LEO Weekly’s WELP!: Godspeed You Mall Emperor

“And I — my head oppressed by horror — said:
‘Master, what is it that I hear? Who are
those people so defeated by their pain?’
     And he to me: ‘This miserable way
is taken by the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.
     They now commingle with the coward angels,
the company of those who were not rebels
nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.
     The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened,
have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them —
even the wicked cannot glory in them.’”
— Dante, Inferno

Oh, dear. Oh, junk, son. You’re at the mall. This is harrowing, and I’m so sorry about you. Maybe your Amazon Prime account expired. Perhaps you forgot a couple last minute items on the wish list. It could be that you’re not even sure what you’re looking for, but 80-plus stores under a single roof rife with people carrying this season’s strain of cold-flu-Ebola might open your eyes to the glory of how amazing and precious every gift suggestion at William-Sonoma is. Most likely, though, you want to glide about on one of those embarrassing, mistake-against-nature hoverboards so you can at least see firsthand why you’re throwing $400 into a gnarly garbage fire.

Regardless the reason (for the season), you’re here, and you’re ready to get surly with anyone who says “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” because these are the sacrifices one must make as a foot solider “in the shit.” And God bless you for it — we at Welp support the troops fighting on behalf of Christmas in the war against it. And, hey, as the patron saint of burgers, Rally’s once posited, “You gotta eat!” All that battlin’ has you chompin’ at the bit and you ain’t gettin’ out of here any time soon either. How about eating something that won’t offend the couple of senses you have left after face-planting on the mall’s faux-marble and Pine-Sol slick floor in front of the dude selling Guy Fawkes masks test driving said self-balancing scooter, that later caught fire and exploded?

You guessed it, Welp — LEO’s sorry excuse for culinary gone gonzo — has you covered at three of the season’s hottest hives of scum and villainy. That’s a Star Wars reference by the way, which is a thing that opens this weekend at a theater near you.

Because I am but one man, who’s flesh and bone, a wondrous display of natural architecture bolstered by soft tissue and shitty rocks doctors refer to as a “skeleton,” I could not subject myself to all this preservative-saturated continental cuisine and live to tell about it. So I gathered a caucus together — the food court jesters — to assist me in the arduous task! Do502’s Amelia Stevens and Production Simple’s Mark Evans, along with his lovely date Kristen Lee, joined the expedition. We’ve published our findings below, split across sit-down restaurants, fast-casual counter service spots, and even a couple of local joints that found themselves within a vanilla slice of Americana. Godspeed You, Mall Emperor!

The Holiday Cheer scale, which will make (a bit) more sense in a minute
The Holiday Cheer scale

OXMOOR MALL

 

Because someone thinks the only way to improve a pretzel is to put a hot dog in it, Right: the food court jesters
Because someone thinks the only way to improve a pretzel is to put a hot dog in it, Right: the food court jesters

Joint: Auntie Anne’s
Item(s): Pretzel Dog
Holiday Cheer:
4

The adventure kicked off with what’s known in the industry as a “whistle whetter.” A light app, if you will. Mark suggested Auntie Anne’s chef-d’oeuvre — the “pretzel dog.” The pride of German bakers since the 12th century, the Catholic Church once regarded pretzels as religiously significant in both ingredients and shape, with the knot resembling human hands in prayer. Auntie Anne’s leveled up this versatile pastry by injecting a goddamn hot dog in there. So, yes, in an event of truth in advertising, the pretzel dog is a pretzel with a hot dog in it.

Gross. Putrid. Befouled. Not a good start to the day. “Yeah, these have been sitting out for a while,” Mark remarked. “You’re basically dipping salt into cheese,” Kristen chimed in. Labeling this “cheese” was generous, as the second ingredient listed behind water was soybean oil. Ugh. Launch it into the sun.


 

kangkeenoodle

Joint: Yang Kee Noodle
Item(s): Appetizer Sampler, Pad Thai
Holiday Cheer:
1

Yang Kee Noodle is the flavor of my Mac products falling apart. That’s not meant as disparaging, but rather, it serves as the silver lining of having to visit the Apple Store because Siri went rogue. At least I can noodle up before a Genius comes back to me with my MacBook’s prognosis and breaks the news that ain’t no one gettin’ Christmas gifts this year from me. I always gravitate toward Yang Kee Noodle because when it comes to soups and stir fry, buddy, I can’t get enough of the stuff. Doesn’t hurt they’re actually a local business either.

And therein lies the (non-Apple) genius of Yang Kee Noodle’s approach to a fast casual eatery, something also commented on by the caucus — all of whom were Yang virgins. The clean typeface of the wall menu, the sterilely decorated dining room — steely and laden with sharp directional vectors not too far removed from a Chipotle. High resolution stock photos of both white (safe!) and Asian (authentic!) people having fun with their really cool friends adorned the outer wall. It looks familiar to the suburban sect, but lo, Yang Kee Noodle is a local operation. It’s like Le Que for the mall. Interestingly, Yang Kee Noodle will soon be neighbors with Le Que as they settle into their second location in the hotly disputed former home of KFC 11 at the Baxter-Bardstown split in the Highlands. Though this had me initially concerned for my friends in the pea green building who serve a tom yum I’m convinced has healing properties, that this neighborhood can support 42 pizza joints between Broadway and the Watterson leads me to believe that two Thai spots can symbiotically coexist, just like the bumper sticker.

We split the appetizer sampler, which included potstickers, pork dumplings and crab rangoon. No, none of these items will live up to your preferred hole-in-the-wall family spot, but for a concept casting a wide consumer net: Good gravy, they are good. The potstickers, wrapped in a casing almost as thick and scrumptious as a steamed bun, were succulent, dense and not too salty. The pork dumplings served up familiar comfort food, and the rangoon leaned more heavily on the crab portion, rather than the cream cheese as lesser purveyors of hors d’oeuvres often concede. Fam, anything more than a tablespoon of cream cheese in a single bite should be treated as a war crime.

The pad thai, a perennially safe and satisfying dish, was a grand slam. Generous with the fish sauce, the Yang recipe spotlights a lime and cilantro forward finish with bounteous toppings. Though a couple more scoops of peanuts would’ve added some more dimension to the texture, it’s one of the finest flavors you can enjoy in a spot as Godless as the mall. The whole caucus tore this dish up.


bjs

Joint: BJ’s
Item(s): Beer and cider, EXTREME PEPPERONI deep dish pizza, and NEW SRIRACHA CHICKEN MAC ’N CHEESE
Holiday Cheer:
5

Focused originally on an inspired new recipe for deep dish pizza, BJ’s was founded in Santa Ana, California, in 1978. This means that for over 37 years, no one within the company has successfully won an argument beginning with, “Hey, so I was thinking about the name, and I have a couple of reasoned thoughts on why maybe we should reconsider the name BJ’s.”

“We’ve got to go to BJ’s,” I told the food court jesters. “Just like Smucker’s, with a name like BJ’s, it has to be good!” Amelia heard tell of the “pizookie,” a pizza-cookie hybrid that is evidently popular enough to warrant a recipe on Serious Eats.

From the Oxmoor mainway, you must pass through an impressively long, but not particularly girthy and with a slight curve in the middle, hallway that dumps you in the trunk of the restaurant. Winding through the booth and table stables, BJ’s is huge. Bigger than The Cheesecake Factory. And the energy throbbing. We located the host station and were told it would be 15 minutes, a light-up vibrator thrusted in our hands to shake when it’s ready. Who would’ve thought you’d have to wait for BJ’s?

After filing into a booth, we put the gigantic albeit floppy menus in our hands. These things are massive — to the tune of 16 pages, taking yet another, ahem, page from the Cheesecake Factory book. With so much to choose from, it’s hard to figure out what you should put in your mouth.

Mark demonstrates where the drinks end and food begins in BJ’s engorged menu. 

We began with a round of beers that, while not made in-house, are proprietary BJ’s. I have to say I was not impressed with the head on my stout nor its limp flavor, but it offered up a silky mouthfeel. Amelia liked the cider, stating that it resembled a wine cooler “but not in a bad way.”

BJ’s is known for going deep with their pizza, so we decided to give it a try with its Pepperoni Extreme! I had my reservations — why is the pepperoni pizza extreme? Is it going to fly off the tray and grind across the edge of the table before 720-kick-flipping away? Is it going to establish its own terrorist caliphate with other fringe groups at the other booth?

Nope, it’s pepperoni cut three different ways — sliced, diced and julienned. So, uh, hold on to your butts. We also ordered the Sriracha Chicken Mac ’n Cheese because that sounds extreme as fuck.

If this pizza is considered “extreme,” wait until they check out the fare at a hospital cafeteria. Flaccid crust a shade above Totino’s with scant sauce and flavorless, almost chalky, cheese, this was bad. Just as there’s such a thing as un-cute babies, shitty pizza is real, palpable, and poses existential threat. I will claim to my dying day that the Sriracha Chicken Mac ’n Cheese had not one drop of the Rooster sauce, instead reliant on cheap Gordon Food Service knock-off Velveeta and misplaced broccoli for its flavor profile. I mean, we ate it, but it was nasty. As Mark said roughly halfway through his pizza slice, “Who knew there was such a thing as a bad BJ?” It goes without saying, BJ’s is simply not appropriate for a first date.

First reader to tally up all the poorly veiled innuendos gets a special Welp! prize pack.


extremepita

Joint: Extreme Pita
Item: BBQ Chicken & Bacon flat-baked pita sample
Holiday Cheer:
3

On our way out, a gentlemen asked if we wanted a sample of fare from Oxmoor’s latest addition, Extreme Pita. Man, suburban food really loves the EXTREMES, doesn’t it? But, hell yeah, I want a sample. I always want a sample.

I asked, though, what made the pita extreme, and without missing a beat he swiftly retorted: “Oh, the flavor! And it’s healthy.” Well played, homie. That is extreme. The flat-baked pita, which resembled more a pizza than their pita wraps, was hands-down better than whatever we had at BJ’s. I’ll get extreme with these guys next time I come out here looking for a new phone case.

Interestingly, the Oxmoor location is one of only a dozen in the states for this Canadian franchise. If our God is a loving one, perhaps Tim Horton’s is also a “maybe yes” in the Magic 8-Ball.

OXMOOR WINNER: Yang Kee Noodle

Unanimous vote from the caucus on Yang Kee Noodle, with votes split between the potstickers and pad thai for best dish. While it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the local joint provided the freshest and tastiest meal, it remains noteworthy nonetheless.

**********

THE PADDOCK SHOPS

Hummus Trio
Hummus Trio

Joint: Zoe’s Kitchen
Item(s): Hummus trio
Holiday Cheer:
3

After filling our bodies, which are our temples, with unmitigated hot garbage only an hour before, I needed to recharge the batteries with discernibly nutritious food. The low-fat, Mediterranean-inspired, Panera for people who aren’t schmucks with malfunctioning palates, Zoe’s Kitchen hath shone a beacon of hope, clean and bright.

The hummus trio comes with generous dollops of traditional, red pepper and basil pesto hummus. The food court jesters all liked the basil pesto hummus the best. Contrasting with the hummus you might find at, say, Safier, the Zoe’s Kitchen blend has a little grit to it. This is not to its detriment, but do not expect the almost whipped smoothness you might find at other beloved local Mediterranean spots. The pita wedges and veggies 86’d before the dips sadly, but after the atrocity that was whatever we ate at BJ’s Brewhouse, the hummus small plate gave us all a bit of mana.


noodlesandco

Joint: Noodles & Company
Item(s): Butter noodles with chicken, Thai hot pot, wine pairing
Holiday Cheer:
2

When I worked in the Chicago Loop, I ate Noodles & Company at least thrice a week because you could throw a pebble in any given direction and hit one. But also, as fast casual goes, it’s a winner. Like Potbelly (also located in the Paddock), it’s a no-fills, cheap, totally good version of concepts lesser brands tried to execute and failed at. And this location, dear readers… this location has WINE.

YAAAASSSSSSS!!!!

The Noodles and Company franchise splits their menu into thirds to represent the complex and tangy/spicy Asian flavors, herby and comforting Italian and Eastern European fare, and American… which is basically mac and cheese. “So my favorite menu item is the same thing a 5 year-old would eat, but it’s really good,” Mark admitted, and he put in an order for his special dish — the buttered noodles with added grilled chicken. Thinly sliced with a crispy outer skin atop a bed of silky and surprisingly peppery egg noodles, I was surprised how good this was, even if it fits the taste vocabulary of a small child.

The Thai hot pot, the day’s special, deviated a bit from the company’s M.O. of, well, noodles. Though the line between a hot pot and a noodle soup will always be a bit blurry, I’d argue this dish resembled more a fast casual take on pho, containing many of the same ingredients as the traditional dish (glass noodles, peppers, sprouts, etc). The broth gave off a coconut milk-forward character a tad bit too strong, but for $8, this is a fantastic, quick-service, highly-agreeable lunch.


32degrees

Joint: 32 Degree Bar
Item(s): who knows
Holiday Cheer:
3

Gotta have desert, and I love froyo that comes out of a wall when you pull the lever. But all self-serve soft-serve joints are basically the same, save for the fact 32 Degree Bar has a gelato option too, which is a bit more rare. I went with the salted caramel pretzel froyo and plopped a few frosted animal crackers on them shits because I’m 31 years old. I don’t know what Mark, Kristen and Amelia got. We were all too zoned from hours of eating volumes and preparations of food the body shouldn’t take in within a couple hours. I didn’t even ask.

PADDOCK WINNER: Noodles & Company

Had wine.

**********

MALL OF ST. MATTHEWS

Left: totally good salsa, Right: burrito deluxe lunch portion
Left: totally good salsa, Right: burrito deluxe lunch portion

Joint: El Nopal
Item(s): burrito deluxe, spinach mushroom quesadilla
Holiday Cheer:
3

For better or worse, El Nopal feels like home. Every city has a Mexican joint that’s not quite authentic, not quite Tex-Mex, and not quite full Gringo. The type of joint good for hangovers and satisfying a famishment for under a 20 spot. The type of joint that offers unlimited table salsa that’s never bad. El Nopal is Louisville’s, and there’s roughly 30 of them. When I’m coming back to Louisville from points north down I-65, when you start seeing the El Nopal logo on the food markers throughout southern Indiana, you know you’re near home.

We grabbed the burrito deluxe and spinach mushroom quesadilla lunch combos. Each came with El Nopal’s signature greasy ass, but completely tasty, rice. The slow-cooked chicken inside the burrito retained a sort of stew-like quality — mealy and moist — but in concert with hot sauce and sour cream was a filling, hearty lunch. The quesadilla’s mushrooms, a bit slimy, obviously came from a can, but the thick bed of cooked spinach and queso blanco provided the proper palatal assist. And truth be told, everything under a smattering of El Yucateco hot sauce feels good down the gullet. That a meal for two plus a margarita can ring up to only $14 is a thing of beauty, especially considering the locale.

Also, let us please behold a subtle, yet nonetheless, remarkable sideboob present in what I thought was a family restaurant. Well, I never!

Some tasteful sideboob
Some tasteful sideboob

Joint: Cinnabon
Item(s): Mini bun
Holiday Cheer:
2

Like Yang Kee Noodle, Cinnabon offers a delicious silver lining to a tough situation, like waiting for the Apple Store to let you know your overpriced tablet is proper-fucked. Cinnabon is the flavor of a delayed flight. Cinnabon is the taste of the best breakfast you can grab before heading to jury duty. It’s corporate, it’s located in malls and airports and government buildings and truck stops, and it never disappoints.

Joint: Sam’s Gyros
Item(s): Chicken platter
Holiday Cheer:
1

Look, you know the Louisville food scene is blockbuster. I know the Louisville food scene is blockbuster. But the city still has a couple of blind spots. A solid, no-frills, counter-service, vertical-meat rotisserie döner-kebab-style joint that serves as a cornerstone of street food throughout the western world is still missing from the city’s culinary vocabulary. Safier is excellent of course, but they serve more toward the shawarma and eastern-style Mediterranean end of the spectrum. Shiraz upsets me to even think about, and Zad remains in a bit of a menu identity crisis. I’m talking about Turkish style — sloppy, delectable gyros and kebabs. The kind served on almost every street corner throughout Turkey and Europe, open late and never more than five euros. The type of food that sings in key with Mother Earth.

It is mind-blowingly fucking ironic that the closest replica of this eating experience in Louisville is at the Mall of St. Matthews, but hey: “O Fortuna /  like the moon you are changeable / ever waxing and waning; hateful life first oppresses and then soothes as fancy takes it…”

Sam’s Gyros is awesome. It’s in the food court next to where Sbarro’s used to be — you know, the sorry excuse for pizza that came standard with every mall construction between 1970 and 2007. Just $8 gets you a beef/lamb or chicken plate with fluffy, flavorful and not-too-salty and olive oil-rich saffron rice, your choice of fresh vegetables, and a generous ladling of tzatziki sauce. This trip, we chose the chicken, and the moderately-spiced, paprika-forward, juicy chicken strips were cooked to perfection. Topped with a warm buttery pita and a generous helping of sliced tomatoes, chopped onions, romaine lettuce and feta, a single platter can easily feed two people. This is, I believe, my third trip to Sam’s, and I still can’t wrap my head around the notion that the closest flavor to standing on an Athenian street corner I’ve experienced in this town is at … a mall food court.

MALL OF ST. MATTHEWS WINNER: Sam’s Gyros

All other Mediterranean joints best take notice, a spot in the god-forsaken mall is drivin’ the school bus over all y’all.

**********

Next year, Welp! plans to hit up Shoppes of the Bluegrass, Jefferson Mall, and probably one of the Southern Indiana malls like Green Tree. So, stay tuned!