Food & Drink

Mall Chicken Made Me Feel More American

mall chicken
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

There’s one in every mall. It’s so generic and commonplace that, like “New York Pizza,” it doesn’t even get a proper sign in its appearance in Stranger ThingsStarcourt Mall food court. It exists in the glow of exuberantly backlit signs over Formica countertops, served atop plastic trays with stamped-on waffle-weave patterns in seating areas where tired staff sweep up remnants of fries dropped by drooping children and JCPenney’s receipts by their equally exhausted parents.

It’s served alongside national burger chains, sandwich shops, and Taco Bells. It competes against regional novelties like pizza from Sbarro or Famous Famiglia, “cheesesteaks” from Charleys or Steak Escape, and ones that change names like Rally’s to Checker’s, Carl’s Jr. to Hardees. Its heat-propelled aromas cut through the butter-dense cloud that marks the carb gauntlets Auntie Anne’s and Cinnabon. And it’s become the universal sign that you’ve entered the official food court of the shopping mall.

As you’ve guessed, I could only be talking about mall chicken.

Loosely called “chicken teriyaki,” mall chicken bears little resemblance to what you’d get at a Japanese sit-down. At the latter, it’s a lovingly sliced hunk of succulent breast drizzled in a viscous, dark glaze dusted in black and white sesame seeds, typically served alongside a restrained portion of steamed vegetables and a perfectly rounded ball of rice.

Mall chicken, on the other hand, is dished out free-form, thoroughly lacking in the refinement and discipline that Japanese cuisine is applauded for. In fact, its assembly-line order fulfillment and the open “kitchen” from whence it emerges have paved the way for many of the cooked-to-order quick-serve concepts that have now sprung up alongside them.

At the mall, fluffy white rice from a commercial-sized cooker serves as the base of the meal, loosely piled into a styrofoam container whose dividers mean nothing. On the line, a seemingly bottomless bucket of moist, dark meat chicken is quickly seared on a metal teppan surface similar to a diner flat-top. It’s velveted to seal in the moisture, safeguarding against any technical imperfections that can result from high heat exposure, then unceremoniously dumped on the grill to be cooked en masse. Sauce is ladled on with giant metal spoons to reduce into the meat, then again upon service.

At the other end of the cooking surface, under the jurisdiction of another cook, roughly chopped cabbage, broccoli florets, and carrots form another heaping mound. There, they sizzle in protest to the water tossed on to keep them from burning, or wilt softly under a lid for a pot that doesn’t exist.

Granted, in principle, the chicken follows the rules of its etymology: it’s a cooked or grilled preparation in a sweet soy-based sauce that lends the meat a lustrous sheen -- the tare to the yaki cooking method. But in practice? To those of us in the suburbs of middle America? Despite being the “largest and most successful Japanese quick-service restaurant in America” and Sarku’s claims of adherence to the tradition of Tokyo lunch stalls, this version of chicken teriyaki will always and forever be mall chicken to me … a one-note, nostalgic, and comforting dish that somehow, through not changing at all, has come to stand for how much I have.

That morsel of chicken, dripping in sticky sauce, was our reward of trekking through the whole mall with minimal complaint.

Like many of you, I first encountered mall chicken as a small child. I can’t pinpoint the exact age, but it was just young enough that from then on, the presence of mall chicken was unremarkable. Young enough that it didn’t brook any questions -- just mindless acquiescence every time it was presented to me from that day forward. 

I was handed a wooden toothpick with a bite of browned, sweet-sauced chicken by a nameless stranger in a tall hat and red apron -- details I’m so conditioned to automatically process that I literally just had to Google an image of Sarku Japan’s uniform to confirm it. He -- and it was always a he -- only ever said two words: “free sample.” He’d say it with an accent while holding a tray with a small, chicken-laden plate, a paper box of toothpicks and a basket of sorts in which to discard the used ones.

I was with at least one of my grandparents, who would often take me, my sister, and my cousin to the mall while our parents worked. My grandma, who immigrated from a country village outside Fuzhou, China, didn’t drive, so we would get dropped off by my grandpa for a day in the free air conditioning -- “taking in the air,” as colloquial Fuzhouhua would have it. 

Because honestly, that’s all we really did. We rarely ever bought anything from the building they called “Macy’s” in a Chinglish melody, a makeshift label used to fill in for their inability to pronounce the word “mall.” Instead, we would hide in the racks of Sears while my grandma pretended not to notice the sudden twitching of the clothes that hung from them, seemingly deaf to the giggles.

We never began our visit to the mall in the food court. That was the drop-off point for teens and reserved for a later stage in life. But we always ended it there, a last stop before we were picked back up at the less heavily trafficked department store entrances. We knew we were done when Grandma would ask if we wanted some “chee-king,” knowing that this generic mispronunciation could only mean that sample of mall chicken teriyaki, an abbreviation of more terms she couldn’t properly pronounce. That single morsel of chicken, dripping in sticky sauce, was our just reward of trekking through the whole mall with minimal complaint and fussing.

Cooked in front of her in a time before “open kitchens” became a concept, it was food that looked safe, served by people who felt safe -- people who looked like us. She trusted it, and that she wouldn’t be judged as less-than, alien, or poor as we accepted this hand-out. She would smile gratefully as our eager young hands reached out for our free sample, teaching us, same as every other adult across cultures, to echo in chorus her singsong “sank youuu.”

Mall chicken didn’t feel like a shameful secret food item to like.

In my high school, if you weren’t a jock, you were a mallrat. Most of us were latchkey kids, growing up in blue-collar homes where both parents worked. If we didn’t belong to an after-school group, where else was there to go between school and dinner? Where else would be as accessible for a hang-out spot, central to town, permissible by parents, a place to meet new people from different school districts?

The mallrats were divided into various subgroups: you had your skaters, a group immortalized by a young Avril Lavigne; the button-wearing punks with a dotted line to the emo goths; the thug-lites who practiced looking hard in a relatively soft environment. I was a fluff, an everyday kind of Betty -- as Cher Horowitz would say -- harboring thinly veiled insecurities only exacerbated by my ability to float between circles while never really belonging to one. 

But no matter the circle we all floated in, there was one inescapable hub: the food court. The first stop for our always hungry, growing bellies? The mall chicken stand. Stands, plural, if you were lucky and some enterprising, generic Chinese quick-serve with Bourbon Chicken tried to topple Sarku from its throne.

Many of us were hoarding allowance money for CDs from Sam Goody, stickers from Spencer’s, or for scrubbed cigarettes smoked by the entrance while watching hacky sack showdowns go down. So there was no shame in returning for samples every time we completed our rounds of cruising the mall in our loosely formed packs. If our timing was off and the tray was empty, we’d hover, then descend horde-like from various corners of the food court, locking eyes as a nonverbal signal to move in at first glimpse of a fresh plate of chicken.

And for once, I wasn’t looked down on as being “poor” for doing so -- we were all broke in various ways, and hungry enough to grab a literal bite on the go, but not to sit down for the full meal. For once, it wasn’t “weird” to crave an Asian dish or flavor, by virtue of it being so commonplace as to lose its identity as an Asian food.

This whitewashing made it so that mall chicken didn’t feel like a shameful secret food item to like. It was inoffensive and non-threatening, its transparent preparation saving American kids from having to ask questions and feel defensive about their ignorance. Its banality became its -- and my -- saving grace, de-exoticizing it and rescuing me from the suburban micro-racism that made people assume I was going to gravitate toward it just because of the way I look.

Equally important, it saved me the embarrassment of asking questions about the other menus of fast food I’d never tried before. I’d had such limited exposure to American chains that my sense of otherness stood out starkly in scenes that would be total throwaways to most teens. 

My parents owned a Chinese take-out, where everything was cooked fresh and made from scratch. Today, as someone who writes about food, this is a badge of honor and a point of pride. But as a kid, trying to fight stereotypes as the sole representative of an underrepresented minority in a predominantly white school, it was a social hand grenade. 

It meant that I had to ask what a Big Mac was. That I was confused about the texture of chicken nuggets and why there were more rubbery than chicken-y. That I wondered why $5 worth of food was a measly, squashy burger or a single cinnamon roll when my parents were overfilling containers of beef with broccoli for the same. Why I had to pay a quarter for packaged barbecue sauce when we’d be accused of nickel-and-diming for charging the same for sauces my family manually made.

But with mall chicken, there were no questions, from me or any of the other mallrats that’d loiter hopefully around the food court. We all wanted free chicken. And that was okay.

This was the closest and most reliably we could get to a taste of home.

New Orleans is a mecca for outstanding food. Everybody knows this. Its rich culinary tradition is legendary, and when I moved down there for college, it didn’t take long for me to experience a culinary awakening and realize that I was finally among my own: people who really, really loved and appreciated food in the myriad forms it could take. 

But among the nuanced flavors of Cajun cooking, the dignified elegance of Creole technique, and the hearty, satisfying textures of Southern comfort food, we could find no good Americanized Chinese. The Japanese and Vietnamese food that could more easily be found in the city was no substitute for the cornstarch-slurried sauces and inexpensive vegetable-heavy dishes I grew up eating, its absence giving me a newfound appreciation for what so many New Yorkers take for granted. 

And so my new best friend Leah and I made it our shared mission to find decent Chinese. Her NorCal roots had her craving the real stuff, the fluffy steamed baos filled with sweet roast pork and shrimp dumplings glistening a pale orange through semi-opaque wrappers. Ironically, I wanted the bastardized versions, the thick-skinned wontons in yellow-dyed broth and fat lo mein noodles that bore no resemblance to crunchy, sauce-topped Cantonese traditions. Although the target dishes were different, our want was the same: a taste of home.

We visited countless all-you-can-eats with ill-conceived names like Ho Ho Superbuffet, fancy sit-downs with price tags my take-out sensibilities balked at, sketchy outposts that were rumored to be dazzlingly “okay.” With their thin, one-note sauces and watered-down flavors, they were invariably disappointing. 

It was only when we went to the mall out in the suburbs of Metairie that we found what scratched that itch for something both Asian and something familiar. Cheap, overflowing, and universally recognizable mall chicken. 

Over styrofoam containers of white rice, unevenly cooked cabbage and broccoli, and shiny pieces of glistening chicken thighs, the West Coast white girl and her East Coast Asian friend agreed: despite how different “home” was for one another, this was the closest and most reliably we could get to its taste.

There is a kind of beauty in the mundane and relief in the predictable.

Nostalgia is a funny thing. Singular triggers can evoke one particular memory, or sharpen it through space and time. Others let loose a wild volley of unfocused fragments, where the trigger remains the same but the tone of the thoughts that follow pelt helter-skelter down different paths.

Mall chicken is one of those more vague, cloudy memories, its constant nature unyielding against the stages of a fluid life. It has never changed in taste, delivery, nor experience, through different malls in different states. Yet because of this, it stands for more things than any milestone-marking gourmet meal could ever mean. It has a power to ground, to unite, and send me down rabbit holes that could end in memories of any stage of my life. 

Granted, much of mall chicken’s trappings have changed. Food courts are getting slightly more high-end. There’s plastic greenery and better seating, and the signs and menus under semi-familiar logos are often digital now. According toMarketWatch, shoppers spend 20% more at a mall with a good food court. Industry trade QRS Magazine has outright stated that “with mall vacancies at a high, the food court is becoming more important … an attractive central eating space serves as a gathering point, and malls have been quick to jump in and make them as comfortable and eye-catching as possible.”

This revitalization is part of how shopping malls have doubled down on their place in our culture, despite the waning era of the megamall as brick-and-mortar flagships like Sears and Macy’s shutter across the country and teens retreat into social media as opposed to actual socialization.

I’ve also changed, despite coming full circle by moving back to Long Island, New York. Somewhere around 30 years have passed since I had my first free sample of Sarku’s chicken teriyaki. My grandfather is gone and my parents no longer own a restaurant. I’m no longer embarrassed that they ever did. On the contrary, I am proud of that fact. I’m comfortable in my own skin now, and have no compunction about not only ordering, but seeking out the most unusual thing on the menu and asking what things are.

Yet I can still feel my grandma’s hand over mine when I see a child reach up for that bite, eyes widening in delight as sauce fills their mouth and they bite into the distinctive texture of dark meat. I smile at the timelessness of parroted thanks as their parents remind them of their manners. I see teens at the food court and recall the excitement of waiting for the sample server to turn around and reveal the steam rising from a new portion of chicken on his tray. I remember the moment when the eyes of two girls from across the country lit up at a shared familiarity. And the memory reminds me that the humblest of foods can bring people together and forge bonds that last a lifetime. That there is a kind of beauty in the mundane and relief in the universally predictable; that something one-note can lead down many roads. 

Even if it is just mall chicken.

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Su-Jit Lin is a Thrillist contributor.