What shopping malls were to the 1980s, food halls are the 2010s. I mean, if "The Blues Brothers" were filmed today, they would have to restage the famous car chase inside a food hall, where John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd would plow over a farm-to-table bistro named the Fetching Pig, mow down an organic kombucha counter and upend a fresh produce stand where lumbersexuals with long beards and flannel shirts sell garlic scapes for $8 a pound.
Aykroyd's deadpan one-liner would have to be rewritten, "The new tomatoes are in early this year."
We all know why food halls have supplanted the glass-and-steel suburban jungles where mall rats and power walkers once roamed: Everyone shops online these days. Amazon is our floating shopping mall in the cloud. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.) Millennials want experiences, which means a food hall is just the place for a generation that's searching for a good bowl of ramen, not a beer bong from Spencer's.
Like shopping malls before them, food halls are tailored to the communities they serve. It's no surprise, then, that the Block, a food hall in Annandale, favors modern riffs on Asian classics, or Asian twists on American classics. Think Vietnamese banh mi, Thai noodle soups, Taiwanese shaved "snow" and quesadillas with wok-fried chicken. Nearly 20 percent of the population in Fairfax County, home to Annandale, claims an Asian or Pacific Islander heritage.
Food and drink are available around the perimeter of the 5,000-square-foot Block, an industrial-chic space, heavy on hard communal tables, ideal for cleaning up any Cinnamon Toast Crunch ice cream that misses its target. Yes, the Block is big with families. The adults can order a cocktail from the Block Bar, and the kids can get jacked up on SnoCream, a Taiwanese confection that caters to palates both foreign and domestic. Collectively, the place merits two stars, though individually some components fall short of that rating.
Arturo Mei is the founder of the SnoCream Company. He's also the one largely responsible for transforming a former pool hall into the Block, with a little help from his friend Peter Choi and their landlord. Patterned after food halls in Asia, the Block has adopted a name that follows its function: The place organizes a daily block party for those who travel to this Annandale strip center, where the massive Kmart next door offers a glimpse into the kind of shopping that Americans cherished during the previous century.
The place is infectious, driven in part by the diverse crowds, the pop music soundtrack and the clatter of jelly roll pans/serving trays. It's a joyful noise that rattles around this concrete-and-metal space, as insistent as a street preacher. But it can be loud, approaching 80 decibels, which is fine if you want to slouch on the living-room furniture in the corner and watch the game projected onto a wall. It's not so great for, well, listening to phone messages.
Mei owns two spots in the Block, SnoCream and Munch, that focus on frozen confections. But he's also a franchisee in the Pokéworks chain. His location greets you upon entering the food hall: To your immediate right, there's a counter that specializes in poke, the Hawaiian raw-fish preparation that has recently suffered the indignity of fast-casual customization, a disease that has reached epidemic proportions here on the mainland. One option allows you to wrap your fish in a burrito, rather than placing it atop a traditional rice bowl, a deviation that must make Hawaiians roll their eyes and mutter, "haole." (Look it up.)
Another option is to have your fish — or, ahem, tofu — served on "poke noodles," this tangle of pasta made with kale. The noodles, I must confess, are stupid-good, at once toothsome and earthy. All the same, I'll stick with the classic bowl, with its firm ahi tuna over white rice, garnished with green and sweet onions, seaweed, sesame seeds, ginger and chile flakes. The bowl emphasizes the simple pleasure of contrasts, cool and warm, spicy and sweet.
Balo Kitchen and Roots occupy a pair of spaces in the back, where they share an open kitchen. Both revel in bold, meaty preparations, which you can read as a giant razz at those prissy poke bowls.
Started by a hospitality newcomer, Roots peddles the street foods of Thailand, including pad thai, the Chinese-style stir-fry that has launched a thousand noodle carts in Bangkok. The pad thai here downplays the hot, sour and fishy components of the dish, zeroing in on its salty and savory characteristics. Americanized, yes, but delicious all the same. Skip the chicken skewers and barbecued chicken, both lukewarm and undistinctive. The real star is the "boat noodle soup," often called floating market noodle soup because it's sold from long tail boats along Bangkok's waterways. This version, thickened with pig's blood, is dark and brooding and deceptive in its ferocity, the Hamlet of soups.
My favorite stand is Balo Kitchen, an Asian comfort food concept developed by Huy Nguyen, co-founder of the PhoWheels food truck. Balo takes more calculated risks than its peers at the Block.
Exhibit A: Flaky roti canai flatbread subs for corn tortillas in the fried chicken tacos, a terrific and full-throated bite. Exhibit B: The coated fries are paired with soft, sous-vided nuggets of pork belly, whose perfume transforms this common snack into something that tastes carved straight from the pig. Exhibit C: The short rib pho French dip, a high-concept contrivance that makes sense only when you stuff the thick slabs of beef into the accompanying sub roll (a crusty loaf slathered with Vietnamese mayo), add the garnishes and dip the meaty beast into the concentrated pho broth. The whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts.
Balo Kitchen also handles the food at the Block Bar, including the lip-smacking caramel fish sauce wings, which announce their presence from a few feet away. The bar is the hall's Achilles' heel, an underperforming watering hole where the cocktails lack the craft they claim. The Naughty by Nature, a silver-tequila-based libation with strawberry puree and Sriracha, tastes like a fruity margarita strung out on hot
Then again, the mix-and-match frozen desserts at Munch and SnoCream rely on another dubious recipe developer: you. Take a risk on a cross-cultural concoction, like the ube ice cream at Munch, a purple yam confection whose sweet starchiness benefits from a drizzle of Nutella. Or maybe the pandan shaved ice at SnoCream, a teal-tinted dessert that tastes like a cross between toasted rice, milk, coconut and grass. Yes, grass. Give it a shot. Tastes evolve, after all. America used to be in love with shopping malls.
Tom Sietsema returns next week.
4221 John Marr Dr., Annandale.
Open: 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Wednesday; and 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.
Prices: Prices vary per vendor, but fall between $4 and $18 for all dishes.
Sound check: 76 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.