Great Mall of Brunch

A Kent mall offers Asian produce, herbs, and the best dim sum in the state.

He looked like a typical family man, but suddenly he was in a fight for his life—or his fingers, anyway. The blue crab he was trying to wrest from its holding area in the seafood department of the 99 Ranch Market wanted none of it: One of its little claws snapped impatiently at the man's naked, fumbling hand, while the other clung desperately to a fellow crab, as if to say, "You want me, you gotta take my friend, too!" Eventually, the man relented, leaving his would-be meal to scuttle off to (temporary) safety. The Great Wall Mall in Kent offers anime and Asian books, even a Charles Schwab brokerage; but it was for the love of dim sum that I joined my friend and her Chinese-American husband there on a glorious Sunday morning. Though the 99 Ranch Market (an Asian grocery store along the lines of the International District/Chinatown's Uwajimaya) is the mall's largest tenant, its busiest eatery is the Imperial Garden Seafood Restaurant. There, dim sum is served daily, and a large blue tank swims with entrée alternatives—tilapia and enormous crabs when we went—just in case you're not up for traditional Chinese brunch. But who wouldn't be? After one look at the menu, your eyes dance and your tongue tingles. Deep-fried taro root stuffed with pork. Shark's fin and seafood dumpling soup. And a shock for the uninitiated: chicken feet, steamed and served in garlic sauce. Another friend later asked: "Do they look like chicken feet?" Rest assured, dear reader: They do. We arrived at Imperial Garden around 10 a.m. and found the place half-full, if that. But within the next hour, the large dining room filled with multigenerational families, so many that our casual Sunday meal started feeling like part of some larger celebration. When a number of pastry carts went by and my eyes went with them, my friend's husband explained that it's imperative not to fill up too quickly on things like sesame balls filled with sweet bean paste; the kitchen only really gets going with the woks and the unconventional seafood after noon. Sure enough, as time passed, increasingly interesting stuff began to emerge. There's a wonderful, flea-market casualness about trolling for food at Imperial Garden's dim sum: When a cart piled high with covered plates whizzes by, you simply stop the person pushing it and ask, "What do you have?" After they trot out a few sample dishes, you can get specific: "Got any scallops? Lobster dumplings? Anything with tofu?" Either you're in luck or you're not, but there's always another cart coming down the pike. Our meal consisted largely of seafood. You pay per plate at Imperial Garden, but a generous brunch for three comes in around $60 (including tip!), so you needn't be preoccupied about what each dish costs. Especially good were the steamed lobster dumplings and the curried squid with pineapple, though we also enjoyed several kinds of shrimp dumplings and a side of broccoli with oyster sauce. The broccoli was a nice change of pace during a meal dominated by fish and dumplings; part of what makes Imperial Garden worth the drive for Seattleites is that the restaurant doesn't rely too heavily on the deep fryer, a habit that makes some dim sum spots in Chinatown/International District less attractive. The Garden is unusually creative in general: A dish of shrimp meat in tofu pockets is practically nouvelle cuisine compared to the meat-and-potatoes approach that characterizes the average local dim sum joint. Still, if you ask for traditional dishes, items not sanitized for the Western eye and palate, Imperial Garden will bring them out: chicken feet, yes, but also beef tripe, heart, and tendon. I let my companions go to town on the heart while noting with interest that it looked remarkably like strips of roasted red and yellow bell peppers. Most of our fellow diners at Imperial Garden were of Asian descent; even those who weren't were accompanied by those who were. The same is true of the Great Wall Mall as a whole: Wander into the AA Pacific Herb shop, for example, and you'll find that the counterman speaks little English, which suits most of his customers just fine. The herb shop's complex aroma, entirely unfamiliar to me, reminded my friend's husband of his childhood. Nostalgia or not, it is a wonder: The store carries dried shark, jellyfish, and sea cucumber ($68 per pound for this last), a dizzying array of teas, and an even wider assortment of spices, ground fresh behind the counter while you wait. But what really helps the Great Wall Mall live up to its PR claim ("a Pan-Asian experience without flying out of Sea-Tac") is the amazing cooked-meat counter at the 99 Ranch Market. Americans, almost without exception, don't want to be reminded of where their meat comes from—and I don't mean Washington or Oregon. I mean that it comes from an animal at all. At the 99 Ranch, whole roasted ducks hang, beaks and all, on hooks; below, cooked beef tripe and other organ meats look not half bad, though the dainty American palate rarely deigns to eat them. There's an honesty about cooking animals whole and displaying them intact and an integrity about using nearly every part of each animal. These qualities are related somehow to the experience of fighting the crab you want for dinner: Sure, the poor little thing has nowhere to run, but it still has its claws. On an off day—when you're tired, perhaps, or when a well-snapped claw gets you right between the thumb and forefinger—you might even lose the battle. But if you do emerge victorious, at least you'll have known your foe. Great Wall Shopping Mall, 18230 E. Valley Hwy., 425-251-1600, KENT. Open 9 a.m.– 10 p.m. daily. Imperial Garden Seafood Restaurant, 425-656-0999. Open 10 a.m.– 10 p.m. daily.

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