Standing in front of the plastered drywall where a Chinese eatery once stood, I am filled with a feeling of loss and dread. This was the spot where Oriental Express, a staple of Crossroads mall operated for over twenty years. I don’t know when it opened, my own memories go back to high school. Being the only one of my friends who owned a car I was the transportation to this place that I loathed. I hated the mall, but I loved the orange chicken. Even when I worked downstairs at Olga’s kitchen and had a lunch break, if I had the money I went upstairs and ordered the orange chicken and fried rice.
Malls have been closing around the country in record numbers and I had a thought that even if Crossroads Mall closed that somehow this Chinese place would remain open, the loan survivor of an economic apocalypse that Hot Topic and Zale’s would fall prey to. It was during the lunch rush that a person quickly learned what to order while standing in line. As you approached the counter the same order would be repeated with the exception of some dietary idiot ordering steamed broccoli. “Orange chicken and fried rice to go” rolled off their tongues as if they were in a soviet bread line, the only difference, they desired the Styrofoam container they were being handed. For six dollars you could eat a meal and be set for the rest of the day. The staff would scoop a pile of chicken onto the platter and when you thought they were done they continued scooping more. I was always happy to see the employee glancing up as if their eyes asked a question. “Is this enough? How about this? Now?”
While I didn’t care for the mall growing up there was the movie theater next door and or the longest time it was the best place to see the latest film. Plans would include finding parking at the theater, traveling on foot down the grassy hill to the mall, ordering orange chicken, eating it as fast as possible to make sure we didn’t miss the film, and rushing back to take our seats. For the price of some milk duds or a small popcorn a person could have a meal and let it digest over the ninety minutes we watched Tom Cruise, Nicolas Cage, or Keanu Reeves save the world.
A few months ago, I took my daughter to the mall in an attempt to tire her out. Being two years old she has a desire to walk to the edge of the world without stopping. She never takes a nap and for some reason her battery never moves below full, bouncing around the crib a night shaking walls and hollering at the top of her lungs until she passes out. I figured that with the escalator and the circle pattern of the mall I could follow her around and wait until she tired out before taking her home. That never happened. Instead we ended up in the food court and I bought the orange chicken and fried rice. Everything was the same as it had been for the last twenty years. Bamboo chop sticks, fortune cookie, a cup of water, and my food in a white foam container. Zoey tried some chicken and rice. The sticky sauce was on her lips and she fought to take it off. She seemed indifferent to it and I thought that in a few years she would be asking to have some orange chicken as I had done as a kid. This would be the only time she would try it.
The plastered walls are accompanied by a sign that reads “please excuse our mess. We are remodeling.” There are other spots in the food court where places closed and walls were put up to hide the fact there are empty spaces that have not been filled. McDonald’s closed years ago and was never replaced. Subway had a short lifespan and at the moment Sbarro is the only place I can think of worth mentioning. Olga’s kitchen is still there, downstairs in its own little world, with a new menu that I have trouble reading, desiring the old sandwiches that I once made.
The mall is slowly dying and during this process it has lost the carousel and several stores that people loved over the years. We knew this would happen when Tinder Box was forced to close, the only place for smokers to find cigarettes on their lunchbreak. Once the mall was no longer concerned about what the consumer wanted it was game over. Sears no longer owns Craftsman tools. Hot topic sells T-shirts for things I don’t understand, they could be anything from bands to some anime cartoon I have never seen, I don’t know. Half of Spencer’s is a sex shop and the rest is cheap clothes that will fall apart as you walk out the door. Sears has been on the verge of filing bankruptcy for a few years now but that is not what worries me. If the mall was a living organism then it just lost its stomach. Oriental Express was the last place that offered something comparable to street food. It was the one thing that people making minimum wage could eat while at work and not lose half of their check.
As a poor young man, I can’t tell you how many times I took my girlfriend to get orange chicken at the mall, unable to afford anything else. Dates to movies would start there and then we would go to see the latest Star Wars flick that George Lucas decided to poop onto the screen. The traffic in Portage is so horrific on most days that if I found myself in the area, I would gravitate towards the mall for food rather than trying to be sideswiped on Westnedge. In Portage, Oriental Express was my go-to, the place that always got it right and I could count on to fill my stomach and not regret it later. Over the years I would run into other people who knew of the orange chicken and I would watch their eyes light up, saliva would build up in their mouths and a few minutes later they were off to enjoy a tray of food just on the mention of it. This was the 90s and we would joke that the cooks must sprinkle crack on it because once a person had it, they wouldn’t order anything else.
Waving my fist in the air and trying not to scream in my anger of losing such an institution I left the mall with my daughter and went to Mid-Town Fresh a few blocks away from my house. In the lunch area they were serving orange chicken. I knew this wouldn’t be close to what I was seeking and yet I ordered it anyway. The chicken was heavily breaded and the sauce was sprinkled with sesame seeds. It was a bastardized version of what I wanted but I thought I would give it a shot. People think that the secret to orange chicken is the sauce, but its not. This tasted more like orange peels and the breading was thick and spongy. The appeal of Oriental Express was that the sauce was so thick and heavy you would scoop the rice into it and mix it around to soak up the rest. I have not found a place yet that matched it and likely never will.
I doubt I will ever go to the mall again. I have no reason now. When your business relies on having chains that everyone else has what do you have to offer that is unique? There is a lifespan for everything. With the come and go reputation that the restaurant business has I should not be surprised that Oriental Express closed. I was shocked to hear that the London Grill closed. I was devastated that I would never be able to make a pilgrimage to Les Halle and see the place that Bourdain wrote about, but for some reason I thought that Oriental Express would always be there. If this isn’t a sign of how things are really going in this country then I wouldn’t know where else to look.
If anyone knows where to find the recipe for that orange chicken let me know.