The Hidden Delicious Mysteries of the Santa Monica Place Food Court

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When the brand new Santa Monica Place opened up back in August everybody seemed pretty focused on all the new restaurants.  Not me, though.  I’m strictly a food court man.  Sure, I’d sneak a dinner in at Pizza Antica, and I guess I’m mildly intrigued by the dim sum at Xino.  But for lunch, if I’m anywhere near a mall I find it hard to avoid the food court.  In fact, food courts are kind of the perfect group lunch- a fact I discovered as a child when my brother, father and I used to spend Tuesday nights at the Dadeland Mall Court in Miami.  No arguing over where we were going to eat dinner when the food court was the destination.  I could have my lo mein (made to order in a wok behind the counter!) from the random Chinese restaurant whose name I can’t remember, my brother could get his matzoh ball soup from Bain’s Deli, and my dad could get whatever he wanted (I can’t really remember what was in his rotation.)

I’m all growns up now, but the same theory still applies. Food court with co-workers is the perfect compromise.  Sally from accounting can enjoy her boring salad or sandwich, while you decide between crappy Chinese food, crappy Japanese stir fry, or Hot Dog on a Stick.  (Fresh squeezed lemonade and a corn dog FTW!) So last week, when I decided to meet a chicken loving friend in Santa Monica for lunch, there was one perfect option that stood out from the rest:  the Santa Monica Place Food Court.  And even though I usually go straight for the cheap Chinese food (old habits die hard), we managed to discover a few hidden secrets that aren’t obvious from an intial walk-around.

If you work or live in Hollywood or Culver City you’re probably familiar with Pinches Tacos- which opened its third L.A. location in the SaMo Place Food Court.  It’s not as interesting as Tinga (on La Brea), or as universally loved and respected as Loteria ,but it’s still a quality lunch option- and waaaay better than the typical Mexican lunch food court option (I’m looking at you Baja Fresh.)  My buddy ordered the chicken burrito, which came out looking a lot like a carnitas burrito… so when he returned it, they assured him it was just dark meat chicken but offered to swap it out with their off-the-menu chicken mole burrito- which is made with white meat.

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Normally I’d make fun of such a friend (oh wait… I actually did make fun of him) but the truth is, his being weirded out by the carnitas’ish dark meat lead to the exciting chicken mole burrito discovery!  (Which was delicious, btw.)

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While he was busy taking care of his burrito business I was eyeing what was going on at the Japanese stir fry station.  As tempting as the free samples from the ubiquitous Japanese stir fry station always are, the variety of the “choose 3 things” Chinese food station always manages to win me over.  But there was something about this place that really intrigued me (spoiler: it was the mountain of food they seemed to be piled into every container on the counter.)  When I asked the guy behind the cash register what those people were ordering to be served Mount Osaka in styrofoam, he said it was probably just the “double meat” option, which can be added to any order for $1.19. 

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In the 2 or 3 seconds I paused to contemplate this information, he decided to interject this bombshell (in a rather hushed voice, like he was hiding it from his manager or the cops)  “if you really want to go for the giant order you can get the super secret beef and chicken with double chicken.”  I quickly glanced up at the menu and realized beef and chicken wasn’t a combo option on the menu.  “Exactly,” he said.  “It’s like an In N Out Burger secret menu thing.”  Well, that’s all I needed to hear.  I’ll have that double meat with the extra meat thing.

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A quick word of advice:  if you are ordering this to go (i.e. you will have to carry it back to your office or car) don’t.  It’s freakin’ heavy, and you should probably eat it there… or at least eat enough of it there to get it to a manageable enough weight to then lift it, and carry it back to your car or office. And yes, there are vegetables underneath that pile o’ meat, so you can feel good about that.  Nevermind the fact that they are drenched in oil, and a thick and super sweet teriyaki sauce.  We’re at a food court!  This is supposed to fun.  Was it worth the $9.30 this monstrosity cost me?  Yes.  Yes it was.

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This one isn’t really a secret, but I feel compelled to point it out because if you’re like me you might outright dismiss a place called “Charlie Kebab”. The “Middle Eastern” option at the Santa Monica Place food court is Perisan, and serves ghormeh sabzi… a dish I tried for the very first time at the newly open Attari Grill in Westwood.  Its $10 price tag makes it a bit expensive for a food court lunch, but it looks damn good.  And the three different basmati rice options look super delicious as well (regular, dill, and saffron).  This one will have to wait for another visit.

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Finally… the Chinese food.  (Because what’s a food court lunch without some cheap Chinese food action!) While Midtown Lunch tends to stand firmly against giant fast food chains, I’m actually an unapologetic lover of Panda Express (did I mention that old habits die hard?)  So I was pretty disappointed to see that SaMo place had gone with Manchu Wok, a chain this site has a past history with. (Think: bad rebound relationship.)   And yet on my first visit to the mall back in August, they were handing out a free sample of some kind of sweet and garlic’y chicken that was actually stand-out awesome.  (That’s how they getcha!)  I don’t know if I was hungry, or it was just the power of the free sample, but I really felt like Panda Express’ orange chicken might have some competition.  Sadly, though, I was told they only serve their garlic chicken on Wednesdays!!!  So… I went back yesterday to check it out.  (Naturally.)

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Two item combo, honey garlic chicken and orange chicken plus the rice/noodle combo.  The lady behind the counter said they carried the honey chicken four days a week, not just one, so I don’t know who to believe!  What I do know is the lunch was actually not that good.  (Don’t worry Panda Express!  I’m coming home to papa…)  Maybe it was a different chicken they were giving out?  Maybe I was just delusional about it being good in the first place?  In any case, I don’t think this particular mystery will ever be solved.  And the world may be better off for it.

Santa Monica Place Food Court, 395 Santa Monica Place.  Website

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4 Comments

  • haha i still have panda express every once in a while for a guilt-ridden visit. i’m pretty sure i’d be flogged by foodie friends for admitting that. i guess we’ll have to keep each other company zach

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    Awesome shout out to Dadeland Mall food court… Panda has gone down a bit but I’ll still eat it all day long.

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    I’ve become a big fan of Sarku too! Love that Double Your Meat deal!

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    Despite the bad review, I had to try Manchu to see if it compares to PE, and no it doesn’t even come close, everything comes drenched in a too sweet sauce and the portions are small for a 2 item combo for $8.19 with tax. PE is better,(never great) and only costs $6.57.

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