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Captive Dining

Get your hunger fix on aisle six.

By Stefanie Gans / Photography by Kyle Martell

Paneer-filled wrap

Paneer-filled wrap

Captive dining can lead to poor decisions.

Miss a meal spending too long in the dressing room with Jason Wu at Target? That’s OK. Pizza Hut is there with a greasy slice to keep shoppers within the store.

Before food took over as the nation’s pastime and transformed ballpark offerings to ribs, falafel and vegetarian tacos, options remained juvenile: hot dogs, popcorn, pretzels.

In stadiums, malls and amusement parks, hunger can turn the habits of normally nutritious eaters into one of a 10-year-old after walking home from school.

Because confined diners will eat anything in desperate situations, the food doesn’t necessarily have to be good. But when it is, suddenly life feels less claustrophobic.

Lotte Plaza
Just off Route 50, Lotte dominates a strip mall as a massive grocery store filled with aisles of Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Indian packaged goods, plus a Safeway-meets-street-market produce section stocked with always-red apples, fresh, fuzzy almonds and fragrant jackfruit.

A potato chip size bag of cuttlefish encased in peanut butter is reminiscent of the bar snack served gratis in late-night Seoul. (Well, not gratis, more like forced. Drinking accompanies snacking in this party-with-a-Jewish-mother’s-touch culture.) More familiar items are also available, like Sriracha, plus rows dedicated to soy sauce and noodles spawned from ancient grains.

Protein-packed dal makhani at Punjabi

Protein-packed dal makhani at Punjabi.

Where most grocery stores line the perimeter with fruits, vegetables and a dairy case, Lotte fills the far right side of its warehouse with shops: a parfumerie, eye doctor, salon and massage parlor. Around another corner, bulk boxes of ramen disappear, and a cafeteria emerges with shiny wooden tables. A reward for captive diners.

Punjabi By Nature
Ignoring the chicken, I took a spoon directly to the creamy, cashew nut and tomato sauce. Campbell’s would blush with embarrassment if it knew of this competition: Faintly spiced, Punjabi’s indulgent butter chicken could convert anyone to an Indian food lover.

Entrees, $9-$11, come with naan or rice. Get the rice; the naan, even though decked with garlic and cilantro, remains flavorless and oily. Alternatively, parantha, fried bread marbled with smashed potato and onion (order spicy!) will work to scoop up any saucy curry dish.

We asked for a spicy version of dal makhni, which helped cut through the rich lentils and beans. It’s cream overload here, but sometimes, that’s what a shopping trip calls for.

Kimchi kicks-up Korean fried rice at Evergreen.

Kimchi kicks-up Korean fried rice at Evergreen.

A paneer tikka kathi roll wins points for convenience; a wrap lends itself to pushing a cart with one hand and satisfying lunch in the other. Large chunks of cheese find space between onions and cauliflower in this creamy wrap. The only distraction coming from cumin seeds, which are much easier to eat when ground instead of left whole.

Evergreen Korean Cuisine
Fried rice is a dish best left to professionals. Not so much because of its degree of difficulty, but because it’s hard to watch that much oil hit the pan. Let Evergreen pour on the grease instead in its version of kimchi-bokkeumbap.

The rice arrives spotted with chopped kimchi, the fiery, fermented cabbage cutting through slick grains. A single over-hard fried egg (a runny yolk would have been nice) sits atop for a shareble portion.

Steak-and-cheese-style beef—thin, bouncy and not at all stringy—joins white rice and thinly cut vegetables in a stone pot for a bulgogi. A brick red savory-sweet sauce, with coriander and chilies, begs for every bite to first find a dunk inside this hoison sauce cousin.

“Pregnant lady sushi!” my excited dining companion screamed after scoping out the non-raw fish seaweed-wrapped contents. Instead of unsustainable tuna, bits of beef, egg, carrots, spinach and imitation crab populate the center for a tame take on sushi.

Ready dishes are announced bingo-style, as a woman with spots of raspberry-dyed hair calls out orders from a completely unnecessary microphone, lending yet another layer of cafeteria chic.

 

Lotte Plaza
13955 Metrotech Drive, Chantilly; lotteplaza.com; 703-488-6600

PUNJABI BY NATURE
703-309-7780
Hours: Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Average entree: $12 and under ($)

EVERGREEN KOREAN CUISINE
703-961-8555
Hours: Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Average entree: $12 and under ($)

 

(June 2012)

 

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