The word agoraphobia, an aversion to wide-open spaces, is built from two Latin root words; “phobia” means fear, of course, but “agora” translates literally as “public marketplace.”
Those afflicted might want to avoid Coeur d’Alene’s Silver Lake Mall completely, for these days it is as wide open and empty as the rolling wheat fields of the mighty Palouse. On my recent trek through, the atmosphere was so tranquil, I swear I could hear a gentle wind whistling through the corridors and the sound of crickets emanating from somewhere inside Macy’s.
It’s not really the ideal state of existence for a shopping hub, but the mall did have quite a few glory years. A brass band performed as smiling mall officials cut the ribbon in 1989, and people came in droves. I preferred lurking in the grittier climes of University City, but the new mall did have its perks, including a lively video arcade, surreal fashion shows and elementary school art exhibitions, and most importantly, a fairly decent food court. Finally, an Orange Julius in Coeur d’Alene! It sat proudly with Bob’s Pizza, some long-forgotten burger place, a Cinnabon knock-off, and the other two lone survivors remaining today, Taco Time and Flaming Wok.
It had been probably a decade since I last visited, and there were a few stores that piqued my interest, but I got the vibe that the mall was in a state of depression. I passed by customer-less shops on my way to Radio Shack and the clerks leered at me desperately like they hadn’t seen another human face in some time. Granted, it was only noon on a sleepy February Monday, but back in my day, the place would’ve been hopping with delinquent kids cutting class to shoplift CDs at Musicland and bored housewives scavenging for off-the-rack fashions.
Hunger beckoned as I made my purchase and escaped the Radio Shack salesman before he could try and hook me into testing out new gadgets. I wasn’t feeling up to the consequences of either Taco Time or Orange Julius, and it seemed I had somewhat fond memories of Flaming Wok, so I stepped up to the hot glass display case and began deciding what might look edible.
Express Chinese joints are all basically interchangeable. Items are available a la carte, but most people opt for either the two or three entrée combos, attractively priced at around five and six dollars. I’d assume there’s variety to the rotation of available attractions, but my choices included a lot of austerely named poultry like Spicy Chicken, Sesame Chicken, Orange Chicken and General Chicken, along with Pepper Steak, mixed vegetables, and the obligatory fired rice and lo mein noodles.
Their “signature” recipe is the Bourbon Chicken. It tastes nothing like actual booze, but is just as addictive, a fact that my thighs and I found out the hard way several years ago when I had a job around the corner. The counter guy seemed to be hiding out in the kitchen, but it didn’t really matter because I was having a difficult time deciding on the ideal path to digestive traumatization. He finally emerged from the kitchen, looking remotely surprised to see someone standing there. “You like spicy?” he asked, pointing to a steamy hill of General Chicken. Looks fresh, I thought, why not.
I told him to give me the three-course option with that, mixed vegetables and an egg roll. Only six of the 30 or so tables were occupied, and I picked one directly across from the former arcade, now some kind of gamers den. It seemed like the liveliest place in the mall; a small group of pale, black-clad young beardy fellows were gathered around a solemn game of Warhammer as I cracked apart my wooden chopsticks and dug in. I did enjoy the General Chicken, to a point. Maybe my taste buds are just getting burned out, but for me it didn’t so much provide the spicy kick hinted at by the counter guy’s mischievous grin and raised eyebrows when he suggested it to me.
The glaze did have a nice flavor actually, but I had to enhance it with hot chili sauce to get the bang I was craving. I came across a couple of extremely tough, jerky-like pieces of chicken, and as I was chewing and chewing, I looked over to catch the counter guy staring a hole through me, chin in elbow, bored and daydreaming. It’s hard to mess up steamed vegetables or fried rice, and they didn’t really, although both needed quite a bit of soy sauce to enhance their flavorlessness and the rice brought back fond memories of a Budget Gourmet frozen meal I microwaved last week. The egg roll was passable by itself, but the accompanying sweet and sour dip was troublingly sweet. It would be silly and unrealistic to expect anything above average from a fast Chinese place in a sadly fading mall, and Flaming Wok met those expectations with ease.