8.72

8.72 Wok Inn

The only smile to be found in the den of despair that is the Los Angeles Mall is at Wok Inn. Photo by Dan Johnson.

The only smile to be found in the den of despair that is the Los Angeles Mall is at Wok Inn. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

The look on this guy’s face says it all.

“Fuck.”

This is not an unpopular point of view in the depths of the Los Angeles Mall at 11:30am on a Tuesday.

For all the talk of “White Flight,” this is the “White Bunker.” The subterranean complex across from City Hall on North Main St feels like a Western Front trench dug into the soil of modern urban dystopia by civic minded wonks who desperately wanted a place to eat subpar pizza before hightailing it back to the banality of the burbs.

The entire complex feels like a living homage to Uncle Owen’s Tatooine water farm minus the droids and the eventual release of getting sacked by Imperial Stormtroopers. There’s something else here too: the phony reassurance of aborted Americana that comes with designing a non-confrontational food court beneath what was once LA’s most violent den of vice, the proud and former Bella Union.

The Los Angeles mall's doomsday-hath-arrived feel makes it a sparsely and cautiously populated commercial zone. Photo by Dan Johnson.

The Los Angeles mall's doomsday-hath-arrived feel makes it a sparsely and cautiously populated commercial zone. Photo by Dan Johnson.

All the lies of the Twentieth Century are on full display: wrought iron birds of paradise welded into the entrance across from a faux Polynesian obelisk across from low-cost poly-ethnic food options sat beneath phony-gabled roofs painted pastel canary yellow. The Atlantic City big bulbs don’t help. This place screams for dim light to obscure the reality of decay. Discarded copies of the Downtown News rustle around the courtyard in the rain and get caught in the feet of passed out itinerants who will eventually rouse themselves from their pharmacological slumber and proceed upstairs to jimmy the coin-operated door on the beleaguered bathrooms.

“Fuck.”

Don’t let the quick banter of passing bureaucrats fool you, this place is fucked. The coffee shop, the mural representing Soviet/US artistic collaboration, the city employee store with the name that sounds like “abscess.” These are the trappings of despair.

Inside, I weigh the merits of Japanese, Filipino, Chinese and generic white people food served with the option of soft-serve ice cream. I eventually settle for Chinese food from “Wok Inn” because the man behind the counter is the only one in the entire food court smiling.

The combo plate is advertised at seven dollars and change, but my Styrofoam vessel filled with spicy tofu and brown rice comes out beneath $4.50. Why? I’ll never know, but I’m delighted nonetheless. I sit down in the aborted, mutant cousin of Disneyland known as “Main Street L.A.” to take down a plate of soy and carbs adorned with Sriracha.

Turns out spicy tofu and brown rice pairs nicely with slightly funky Budweiser. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Turns out spicy tofu and brown rice pairs nicely with slightly funky Budweiser. Photo by Dan Johnson.

I have this eerie feeling that reminds me of Rocky Point, Rhode Island, the bootleg amusement park my Dad used to take me to. It’s abandoned now. The internet has copious photos of its disintegrating mass. Every time I look at them, I’m overcome with a mix of nostalgia and gloom. The high times are over. Our childhoods are disintegrating. The reality of our diminishing returns is a hell of a thing to cope with. Especially here in the subterranean zig-zag where people go to eat cheap lunch food and forget the past thirty years have happened.

My mind keeps racing back to an odd offer made by the counter man at “Wok Inn.” Two twenty ounce Budweiser Heavies go for $5.20. Total. That sounds mighty nice. It sounds like the Carl’s Junior across from the library where I used to go to enjoy a frugal pitcher as an appetizer to amnesia.

I’m over $8.72 now. The $5.20 beer tandem puts me about a buck high. But I don’t mind because a pre-noon buzz for this cheap feels exactly like the sort of anesthesia this mall was built for. Wok Inn is officially the cheapest place (beside the street) to get shit-housed in Downtown.

The beer is too sweet. I sense a skunked keg or a dirty line. Budweiser should be bitter like the German immigrants that created it. Not sweet like a meaningless third grade kiss. Still, it gets the job done.

“Fuck.”

The cops and sheriffs are piling in now. It’s close to noon and I’m starting to feel it. They serve water here out of orange plastic coolers like a prison road crew or a suburban youth league soccer team. Such service, such hydration.

I award the Wok Inn an exuberant “1” on the binary and wish John Fante were alive to Ask the Dust a la 2017.