Cinnabon appetit: Our favorite mall food memories

Illustration for article titled Cinnabon appetit: Our favorite mall food memories
Screenshot: Stranger Things | Netflix

Hey, you guys remember malls? Those places with the Spencer Gifts and Fashion Bugs and K-B Toys? Remember how we used to fart around there for a few hours while dad melted into the massage chairs at The Sharper Image?

Boy, we love loved malls (gee thanks, and we loved eating at mall food courts. We loved that as kids, we could pick from a dozen food stalls, when the idea of choice felt very grown up. We loved that the mall foods were a straight line of fats and sugars into the brain’s pleasure center. We loved the theater of some freckly teen rolling Cinnabons.

After seeing the trailer for Stranger Things’ forthcoming season on Netflix, our team was inspired to reminisce on our favorite mall food memory. We invite you to tell us yours in the comments below.


Johnny Rockets

I grew up in northern New Jersey, perhaps the mall capital of the world. I had my choice of no fewer than four malls within a 20-minute drive, but I always chose the one with the Johnny Rockets in it. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Johnny Rockets is a retro diner-themed burger chain, whose appeal to me is, in hindsight, bizarre, because New Jersey is home to hundreds of real diners. The draw wasn’t the food, really, or even the tabletop jukeboxes, but the social scene. The mall’s Johnny Rockets was the place to be on a Friday night when I was in middle school, and I begged my parents to drive me when I’d saved up enough allowance money to afford a burger and shake. Dinner typically used up most of my measly savings, so I’d spend the rest of the mall visit lingering wistfully outside the Limited Too, staring at the glitter-green-apple lip glosses I’d have to wait until next time to purchase. [Kate Bernot]

Surf City Squeeze


My first non-babysitting job was in a mall, at a Barnes and Noble, where they’d cash your paycheck at the register so you could just immediately spend your whole check on books. It was a wonderful and extremely expensive job, not least because I also spent a lot of money on Panera Bread soups, baked ziti from Sbarro, and, pretty much daily, a smoothie from Surf City Squeeze. I always got smoothies with fancy additives mixed in, because I am an extremely easy mark, and somehow thought that gulping down bee pollen and “pure proline amino acids” would make me a beautiful healthy paragon of grown-up fitness. High school was a strange time, but hey, those things were tasty. [Allison Shoemaker]

Bourbon chicken


Nothing fascinates me more at a mall than the tradition of food court workers handing out toothpick samples of something called “bourbon chicken.” The food stall would have some vaguely New Orleanian name (“Cajun,” “Mardi Gras,” “Bourbon Street”), and the workers handing out the free samples would almost always be Chinese. So many questions, starting with: How did my countryman get involved with this mall food staple? Later would I realize that “bourbon chicken” is as authentic to New Orleans as a California roll, but by then it was too late: I love the grilled dark meat chicken pieces slathered with that sweet, decidedly bourbon-less glaze. [Kevin Pang]

Orange Julius

You never forget your first mall: Mine was Ford City, at 76th and Cicero in Chicago. Sure, later I ascended to the glamorous confines of the Orland Square Mall and Chicago Ridge Mall, but Ford City, with its underground labyrinth Peacock Alley, is the first such shopping center experience I can remember (I even got lost in Peacock Alley once, becoming one of those kids looking for their mom over the loudspeaker). And on my Ford City trips, I always got a treat I’ve never had before or since, for whatever reason: the Orange Julius. The frothy concoction of orange juice and powdered egg whites, preferably topped with whipped cream for a slushy Dreamsicle-like drink, is imprinted in my DNA as forever tied to those early days of Ford City shopping. Now that Orange Julius has been sucked up by Dairy Queen, I should probably try one this summer, just to see how many memories it inspires. [Gwen Ihnat]


Gwen Ihnat is the Editorial Coordinator for The A.V. Club.

Kevin Pang was the founding editor of The Takeout, and director of the documentary For Grace.

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves TV, bourbon, and overanalyzing social interactions. Please buy her book, How TV Can Make You Smarter (Chronicle, 2020). It’s short!

Kate Bernot is a freelance writer and a certified beer judge. She was previously managing editor at The Takeout.

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Antonio Gramsci

Wow, nobody said Auntie Annie’s pretzels???? What are you people, on DOPE?

Kevin, could not agree with you more: Bourbon chicken, whatever the hell it was, was insanely good. And cheap. And plentiful. Thank you, Chinese people, for doing that for me for many years.

Before there were free-standing Chick-fil-A stores, the only place you could get their addictive chicken (and before you knew of the awful homophobia) was in a mall. So I will add this to the list.