Sustaining the shopper

Perhaps it’s a sign of maturity, or maybe it’s just the onset of age-related crankiness. I could accept starting up with the Christmas decorations and related marketing frenzy the day after Thanksgiving. I didn’t even mind it that much in mid-November. But, when the Christmas season crept up to the day after Halloween, I started to get upset. Four weeks is plenty of time in which to get your shopping done, folks. Enough already.

But shop we must, and if we go to the mall we’re going to be there for the duration. Unless we’ve packed trail mix and a couple of Luna bars, we’re going to have to eat there, too. Luckily, most mall food courts have progressed somewhat from the days in which all the offerings resembled airplane chow: bland, starchy and fatty. When we’re enduring a marathon shopping session, we need food that is going to sustain us, not make us want to slip into a coma.

I focused on the Galleria at Roseville because, first, it has a lot of parking and a nice mix of both standard and upscale shops. I could blow my entire Christmas budget at Renovation Hardware, by snapping up their miniature tin toy ornaments and hot chocolate mix. Second, the Galleria has a carousel right next to the food court, and most importantly, the mall has men’s, women’s and family bathrooms. If you’ve ever been shopping with a young child of the opposite sex, you know how great this is. Once children are past 6 years old, they can’t go to the bathroom with you, and sending them alone can be pretty scary.

The Galleria’s food court has a good selection of the standards, including Dairy Queen and McDonald’s. Some incredibly doughy pizza is on tap at Villa Pizza, available by the pie or the slice ($2.29-$3.69). Philly-style steak sandwiches are available at Steak Escape, as well as smashed potatoes with your choice of toppings. Asian cuisines are represented by Hibachi-San and Panda Express. Neither defies the truism that mass-produced Asian food is best avoided. The Japanese purveyor offers chicken coated in teriyaki, mirin or sesame sauces, with not much to distinguish between them.

Panda Express offers a variety of chicken entrees, most coated with breading and sickly-sweet glazes. I opted for a combo plate ($4.89) with Mongolian beef, orange-flavored chicken and steamed rice. Although none of it was very good, there was a lot of it. The beef was edible but essentially tasteless and was served with button mushrooms, onions and red peppers. The meat had been coated with a cornstarch glaze that made it tender but also slimy to the tongue. The orange chicken, one of the more popular items, was as dreadful as I’d feared. The crispy batter had long since surrendered to the sticky, sweet-hot glaze that coated it. These unrecognizable morsels of chicken were the kind of ersatz Chinese that gives the cuisine a bad name.

Fortunately, there were a few bright spots. Two of the food court’s vendors featured fresh sandwiches and main-course salads, and both had long lines on a recent visit. California Crisp offered salads, including Chinese chicken and Caesar ($4.79-$5.79), and both sandwiches and panini served on ciabatta bread with pesto ($5.29-$5.59). Paradise Bakery offered pasta salads and a nice variety of sandwiches, including southwestern chicken, ham and cheese, and turkey cranberry ($6.35). Its menu also featured a good selection of cookies ($1.20) and muffins ($1.75).

Just past the food court was the best place to eat within the Galleria. Tucked into the corner next to the carousel was Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill, which had its own dining area, anchored by an aquarium. Twenty years ago, Ralph Rubio convinced a fish-taco counterman to give him his recipe. Rubio franchised the fish taco in San Felipe all over the Southwest and now claims to have sold more than 50 million.

There was a lot to like at Rubio’s, from the fresh chips and the salsa bar to the saucy pinto and black beans. Reflecting its California roots, Rubio’s offered a lot of more heart-healthful items, including grilled chicken and fish and carne asada. The menu even had a section named HealthMex—items with less fat and fewer calories. Health-conscious folks would do well to order those items because even the grilled burritos came loaded with cheese and guacamole. The Baja Grill carne asada burrito ($5.25) was huge and packed with strips of somewhat chewy meat, along with the cheese, guacamole and fresh salsa. Oddly, the beans were served on the side with a sprinkling of cotija cheese. Were we supposed to add them to the burrito? They weren’t really tasty enough to eat by themselves. The salsas, especially the chipotle, were tasty but not searingly hot.

But it was Rubio’s “world-famous” fish tacos ($1.89) that were the real standout. Rubio’s took pollock and dressed it in a super-crispy beer batter and then nestled the fish in a corn tortilla with a white sauce and shredded cabbage. Squeeze some lime over this dish and take a bite. You’ll be transported instantly to the docks at Ensenada, without that lingering fear of contracting dysentery.

And, best of all, when you are really, really sick of shopping, you can drown your sorrows with a Pacifico beer or a lime or strawberry margarita.