Places to be in Saint Paul

mall

Malls often put lots of effort into making things standardized and predictable. You walk into a mall, and you know there will be a generic food court where you can get the same shitty Sbarro pizza that you can get at the mall the next town over (although incidentally, the Sbarro Wikipedia page claims that Sbarro was recently forced to start making better pizzas as part of a restructuring process in light of the fact that their awful food “was the major factor that led to two bankruptcies.” I’ll have to verify that soon…) While it would be surprising to get great pizza at Sbarro, barring that it’s generally hard to be surprised by anything in a mall. Most stores you would go to look familiar because you have been to them before, even if it was in a different town. Nothing is weird or out of place. And because that’s actually the whole point of a mall, this is basically a feature rather than a flaw.

Something I really enjoy about living in Saint Paul is that, while the shopping areas are as ugly as any suburban mall, they often contain pretty strange and out-of-place businesses. You would expect to find strange businesses on tree-lined streets near a University, perhaps, but it feels exciting and almost subversive to me when out-of-place businesses decide to set up shop in places that were created explicitly to combat weirdness.

One of my favorites is the Sears near the state capitol. As far as Sears buildings go this one is especially sad looking. It’s the worst exemplar of an Eisenhower era idea of modernity, with a square and featureless concrete exterior surrounded by a huge parking lot, which only pulls you back into the present era because it is filled with rusting Honda Accords instead of Ford Edsels and Studebakers. However, when you walk into this Sears, you will notice that it is bustling with foot traffic. This is not because this Sears somehow sucks less than the other Sears locations that are scattered across the country on life support. The reason is this: on the second floor, tucked behind the shelves of kitchen items, there is a small alcove containing a DMV office.

This DMV is the only reason I have ever gone to this Sears, and I imagine this is true of all the other “shoppers” there as well. While everyone needs to sort things out with their license or car registration from time to time, I can’t think of a single situation in which a person would say, “I need [insert widget]. Let’s drive down to Sears!”

This Sears DMV is not just any DMV. This is the finest DMV location in the Twin Cities. Look it up on Google Reviews and you will see that it has got a 4.1 star rating. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, because of its stealthy location, many people are, quite understandably, not aware of the fact that there is a DMV tucked behind the Sears kitchenware section, which means that the wait times are very reasonable. On the few occasions that I was there, the wait time was around 10-15 minutes. Not to mention the fact that you can spend that time looking at nice Cuisinart Mixers and Nespresso machines instead of motivational posters that say “TEAMWORK, Because working with others is less sad than working by yourself.—Franklin Delano Gandhi, Jr.” under a stock photo of a fighter plane squadron.

The other advantage to this DMV location is that it seems more flexible than other DMV locations. Apparently this DMV was built as part of some privatization scheme, so it is somehow not directly run by the state. I have anecdotally heard that because of this, this DMV can be more “forgiving” than a regular state-run DMV office. They also have innovations of the sort that only private capital can provide, such as an express lane for license renewals and cool freebies such as bottle openers and pens.

Another interesting mall of Saint Paul is a strip mall in Midway. I don’t know what it’s called. It’s the mall containing Rainbow Foods and its ancillary businesses. I enjoy shopping at this Rainbow. I like that it soldiers on despite the existence of a Cub Foods and a Walmart just a block away, in a much bigger and nicer strip mall.

As for the other businesses around Rainbow, there is a Family Dollar, an Army Recruitment Center, a Game Stop, and a business named “To New York” that sells New York themed clothing and accessories.

There is also a bowling alley, but you would never know it from its exterior. The facade of Midway Pro Bowl is basically just the front door, and you would be forgiven for thinking that the place must only have one lane, with no space left for that Daytona USA driving game that every bowling alley has. But never fear, the front door leads to a staircase going down into an underground space that contains everything that a bowling alley needs, and more. On the score screens above each lane, each frame is celebrated or derided by a weird 90s CG animation of a bowling ball that gets itself into various shenanigans, and while watching these, nothing could be further from your mind than the fact that directly above your head are people shopping for giant calculators at Family Dollar.

Also in this mall, right next to To New York, is Peking Garden, which is one of the best Chinese restaurants around. The Twin Cities is full of restaurants quietly serving amazing food from around the world, but for some reason, Chinese food in Minnesota is often not good. It seems that Chinese restaurants have been around long enough in America that they have earned their place as establishments that the majority culture now regards as being totally normal. This normal Chinese restaurant aesthetic brings to mind that place where that racist Asian Christmas carol bit happens in A Christmas Story, and I’m not a huge fan of the food that you would expect to find, and often do find, at these sorts of places. Normalness and ubiquity bring with them a sort of blandness as well.

From the outside, Peking Garden looks exactly like the kind of place where a racist bit in a beloved Christmas film would be set. But inside, things are a little more serious. The interior is very put together in a contrast to the ratty exterior, and the leatherbound menu contains a truly dazzling array of hundreds of menu items. Only a weird booth that is for some reason about 5 feet away from a wall and is on a raised surface provides slight comic relief.

If normal Americo-Chinese food is what you want, Peking Garden has it, and it’s pretty good. But they have more serious items as well buried in their huge menu. The selection is really overwhelming, and the prices cover the same breadth as the menu. Peking Garden can be a cheap grub spot or a fancy night out. It can be anything you want it to be. All I can say for sure is that all the food that I’ve had at Peking Garden has been great. Peking Garden pretends to be your average neighborhood Chinese restaurant, but its regulars know that it offers much more than that.

There’s so much around us that we choose to not see. Perception can become automatic, because we only see what we expect to see. This is why we need art, and weird businesses in malls, to wake us up once in a while, and remind us that we exist. True now as it was in the 80s: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”