Lotte Plaza isn’t a mall, although you can find many of the same goods and services at this Chantilly supermarket as you can at a traditional rat maze of retailers. You can buy kitchen equipment, get your hair cut, even pay someone to massage your aching muscles. Lotte has a food court, too, but you may never reach it. You may get ambushed by other morsels first.
In a sense, you could say Lotte provides shoppers with something more exciting — even more exotic, depending on your original tribe — than a food court packed with the usual suspects from America’s corporate chain gangs. Lotte takes you on a gastronomic safari, and it’s often a thrill to stalk your meal along the fringes of this giant grocery store.
The hunt starts once you wind past the produce section, an international bazaar of fruits and vegetables, their tropical perfume sweetening the air as you skulk by. Three dining targets suddenly pop up, side-by-side-by-side, shooting-gallery style. You’ll come face to face with Chinese barbecued pork, Korean kimchi dumplings and Salvadoran pupusas bulging with cheese and loroco flower buds. There’s a sushi counter nearby, too, almost camouflaged.
From there, you can turn the corner and walk past the seafood department (where the blue mackerel sparkle like sapphires) and continue past the kitchenwares (if you’re able to, which I’m not) and head to the food court proper. You’ll soon have an encounter with north Indian street food, Korean rice-cake soup, Japanese donburi, Vietnamese pho — a whole gut-busting banquet of Asian foods prepared fresh daily.
In a matter of minutes, you’ll discover so many options to bag for lunch, you won’t know where to aim your appetite. What’s more, these options multiply on the weekend when Lotte fattens up its deli selections with seafood and mung-bean pancakes, slices of steamed pig’s feet, bean-paste desserts and even a station devoted to preparing fresh kimchi — the unapologetic kind, made for eaters with a healthy appreciation for fish sauce and spice.
So where to begin your adventure?
Try Punjabi by Nature in the food court. It’s a North Indian eatery owned by Rajiv Chopra, a restaurateur originally from Delhi. His counter staff may try to steer you to something pedestrian, like chicken tikka, but ignore their advice and select one of the Punjabi street foods, such as chole bhature. The plate consists of two airy rounds of fried bread, as pumped up as puffer fish. The chewy loaves come with onions and a dark stew of chickpeas, its heat stealthy and unstoppable. Equally impressive is the egg paratha, a flaky flatbread packed with potatoes and fried egg, which purrs until you pair it with a spicy, sour and salty achar pickle. This house kitty quickly turns big cat.
The food court can be a puzzling place. You can be slurping down tteok manduguk — a thin beef broth loaded with righteously chewy rice cakes, vermicelli and beef dumplings that yield to the slightest touch — from Big Mama Korean Cuisine, while Loggins and Messina belt out “Your Mama Don’t Dance” over the ’70s-heavy sound system. Small indoor birds, the kind naturalists call little brown jobs, may swoop down from the rafters to join you, particularly if you’re eating something fishy like the sweet, lush eel in the unagi donburi from Pho 888, a self-described “Japanese fusion restaurant.”
On the other side of Lotte, vendors must operate without tables and chairs nearby, a decided inconvenience when you order, say, a combo box at Best Little Cafe, whose superlative doesn’t apply to the service, which can be curt. All will be forgiven when you bite into the Chinese roast duck, whose pieces are hacked from a lacquered bird hanging in the display case, the flesh moist and well seasoned under its crackly skin. The shumai dumplings from Best Little Cafe may taste even better, their pork centers encased in a diaphanous wrapper that clings tightly to the meat. When dipped in the chili-pepper-spiked soy sauce, the dumplings almost dare you not to pop all six in a single sitting.
The next counter over also hawks dumplings — heartier, Korean-style ones called mandu. The kimchi mandu at Chin Jeong Jib are not the hand grenades you might expect, even if they’re shaped like the explosives. The fillings balance their kimchi pungency with funk suppressants such as crumbled pork, bean curd and bean sprouts. I’ll take these dumplings any day over the fried kimchi pancakes available on the weekends from Lotte’s in-house deli team; the oily, slightly spicy pancakes might fare better if the cooks don’t immediately entomb the rounds in cellphone, obliterating whatever crispiness they had from the fryer.
The cruelty of Lotte Plaza, if you want to call it that, is that the store places not one, but two, sweets shops near the entrance/exit. As you attempt to make your escape, you may catch some shiny objects on the periphery. They will likely be cardamom-scented kaju pista rolls wrapped in edible silver leaf, one of many treats available at Evergreen Sweets, an Indian dessert shop. Or they could be tiny anjeer cakes, vibrant, multi-colored confections sweet with figs. If you manage to leave Lotte without a box of candies from Evergreen, you must have the willpower of artificial intelligence.
Then again, do you have the willpower to also skip out on Le Pain Bakery, a French-influenced Asian sweet shop that sells taro buns, chestnut manju, madeleines and miniature teddy bear cookies (complete with dapper little bow ties)? I turn spineless around Le Pain’s baguette-shaped cakes, which the bakers call, with a graceless precision, “mango cream sticks.” I’d prefer they invoke a name that speaks directly to Westerners contemplating a run to Lotte: mango Twinkies.
13955 Metrotech Dr., Chantilly, Va., 703-488-6600, www.lotteplaza.com
Hours: Daily, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Wiehle-Reston East or Vienna, with about a
nine-mile trip to the plaza.
Prices: Varies by vendor.