For months, Arturo Mei parked his food truck – a tricked-out old school bus painted blue – in a craggy Northern Virginia parking lot by a defunct Korean restaurant/pool hall and a floundering Kmart.
This party bus cranked out Mei’s version of delicate, snowy Taiwanese-style ice cream, which he’d shave into sweet ribbons that tasted of green tea or taro or mango. Snocream started drawing lines of foodies to the decrepit strip mall that had long since ceased to attract much of anything.
“Back in the day, food trucks were the trend,” Mei, 34, says with a chuckle. “So we did that.” But he felt a tickle of intuition that their moment was waning – and he quickly set his sights on the next thing. After more than two years in its periphery, he and partner Peter Choi rented the 5,000-square-foot pool hall. Instead of a “one-trick pony” ice cream shop, the pair carved it up, building out five stalls and a bar. And just like that, Annandale – a suburb known for its myriad Korean barbecue joints and bakeries – had a “food hall.”
The eatery, called the Block, is emblematic of the modern food hall in almost every way: There’s trendy neon signage, a handful of local vendors, raw concrete floors, communal tables, blaring pop music and young women Instagramming their outlandish desserts.
On a rain-drenched lunch hour in August, a steady stream of office workers and gaggles of kids in their last days of summer break poured in for the offerings: Hawaiian-inspired poke and sushi burritos in one corner; pitch-black “coconut ash” ice cream and pork-speckled dan dan noodles in another.
Mei and Choi? They were already onto their next projects: Two more food halls.
Food halls – very loosely defined as vast spaces filled with upstart food vendors and frequently a shop or two – have become a popular answer to several nagging urban-development problems. They’re where foodie culture and a changing American palate have crashed headfirst into urban renewal and the new realities of shopping.
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