Don’t skip the mall food courts in Asia


On a recent trip to Hong Kong to cover the opening of a luxury hotel, I found myself arriving at the property ravenous after a 24-hour journey.

Not an unusual state of affairs for me after a long flight, but I was concerned. I was pulling up to the hotel driveway at nearly 7 p.m. and I’d never been to Hong Kong before. I didn’t feel like doing too much schlepping, but I wanted to have a fantastic first-ever meal in a city known for its culinary legacy. I also knew that splurging on on-site dining was out of the question; one of the venues at the hotel was a two-Michelin-starred dim sum restaurant and another was a Nobu – both beyond the reach of my budget.

Imagine my delight when I found out that the hotel is attached to a high-end shopping mall. In Asia, a continent of immense commercial centers packed with activities that go beyond shopping, where there is a mall, there is salvation: the food court.

Food courts get a bad rap. Most people envision crowded, noisy places where greasy fast food is king. In Asia, food courts are crowded and noisy, sure, but they aren’t overrun with fast-food chains. And as someone who grew up in Manila until the age of 11 and has lived in New Jersey since, I’m unashamed to admit that I am a fan.

I genuinely find joy in making my way to the basement of a shopping center to see what culinary treasures await, especially if I’m trying to penny-pinch. The mall is one of the first places I go to when I’m back in Manila and want to feast on food that I can’t get in the United States, like a hot dog-in-a-bun at Jollibee (Filipino hot dogs are somehow different from American ones) or puto bumbong, purple rice cakes served with butter and grated coconut flakes.

If you’re looking to “eat local,” I can’t imagine a more affordable and more authentic choice, especially in Asia where malls are full of the very people who live in that city.

I particularly love food courts when I’m traveling alone. The casual, lively energy is more reassuring than the atmosphere of a fine-dining restaurant, where I’ve never been able to shake off that feeling of awkwardness for being the only person alone at a table in a room full of couples and groups.

In Hong Kong, K11 Musea Mall is fancier than most. Top architectural firms were hired to create this retail wonderland, where brands including Alexander McQueen and Loewe have set up boutiques. The basement-level Food Playground looks just as expensive with its LED lighting and mix-and-match mid-century modern seating. But, thankfully, the 10 vendors opted for more-approachable prices. And as I walked past stands plying kimbap, ramen, dumplings and Korean corn dogs, I learned that my dinner of choice should cost no more than $15.

At Azores Express, a Macanese stall, I picked up a steaming-hot casserole layered with rice, pork chop and oozy cheese, plus water and fried potato wedges for about $12. Was it a gourmet meal? No, but it was tasty, fortifying and a dish I’ve never seen in all my travels. And as I sat there digging in, I watched families, selfie-ing friend groups and young couples tucking into their own Sunday night mall treats. I was thankful to have this very familiar dining experience.

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Chadner Navarro is Manila-born, New Jersey-based writer who covers travel, food and design. You can follow him on Instagram: @chadner.



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