I’m sure it’s looked down on, in the larger food-writing world, to review a restaurant in the mall.
Shopping malls are an anachronism, culturally replaced by the trendier — and generally less corporate — versions that cropped up inside rehabbed warehouses, textile mills and the like. Sure, I spent plenty of time in one as a kid growing up in the suburbs with no other outlet, but as soon as I had other options, I dipped.
I generally regard mall food courts as the same sort of bland nothingness you’d find in an airport. The mall has about as much cultural cache as Paula Deen; somehow they’re still around, and everybody remembers them, but we cringe a little when we think of them. Foodies and food writers, who often trade on hipsterdom despite allegedly abhorring the idea, would just as soon be caught wearing JNCO Jeans as eating — let alone celebrating — anything at a mall food court.
But that’s totally stupid.
In the back right corner of the third-floor food court at the almost dystopian Four Seasons Mall in Greensboro — past the Dairy Queen, Moe’s, Chick-fil-A, Subway and other (mostly horrible) chains — there’s a Latin street food restaurant.
That was not a typo.
Sofrito doesn’t advertise itself in person as an amalgam of cuisines from Latin America, but its Facebook page and official mall tab do. When I showed up the other day working off a tip from my friend Maurine, the two people behind the counter at Sofrito were Colombian and Salvadoran.
But the menu has roots across the region: ropa vieja and a Cuban pork sandwich hailing from the quasi-communist island nation, arepas and bacon-wrapped “Sonoran” hot dogs (a Mexican state along the US border). There’s pollo guisado, a chicken stew that apparently has roots or versions around the Caribbean including Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Patrons can order Baja fish tacos, pick between five kinds of salsa including a pink one or the house that pairs with the Colombian empanadas, build their own burrito for under $5 or even walk away with two hot dogs, fries and a drink for a five spot.
When I tried the pozole rojo — a red soup with chickpeas and meat — at Mi Casita farther west on Gate City Boulevard recently, it was the first time I could remember seeing it on a menu at a Mexican or Latin restaurant in the Triad. But it’s available at Sofrito too, handwritten at the bottom of the venue’s alternating menu.
What’s more, my friend who told me about this place is actually vegan. She ordered the $5 veggie plate with fried plantains (delicious), broccoli, zucchini, onions, rice and black beans, and has insisted twice since that I check the restaurant out.
When I did, I couldn’t ignore the incredibly cheap smaller items, swinging for the plantains and a chicken empanada. I almost ordered the veggie plate, but figured I could predict its contents easily enough and decided to follow my heart.
When the Styrofoam takeout box of carne asada fries arrived, with a creamy greenish sauce drizzled atop the beef and a sprinkle of onion and tomato, I realized that I could probably never go back to the Canadian cheese curd-covered fries known as poutine. And I’m totally cool with that.
The carne asada fries were heavy, and about as far from the limited vegan options as I could go. But they were deeply satisfying, the kind of thing that I’d feel at home eating at a baseball stadium. A fork is required – this is the mall, yes, but I still have some decency – and as I stabbed at the $6 entrée, I wondered how much better these fries would taste from a street cart outside a bar at 2 a.m.
My friend Sam, who tagged along, picked the tostones, and I’m glad he did. The mashed and fried green plantain cakes tasted much as they did at the Dominican Mangu Bar & Grill as well as Cuban Miami restaurant in Winston-Salem, and the Puerto Rican Empanadas Boriquen food truck in Greensboro. But what made this special was the sofrito — the restaurant’s namesake and a common green sauce generally made with tomatoes, onion, garlic, peppers and cilantro. Sam spread some of the sofrito on one of his tostones, added a scoop of beef and chopped tomato, and passed it my way.
Despite Maurine’s recommendation, Sam and I both set our expectations low. Again, we were at the mall, where we could see candy machines that looked like they hadn’t been touched since we hit puberty and where Eagle-Eye Cherry’s 1997 hit “Save Tonight” actually played across the complex’s speakers while we walked out. What could honestly come from such an experience?
But we agreed – Sofrito is filling an important and generally overlooked niche in the market, a hole that exists in the city generally and not just at the food court, and doing a bang-up job, too. I wouldn’t put it above Greensboro’s Taste of Cuba, but Sofrito can hold its own with plenty of restaurants in the region, surpassing the Salvadoran and Mexican food at El Migueleno in Greensboro and remaining on par with Winston-Salem’s Mambo Café, where diners can enjoy Honduran food, among other options.
I am not about to start hanging out at the mall. But if I’m feeling gluttonous or nostalgic, the carne asada fries and the Penny Hardaway T-shirt at a sports store we passed may be enough to pull me back in. Sofrito is not only good enough to require a stop for anyone who plans to be at the mall — it warrants a trip all its own.
If you’re a true foodie or just genuinely miss the ’90s, the experience is a must.