Dining à la 405

Safe, even during the recession.

To circle the vastness of the Alderwood Mall, trying to figure out which freeway on-ramp leads to I-5 or 405, can feel like a lifetime. One mistake and you're headed to Everett. Lose your nerve, and it's back to Seattle. Thank God, then, for the oasis at its center: the Alderwood Mall Food Court.Alderwood shines like a mysterious, enchanting beacon in Snohomish County. Even the name implies eating: Something delicious cooked over alder! But there have been changes at Alderwood. The Web site is now all fancy and urban. "dé•fine U" goes the new slogan, as if chosen from Webster's Abridged Dictionary of Suburban Hip-Hop. And with the gigantic new AMC-Loews Alderwood 16 cinema looking like a neon-bedecked Mormon Tabernacle, a certain kind of grandeur now fronts the food court. Valet parking? WTF? That's for Pacific Place, not Alderwood! And what's with "The Terraces"? Opposite the multiplex, sited around a few scattered stones, greenery, and a duck pond are new eateries like McGrath's Fish House and Claim Jumper. When we come to Alderwood, we do not want our claim jumped or smiling hostesses to seat us.For this reason, the food court offers familiar respite. The giant shed-style enclosure is loud, sunny, and unpretentious—just the way we like it—and there's no damn hostess to steer you to Hot Dog on a Stick, Quizno's, Kidd Valley, Cajun Grill, Cinnabon, or Auntie Annie's Pretzels.During my recent visit, I opted for Panda Express, less for the cuddly WWF-endangered-species associations than for the expedience implied in the name. This is not Panda When We Get Around to It, or Panda Eventually, or Panda We'll Seat You After the Bachelorette Party. Panda Express—it speaks my language, like Jiffy Lube.For $5.95, the 2-Entree Plate means staring through glass at several steamer dishes while sliding your tray down the rails. Two entrees, yes, but which two entrees? It's a mental challenge, like sudoku puzzles. The chow mein looks limp, the orange chicken soggy, the BBQ pork rather too BBQ'ed.But when finally piled on my plate, the fried rice is fresh and the chicken egg rolls surprisingly tangy. At first glance, my mixed veggies have been steamed into submission, yet the carrots are still firm enough to break my plastic fork. The individually bagged fortune cookie is fresh, if not epigrammatic.Since the mall is open most days until 9:30 or 10 p.m., the food court isn't just a lunchtime haunt. Around me are disaffected teens avidly thumbing their iPhones, immigrants in headscarves, kids running madly into tables and bouncing off unhurt, even couples playfully spearing morsels off one another's plates. At the multiplex, a bag of candy or popcorn would cost more than my 2-Entree Plate. Hence, Panda Express is a solid movie-and-dinner date destination for northenders, especially during our current recession.bmiller@seattleweekly.com

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