mall, next to a Red Robin and under a sign pointing to California Pizza Kitchen, seemed an overdue acknowledgment that not all Americans are interested in the same chain restaurants.
Since then, the mall has made an overt effort to improve its restaurant offerings, creating a new food court out of a wide hallway connecting the outdoor annex to the mall's interior. And this eight-location culinary fun zone? It is legitimately worthy of a food explorer's time and effort.
The new restaurants have corporate backing, such as Uncle Tetsu, which has a partnership with Panda Restaurant Group (that's Panda Express). Three stalls are part of the rapidly expanding Sticky Rice Group, and EMC is a four-location chain. And, of course, Din Tai Fung is an international sensation. The restaurants are not indie creations, but they seem carefully curated: big-time restaurants that still care whether the food tastes good. Plus, they all serve Asian food, which nods to both the neighborhood the mall is in and the relatively sophisticated palates of Angelenos.
Here's the rundown of the food court's options. This is a no-brainer of a food tour. A bang-bang, as the kids call it.
EMC Seafood & Raw Bar
There is no shame in being completely gobsmacked that there's a raw-seafood restaurant in a mall. But it's legit, with the shuckers and peelers doing their work behind a wall of glass, surrounded by fish and crustaceans on ice. Starters include uni toast, monkfish liver and Hokkaido scallops. From there, try raw and grilled oysters, lobster and whole broiled fish. Or seafood fried rice and congee with abalone.
This yakitori spot is the last to open, but it will have a huge menu of vegetables and meats on sticks.
Din Tai Fung
You know the deal with Din Tai Fung. (On the off chance you don't: The menu highlight is xiao long bao, the little soup dumplings that must be eaten carefully but will completely change your life.)
Tsurumaru Udon Honpo
Udon noodles are the thing to order here, topped with beef, tofu or various seaweeds, or simply with grated radish and ginger. You'll notice that almost everyone has added some tempura to the top of their soup, and there are different musubi options to add as a side.
We've talked about this cheesecake purveyor before, and will probably talk about it again. There are various little desserts and a pretty wide selection of milk teas on the menu, but really, you just want the cheesecake. It's a steamed confection that isn't overly sweet and is good warm and at room temperature. (And, as a staffer told me, excellent served cold with ice cream and fruit.) Only two cheesecakes per order, and I promise if you decide to eat one right there out of the box, you will be in good company.
Despite the name that's going to automatically alienate every woman who's ever been cheated on, this stall serves good chicken. The most heralded item is the Hainan chicken rice, which is hard to find in L.A. It's a delicately poached bird served with fragrant rice and three sauces (sambal, sweet soy and smashed ginger in oil), to be mixed at your pleasure. But the roasted chicken is actually a little better.
Beer, burgers and ramen. The owners just looked into L.A.'s soul and went for it. (Plus a full bar. Good for before AND after Nordstrom.)
The extremely Instagram-friendly desserts at this stall taste good, too. Get a froyo swirl of green tea and black sesame, and top it with fruit or mochi bits or chunks of cake. Or all three! There are milk teas as well, but no boba.