Recently, I’ve been scouring area malls for a wedding gift that fits both the bride and groom’s expensive tastes and Chow, Baby’s budget — a tough mission. Since they were so inconsiderate as to not register at Target, I found myself roaming the malls. The only thing Chow, Baby hates worse than shopping at malls is eating there. Luckily, there are plenty of restaurant options just outside most of the goliath mouse mazes.

The first place I went was the Nordstrom’s in Northeast Mall because, see, you can’t get a $60 corkscrew at Target. I couldn’t find or afford anything the happy couple had registered for there, but all of that sticker shock made me hungry. So a guest and I headed over to one of my favorite spots in the Metroplex, Sweet Basil Thai Cuisine (977 Melbourne Rd., Hurst).

Despite its strip mall setting, the atmosphere is cozy and inviting. The walls are lined with tasteful Thai bric-a-brac, and the service is quietly efficient. I’m still fighting my spice cowardice, so I was glad to see that the menu recommended that my favorite dish in all of Thailand, pad kee mow, a.k.a. drunken noodles ($9.95), be served “mild.” Who am I to argue? The al dente wok-fried flat noodles with chili, red bell peppers, tomatoes, basil leaves, and onions combined to achieve a carefully calibrated balance of savory, semi-sweet, and spicy. The faintly licorice sweetness of the basil tied it all together. I insisted my guest sample it — but I kept my fork poised in case she got greedy.

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If I have one complaint about the restaurant, it’s that many of the entrées I’ve sampled there taste too similar. Even the curry fried rice ($9.95) relied heavily on the harmony of bell peppers and basil leaves, although the red curry and coconut provided a nice sweet-and-spice contrast. Sweet Basil Thai may not be reinventing the culinary wheel, but everything I’ve ever had there has been fresh and delicious.

Next stop was Grapevine Mills Mall a long haul but worth it. I finally found a gift at Neiman Marcus’ Last Call (my friends are going to love the armillary). I decided to celebrate at Chef Mike Tan’s newest creation, Lava 10 Asian Kitchen (401 E. State Highway 114, Grapevine). Turns out, Tan’s Asian fusion menu is more scattered than fused. There are sushi offerings, several Thai dishes, and traditional Chinese and Vietnamese fare. It’s a jack of all Asians menu that, unfortunately, is a master of none.

The décor is downright glitzy, with modern sparkly tiles covering the columns, and splashes of soft reds on the wall. The service was prompt and professional, although not without its hiccups. My bento box ($14) came with miso soup and a small salad but arrived at the same time as the appetizers. The table was a little cluttered, but I ate my way out of that problem.

It’s frustrating to me when restaurants with giant, eclectic menus can’t deliver on the simple things. Both of my appetizers were so poorly executed that it was tough to judge their flavors. The edamame ($4) was undercooked, and the crab Rangoon ($6) was overcooked and dried out. Things didn’t improve with the entrée. The bento box featured tuna that tasted rubbery and an ama ebi (sweet shrimp) roll that had either been frozen or kept too cold and was inedible.

To me, malls are like those deep-sea wrecks that attract marine wildlife — expensive but useful evils surrounded by sometimes interesting food sources. I just wish more of those mall-area restaurants were worth the effort. At least I’ll have one place to recommend when the happy couple goes to return my gift.


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