Days of Food Courts Past: Remembering the Penn Square Mall Food Court

I was recently at Quail Springs Mall attending a movie screening when, entering through the food court, I noticed a new restaurant—well I guess you could call it a restaurant—called Dragon’s Breath, or something equally off-putting. It was purely a novelty stop, offering small bites of what seemed to be puffs of flavored vapor, something for the kids to inhale while puffing on their e-cigs, I guess.

Of course, it’s now apparently closed, gone the way as so many fly-by-night mall eateries apparently do these days.

It’s funny how once upon a time we all thought the idea of a mall was going to fully replace the American way of eating and spending; terrible futurists and hacky sci-fi writers alike predicted dystopic capitalist communities where life is a self-contained shopping spree, seemingly with a sinister purpose. Now, however, you can barely keep a mall open, let alone a food court, with these centers of commercialism dying off on a daily basis.

The compact fanciness and daring cojones of Dragon’s Breath took me back about 25 years or so to when I first encountered the food court and its long-lost social strata at Penn Square Mall. At an age before fancy restaurants, swanky bars and budget-conscious gas stations completely took over our lives, the best place for teenage fine-dining was the mall, and in Oklahoma City, no one had a better hub of caloric-consumption than Penn Square.

The Quail Springs Mall food court for some reason – Penn Square’s chief rival.

Walking the twenty or so blocks to its permanent location at 1901 Northwest Expressway, after seeing a movie or two at the General Cinema, we always headed straight for the food court; even with all the mall-famous choices available to us—Sbarro Pizzeria, Potatoes Plus, Sweis’s Gyros—we usually tended to pick the then 49-cent tacos and bean burritos at Taco Bell, along with a refillable soda. People forget that back then, the Taco Bell soda fountain was a “help yourself” ordeal, allowing anyone and everyone free refills all day long.

Usually paid with money we laundered from the long-gone wishing well, for a few years it was a mostly sustainable way to provide ourselves with nutritious beans and cheese and other cheap roughage, but, as time went on, the once-cheap prices of Taco Bell continued to deftly rise—I blame the 1998 Godzilla movie tie-in myself—and many of the mini-restaurants in the food court changed, with a Charley’s Steakery, a Mrs. Field’s and a couple of bourbon chicken joints opening, bourbon chicken being unexplainably popular for a time.

Despite stepping a way for a few years, by the early aughts I had been dragged back into mall-life, this time as an employee; I started working a few jobs at Penn Square, from dealing VHS tapes at Suncoast to slinging popcorn at Hollywood Theatres. They were usually a fine means of meager income, but probably the worst job I ever had was from that time-period, as part-time seasonal help at that faux-den of even fauxer-darkness, Hot Topic.

Barely making ends meet, I eventually returned to the food court, this time learning to put a small lifetime of culinary skills to good use: getting inspiration from the ignored perverts who hung out by the women’s restrooms most days, I would sleazily hang out around the tables with large groups of people who were eating large amounts of food; most people would leave not only their trays there, but the massive amounts of food they didn’t finish, as well. Once they left, that’s when I would swoop clandestinely in and covertly gather up the remains on a plate, beating the janitors to the punch.

Although I did contract a very minor case of hoof and mouth disease, still, from the cheap chow mien from that Chinese place to the leftover swirls of frozen yogurt, while each day seemed depressive in retrospect, at the time, it was a money-saving tactic that got me through the long cold winter of my discontent.

I did return to Penn Square Mall a few weeks ago, however, and didn’t really recognize any of the food court restaurants. Sure, there were chain-faves such as Panda Express and Subway reigning supreme alongside somewhat independent places like Mr. Pan and Sarku Japan, but everything about the place seemed so cold and foreign to me.

Walking past though, I saw a familiar face—the same guy from Sweis’s Gyros was still there, working the same counter twenty years later. I’m not sure if he remembered me, but I sure remembered him from my Suncoast days, back when I gave everyone in the mall an unusually steep discount. I thought about saying something, but as a line formed behind me, I decided that, for old time’s sake, I would order a gyros sandwich instead.

And you know what? It was still damn good.

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