A Mall of Riches

Our food critic digs up a treasure of ethnic restaurants—in a little suburban shopping plaza, of all places

Nothing shouts “foodie” like a place where you can have Lebanese, Cuban, Korean, Filipino and Vietnamese eats and not have to leave the parking lot. This place is Colonnade Square, at Eastern Avenue and Pebble Road. It’s anchored by a cinema and has a few other restaurants, too, including the very good Roadrunner and the not-so-good Round Table Pizza. But it’s the ethnic collection that’s the real treasure here.

The weekend brunch buffet at Ali Baba (688-4182), our city’s most authentic Lebanese restaurant, is a must-stop. It’s a well-decorated room with a bountiful spread of cooked dishes and stews. A recent visit yielded a spinach pine-nut casserole, aromatic rice and chicken, lemony roast chicken and at least a dozen other home-style dishes. Zatar, a condiment made from sesame seeds and thyme, sits on every table—dip that hot pita wedge in olive oil and sprinkle some on.

There are other places than Chinatown for that pho or boba drink fix. Lemongrass Café (463-1300), which occupies a chromed freestanding building that used to be a 1950s-style diner, features the Vietnamese soup, which is rice noodles in a rich beef broth topped with various cuts of beef and topped with herbs. It is pure comfort food—a full meal in a bowl. Meantime, the goi cuon (shrimp, pork and veggies in fresh, not-deep-fried-eggroll skins) are a healthful and satisfying treat. For the satyr in you, there is the $24.95 bo bay mon (seven courses of beef). It’s a feast for two.

In between these two restaurants, at the west end of the mall, is the Asian Seafood Market (586-3000), a Filipino grocery store that sells adobong (garlicky peanuts in plastic cups), calamansi juice (an addictive citrus fruit drink) and whole fresh fish that the kitchen will fry up at no charge. It also has a steam table that sells hot entrées and steamed rice in plastic takeout containers; chicken and pork adobo; lumpia (Filipino egg rolls stuffed with vegetables, pork or chicken); and funky stuff such as dinuguan, a chocolatey-looking stew composed of organ meats. The one downside? You’ll have to eat in the car, or wait until you get home.

Fans of downtown’s popular Florida Café will be pleased to know that the mall’s Havana Grill (932-9310) has the same food and ownership as its sister ship. There is a Cuban sandwich to beat the band, hot entrées such as oven-roasted Cuban-style leg of pork, and the famous tres leches cake for dessert, all served in a lively Caribbean atmosphere. From 4-9 p.m. daily, there are two-for-one drinks and half-price appetizers at the bar.

Jun’s (566-5867) is a small Korean café with cooking that I prefer to that which is done in bigger, gaudier places adjacent to Chinatown. All food is prepared in the kitchen; there are no braziers at tables here. Chun (egg-battered beef), kalbi (sesame oil and garlic marinated grilled short rib), and stone pot bi bim bap (rice topped with vegetables, meat and a cooked egg that you mix with spicy red-bean jam) are just a few of the standouts.

Finally, if you want to prepare Middle Eastern dishes at home, Palm Mediterranean Market & Deli (932-5133) is a great place to buy the Levantine flat bread, lavash, delicious imported pistachios and the indispensable ingredient known as pomegranate molasses. If you have to ask, you don’t need it.

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