Desolate, depressing and deprived of customers are just three adjectives to describe the current state of the Ithaca Mall. With the rise of internet transactions, the Ithaca Mall slowly began its decline from mediocrity into a full-fledged embarrassment to Ithaca. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made the emptiness and despair of the mall become even more pronounced.
Many Cornell students probably just know the Ithaca Mall for Target and maybe the Regal Cinema movie theater. Only the brave few wander into the underdeveloped center of the mall where dark, vacated stores outnumber thriving ones by a great magnitude. The food court is no exception. In the center of the mall, in a space that should be the beating heart of the mall’s lifeline, lies the grubby and dimly lit remnants of a once popular food court. All that remains now is a Sicilian Delight pizza joint, a Subway and an Auntie Annes, the latter of which only serves food that is best considered a snack. However, despite the darkness and dinginess of the mall, to the right of the abyss of the foodcourt lies a warmly lit establishment, a promising beacon of hope: Zocalo.
I traveled to Zocalo on a Tuesday night. An assuming reader would conclude that to be a quiet day for Zocalo — that reader would be wrong. As I completed my trek through the mall to Zocalo, I was immediately greeted by a zealous host at the front of the restaurant. She smiled as I approached and sat me down toward the back of the restaurant. The front dozen tables were packed as well as most of the bar, creating a lively atmosphere for a Tuesday.
The Zocalo menu was expansive and all-encompassing. It included the Mexican staples of tacos, fajitas and burritos supplemented with an array of fish options and vegetarian choices. After a long stare-down with the menu, I concluded that I could not choose a singular entrée, and so I opted for the pork tacos along with the fajitas. I placed my order, and as Bad Bunny chanted in the background, I made my way to the front of the restaurant to speak to one of the waiters about the success of Zocalo.
When asked to express some of his thoughts on how Zocalo can thrive in the Ithaca Mall, Mani Chandhar, a waiter at Zocalo, accounted Zocalo’s success toward its location and price. “Zocalo being in the mall gives customers a large, accessible area of free parking,” Mani said. “Most importantly, our menu is very affordable. There is something for everyone on it.”
I can attest to the affordability of the menu — my tacos and fajitas cost $13 each but the menu included entrées starting at around $8 and maxing out at around $20. Not bad, especially considering some of the steeper prices at Collegetown restaurants. I also was curious to hear how busy Zocalo gets during its peak days.
“On Friday, Saturday and Sunday we have our busiest days,” said Mani. “On the weekends, people often have to wait an hour to get a table.” This came as no surprise after observing the mostly full restaurant on a Tuesday night. I could only imagine the line of patrons during peak hours on a Saturday.
While engaging in conversation with Mani, I turned at the sound of sizzling-hot fajitas being brought in the direction of my table. I scurried back to my booth like a squirrel chasing after a nut to greet my meal with open arms.
The first item that I had the privilege to try was the Al pastor Street Tacos. Although the corn tortilla was dry and frankly nothing special, the pork was surprisingly high quality. The sprinkling of cilantro and onions provided an overall great taco. However, the aspect of this meal that jumped out to me was the generous portion size. Not only did my $13 buy me four tacos, but it also got me a sizable scoop of rice supported by a chunk of beans.
Next on the agenda was diving into the pan of fajitas: With each sizzle of the oil they beckoned my name. The chicken was similar to the pork — high quality. This meal also came with a scoop of rice along with a large assortment of lettuce and peppers. Again, the portion size was quite excellent for the price, and my two entrées easily could have fed three or four people.
Although the Ithaca Mall may not have much in terms of food, Zocalo serves as a magnet for students, townies and everyone in between looking for an affordable, lively Mexican restaurant. I encourage every student who’s sick of the same old Collegetown restaurants and dining hall food to try Zocalo out. Maybe even invite a few friends. It is quite accessible to Cornell students by bus and I am sure it will not disappoint.
Jimmy Cawley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].