What's more all-American than the shopping-mall food court, that bastion of brand loyalty, predictability and mediocrity in what passes for a marketplace in modern America's suburbia? All Sbarro, Chick-Fil-A and Cinnabon, they may be food courts, but they're hardly foodie courts. There is, however, another model: the Asian hawker centres of Southeast Asia. That appears, at least in part, to be what Zion Market (7655 Clairemont Mesa Blvd. in Kearny Mesa) had in mind for the food court in its newly built store.
Nearly the only thing that the classic American food court has in common with an Asian hawker centre is that they each deal in their respective culture's versions of fast food: chain fast food in America, street food in Asia. The hawker courts of Singapore grew up as a way of addressing an out-of-control street-food culture while simultaneously embracing it. By bringing street vendors into centralized locations with modern facilities, Singapore was able to fix the problems of unlicensed vendors and unhygienic conditions.
But instead of leading to the mediocrity of American mall food, these centers became the face and the focus of Singaporean cuisine. The genius of the hawker centres lies in the fact that they incorporated those same street vendors in a stunning display of creative economic democracy. A good vendor has long lines; a bad vendor does not last long.
These are lessons on display at the Zion Market food court. There's a Korean-Chinese place, a couple of traditional Korean spots, a Chinese restaurant, a Vietnamese pho joint on the way, a bakery and a boba stand. Some are terrific. Others, like Off the Wok, with its Chinese-American top-40 menu and underwhelming and flavorless food, were less so. A sign at the cash register said "No MSG." Perhaps they should have added some.
On the other hand, there is a reason Korean-Chinese-style Noodles J-1 (ironically, a chain) has such long lines: The food is great. One example is jajangmyeon, the Korean-ized version of a Chinese noodle dish topped with a thick sauce of a salty black soybean paste, diced pork and vegetables. Sticky, salty and surprisingly sweet, it has the potential to be addicting. Another is jjamppong, a spicy noodle-soup dish featuring a rich seafood broth, pork and a variety of seafood, vegetables and Korean chile paste.
CDD Tofu & Grill offers excellent takes on traditional Korean fare, both barbecue and tofu stews. The banchan are tasty, the stews are spicy and rich and the barbeque is perfectly done. About the only downside at CDD is the cost; $13.95 to $15.95 is rather pricey for a food-court lunch.
The promising options will soon expand with The Spotted Cow, a build-your-own pho concept under common ownership with Pho La Jolla. The restaurant will be run by Jimmy Trinh and Boram Kim, both of whom trained at Culinary Institute of America and worked at restaurants like Le Bernardin and Café Boulud.
Zion Market's hawker court is, like its model, a work-in-progress. If all goes well, it will always be so.