The once-raucous crowds have not dwindled much at Asia Mall, the Eden Prairie food mecca that took the place of hunting and fishing retailer Gander Outdoors. It still draws a healthy one, three months after its soft opening.
For all the good reasons. In addition to six food retail shops, there's a supermarket with more variations of frozen dumplings, rice snacks and instant ramen than there are lottery tickets, and a "meat" room that will tame hardcore carnivores. As with other serious Asian markets, you'll find plenty of vegetables, herbs and spices, and many obscure varietals of them, too. Hence all the controlled jostling.
Approaching the mall, the smell of grease draws you in. It comes from Home Taste, the restaurant immediately to the right of the entrance. Ducks and chickens are displayed in the window; the fish tank is populated with clams the size of discs and lobsters putting on a show. You can get wayward with your ordering when your server leads you there with the enthusiasm of a Sotheby's auctioneer. Should you give in, opt for the lobster fried rice (market price), which fuses pieces of the shellfish carcass along with the dewy, flavorful sticky rice that soaks in all the juices. It's fine, but you may be more sated by the less lavish offerings.
Beef chow fun ($19.95) is just oily enough, and the noodles are springy and wholesome; the vibrant greens, either the sugar-snap peas or pea tips ($22.95), have the right bite; fat, tender slices of char siu, or barbecued pork ($15.95), are enveloped in a proper crimson glaze, and if you order duck along as a combo, notice the appealing welts that emerge from its skin. It's the sign of a good roast.
Service is endearingly crisp no matter where you come from, or the language you speak. "I move you to a big table. You order too much!" our server admonishes.
Don't fight it.
Upstairs, at Hot Pot City, you will be ordered to choose your combos as soon as you sit down. The calculus is easy if you accept that portions are small, servings are unlimited and all-you-can eat is an earnest proposition. For $40-ish — $32.95 on weekdays, $36.95 on weekends — you can order beef, lamb or pork rolled up like miniature scrolls, which you dip into a vat of steaming stock (there are six to choose from; go for Sichuan spicy and pork bone if it's your first time) along with seafood, vegetables and noodles. It's easy to get overwhelmed when ordering, especially when head-on shrimp, beef stomach, gizzard, wood-ear mushrooms, rice cakes and fried bread sticks are thrown in the mix, too. A somewhat functional robot server will deliver most of them quickly — a boon especially given the varying quality of ingredients. So that you won't leave hungry, before you finish, a human server will drop by, gently pressuring you to order more.
Quicker options are available outside Hot Pot City. Dosirak is small and at first glance appears to be a fast-casual joint, but if you peer through the service window, you'll see elderly Korean women with hairnets, deftly maneuvering woks and spooning ladles of the incandescent kimchi stews onto metal bowls. For $24.95 you can buy a (very) happy meal consisting of soondubu, a hot, bubbling, flavorful broth with pork belly and curdled tofu, along with ribs of your choice, purple rice, kimchi, spinach and bottled water — all served on a metal tray. Taking this to go would be an injustice to the broth, which loses body in transit. While you dine at their dedicated seating area, don't miss the bibimbap served properly in a stone pot. Be patient; toward the bottom of the pot, the rice will soon coagulate into a thin, crisp wafer, reminiscent of the socarrat of a paella.
Next door, Legendary Spice, another quick option, vends Sichuan classics and mostly matches the quality you'd expect from its sister outlet in Stadium Village. "Top 20 Picks" is the right place to start. Mapo tofu ($15.95) is a familiar comfort, with dice-sized tofu lavished with enough chile oil to seethe, as is twice-cooked pork ($17.95), a gamy take on soft-bacon. You'll need rice.
Yes, there's another offshoot of Pho Mai, and the pho here is among the better options in the Twin Cities. But the line can be discouraging; your best bet is to dine at their Dinkytown location. There's also Bober Tea, Uni Uni Bubble Tea, the Korean hot dog stand CrunCheese and Mochi Dough, where the line is long but moves quickly. It is worth the short wait, if not to experience their splendidly chewy textures and flavors (horchata, taro, among others) then at least for the Instagram.
12160 Technology Drive, Eden Prairie; open daily from 10 a.m.-10 p.m., asiamallmn.com.
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.