It's a Mall World

As human beings, we are built for adaptation. On both a micro and macro scale, this knack for going with the flow, for finding solutions, for reading prevailing trends and riding them into the ground is what has elevated us above all the llamas and spore molds and ocelots and dinosaurs who couldn't recognize a good thing when they saw it coming.

In the beginning, there was the whole notion of coming down out of the trees -- first accomplished, no doubt, by some hairy proto-human who fell off a low branch while trying to impress a girl, then had to act like the ground was where he'd wanted to be in the first place. After that, it was walking upright like all the cool Neanderthals ("Look, Bob, Larry walk upright. Larry eat woolly mammoth steaks on Friday night. Why you not more like Larry?"), then binocular vision, then the invention of fire, pants and cell phones. According to an article I read recently, the human index finger has long been the dominant digit -- the one we use for pointing, performing fine tasks, picking our noses, whatever. But now, what with the advent of text messaging, PDAs and the PlayStation, the thumb -- once the thing that made us better than those uppity dolphins and chipmunks, evolutionarily speaking -- has become the finger that kids use for everything except expressing their displeasure at the way some people drive. And in the current issue of Newsweek, there's an article about librarians -- long in a funk over the decline in reading for pleasure among both kids and adults -- who've begun stocking graphic novels on their shelves as a way to bring people back to the stacks. The theory is that people like pictures. Words? Not so much. But words and pictures together? Well, that's the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of the literary world. And all of a sudden, the libraries are full of more than just child molesters and sleeping old people drooling on back issues of the Utne Reader.

It's all part of human adaptation. And if Bob can learn to walk upright and librarians can embrace comic books, and a device like the PlayStation 2 (which seems expressly designed to make me miss deadlines) can overcome generations of index-finger predominance, then we -- as intelligent, adaptable and not at all stick-in-the-mud-ish gastronauts and foodistas -- must come to terms with the roadside shopping plaza as the next great development in the restaurant game.

Sue Smith is a strip-mall survivor, having cemented a double-fronted position in Aurora twenty years ago and never backing down. Hers are not the oldest shoppette restaurants in Denver, but New Orient alone has lasted longer than Indigo, Vega, Clair de Lune, Bistro Vendome (under its original owners) and Adega combined. And together, New Orient and Viaggio (see review) present a unified Italo-Vietnamese axis in a neighborhood that has long been a petri dish of gastronomy -- a rich medium for the development of both cooks and cuisine.

This is the power of the strip mall, the ethnic enclave, in a big city. With manageable rents, workable spaces and few zoning complications, these spots allow a (relatively) easy entry into the business for small-time operators and provide a thin cushion against instantaneous failure with their anchor properties, ample parking and good traffic flow. At your average shoppette mom-and-pop, 200-cover Saturdays are not an absolute requirement for survivability. As a matter of fact, a 200-cover Saturday would kill just about any of them except Cafe Jordano (11068 West Jewell Avenue in Lakewood), which has grown up to be able to handle such a crush.

Then again, extinction has always been a necessary event in the strip-mall life cycle. Regatta Plaza is a flashpoint in the culinary border wars, a stretch of cement and blacktop where Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants have shared the same kitchen, where Mexican carnicerías and Indian groceries and Cajun buffets have crouched shoulder-to-shoulder, offering the athletic diner the ability to make a meal of dosa, followed by pho, followed by burritos and capped off with tamarind candies and mango juice for dessert. In this particular mall, the 12200 East Cornell address has rolled over three times in recent memory, going from Maruti Narayan's (one of the best Indian restaurants in the city) to Denver Woodlands (which wound up a proof-of-concept experiment for an operation that will soon reopen in greener pastures in Castle Pines), then Boudreaux's Bayou Buffet, which closed after only a couple of months.

Across Aurora's Asian triangle formed by Parker, Iliff and Havana, these small dramas are played out almost daily. Places like Dozens and Johnny's Diner are the rare, freestanding points of stability in a neighborhood where great Korean restaurants (Han Kang) huddle up against old-world meat markets (Sir Loin Meat & Fresh Seafood) and do trade alongside piano bars, Vietnamese pho joints where no English is spoken and Japanese karaoke spots where I'm not welcome even if I walk in with hundies clenched in my teeth. On Leetsdale, in and around Russian Plaza (ground zero for piroshki, serious vodka drinking and DVD copies of The Godfather dubbed in Russian), the Koreans have lost a toehold with the closure of A Gu Rang Guk Soo Rang, but Old Siam, formerly Pearl of Siam, offers Thai, Chinese and Japanese food, plus a full sushi bar; the backstreet markets are thriving, and places like Les Delices de Paris keep jamming themselves into dark, skinny spaces between the liquor stores and vacuum-repair shops, surviving on word of mouth, wonderful service and killer pastries.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan