First Bites

GastroPod at Aventura Mall: The Future of Food Courts?

Strolling into Aventura Mall is a bit of an assault on the senses. The massive, 2,700,000-square-foot shopping mecca, the third-largest in the United States, is loud and brightly lit. Locals and tourists from around the world peruse everything from iPhones to Fendi bags in over 300 stores. 

Once a suburban fixture, the shopping center is out to become a luxury supermall, with high-end retailers like Tiffany & Co., Burberry, and Louis Vuitton attracting people with plenty of cash to spend. So where does the food court, that mall staple that offers cheap and quick meals in a communal setting, fit in with people who see fit to spend $2,000 on a pair of shoes? 

The answer may just lie in the idea to bring locality to the food court experience. Aventura Mall's food court has always been slightly more progressive than its national chain-only brethren, with Pasha's and Five Guys Burgers offering better alternatives to fast food giants like Burger King and Chick-fil-A. But the opening of GastroPod earlier this month is the beginning of a whole new chapter in food court cuisine.

Even the GastroPod counter looks different than the others. Decorated in graffiti art, wood paneling, and a big "eat" marquee sign, it looks less slick and more artisan than neighbors like Che Pasta and Cajun Grill. It also looks neater and cleaner.

For those of us familiar with GastroPod, the menu looks familiar. Offerings include the Mo'Betta burger with homemade pickles, gPod sauce, and American cheese ($8.50); pulled pork tacos (two for $7); and crispy chicken sammich ($8.50); the Old Dirty Dog ($4); and the arepa ($6) topped with goat cheese and spicy mayo.

But what's revolutionary are the offerings from the Noodlehead bar. The noodles are made fresh on premises — in itself a form of food court blasphemy — in your choice of spaghetti, torchio, pappardelle, or gluten-free pasta for $9 a bowl. Then, as in chef Jeremiah Bullfrog's Wynwood container, your choice of sauce (ramen broth, kale pesto, brisket ragu, carbonara, primavera, or spicy XO) is included. Add-ons like a soft egg, kimchi, veggies, or roast pork are $3 each.

The noodles are toothsome and the sauce is flavorful and pungent. Most of all, this is a lunch not brimming with preservatives and frozen for months. As I enjoyed my meal, a woman with two teenagers were eating what looked like brown, greasy lo mein next to me. My noodles looked colorful and alive in comparison — and so were the flavors. The XO sauce just straddled that border between spicy and hot, and were cooled by the acid of the kimchi.  

So far, it looks like people are taking a while to warm to the new kid on the block, with chef Bullfrog saying that "the masses don't quite get it. Without pictures of the food (a la Denny's) or free samples, it seems our society has forgotten how to eat."  What's ironic is that GastroPod is not giving people something wildly new — just fresher and more healthful. 

On the flip side, however, it looks like GastroPod is catching on with mall employees who, according to Bullfrog, "seem eternally grateful for properly sourced food, made from scratch, and reasonably priced."  

A thought occurred to me that instead of attracting mass chains, malls could lease out space to small mom-and-pop restaurants, making the food court experience a unique one and, maybe even as much a draw for shoppers as the Apple store in time.

It will just take a few tastes for the people who spend so much time and money worrying what designers to wear to get the point that putting locally sourced food made by hand inside their bodies is even more important that the handbag they carry. If all else fails, maybe this bit of fashion-speak might help: eating locally is very on-trend.

GastroPod is located at Aventura Mall's food court, on the second floor of the mall (next to Macy's). Regular mall hours are Monday - Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday from noon to 8 p.m.

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Laine Doss is the food and spirits editor for Miami New Times. She has been featured on Cooking Channel's Eat Street and Food Network's Great Food Truck Race. She won an Alternative Weekly award for her feature about what it's like to wait tables.
Contact: Laine Doss