Color me tacky and low-rent, but there’s just something homey and inviting about the naive optimism and dauntless ambition behind a strip mall storefront that has been transformed into an enchanting dining experience with a cozy darkened lounge. The practice must have been perfected in places like Texas, Florida, and Dubai, where the blistering heat forces people to scurry from their refrigerated cars to the comfort and safety of the nearest A/C bunker.
Sure, the Downtown Mall (so misguidedly named) is pleasant for a stroll on the way to dinner. You can window shop boutiques while giddily anticipating an after-dinner gelato. You can pass out some loose change along the way and feel good about helping some of the more consistently visible Downtown denizens get closer to their sleepy-time 40-ounce. Yeah, Downtown is special, but at a strip mall, you can park 10′ from the door, leave the rumble of four lanes of high speed traffic safely off to your side, and step into another world—a world of exotic music, aromatic herbs and incense, and luscious cuisine from distant lands.
Before the theoretical tenants of The Shops at Stonefield (who have started taunting us with signs in the windows of empty spaces that promise “gourmet burgers,” a “world class Mexican kitchen,” and an “Italian food and wine bar”) attempt to shift the center of culinary prominence toward the north side of town, there are still a few places that have been up there all along that are worth a try.
At the more affordable end of things is a place that opened last fall, El Tepeyac. It’s in a little strip of shops on Greenbrier Drive, tucked in alongside a paint store. It has big-screen fútbol rolling most of the time. If there’s no match to watch, then it’s Mexican soap operas and game shows. I ducked in with a friend the other day, sat down, and chuletas puerco ranchero jumped right off the menu and onto the table: two well-cooked boneless pork chops bathed in a spicy green rancheros sauce and flanked by refried beans and saffron rice. It was hearty and very well prepared. My buddy had the chiles rellenos: two poblano peppers stuffed with mozzarella and covered in sauce. I tried it and it’s a winner. This place has great salsas, not necessarily tempered for the gringo tongue. It also servers pupusas, a Salvadoran delight that is a kind of a thick, stuffed corn tortilla, as well as tacos. Plus there’s girl-drink booze and after-meal sweets.
At the recommendation of one of my neighborhood merchants—a native to the sub-continental region—I made it over to Maharaja, which sits along the east side of 29 North, just past Hydraulic Road, and looks out its front window at the business end of the Burger King drive-thru. The warm, inviting, madras-toned environs, detailed with tatted fabric lighting covers, is a nice respite from the asphalt sprawl outside. I got the chicken bhindi: white chicken meat that comes in an okra-heavy base with vegetables and garam masala, (spicy hot) seasoning. I was sent there to order something else (forgot my crib notes), but it was darn good and as spicy as promised. My date was well pleased with her two vegetable side dishes, mattar paneer—soft cheese chunks in a spiced creamy sauce—and vegetable masala, all with perfect rice. This place feels great.
The best spot for me on the strip mall trip this time, however, was Copacabana. It’s nestled into a little cubby, snug up against the building that Whole Foods used to occupy at Shoppers World. The menu is a tantalizing list of pastas with all manner of seafood and a large beef section. I was in for lunch and got the very simple but flawlessly prepared and presented sautéed shrimp in garlic and lemon butter with collard greens, rice, and fried bananas. It was ocean fresh, piping hot, and really, really good. The fried bananas were good enough to make me forget I ever had a plantain.