Mall of America: Miles and smiles — under one roof

Published: Sunday, March 16 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

At the Nordstrom Rack, we met the most diplomatic sales clerk ever. As people came out of the dressing room to return clothes, she smiled reassuringly and said, "Oh, they don't fit? Well, those clothes don't deserve you then."

We saw footwear for every occasion at some of the 30-plus shoe stores: Baker's, Naturalizer, Easy Spirit, Aldo, D.S.W. Shoe Warehouse, Footaction, and others. We strolled past the Franklin Covey store next door to the Lindt Swiss chocolate shop. We tried on fancy make-up at Sephora, and taste-tested artichoke dip at the Le Gourmet Chef cookware store. Since Nordic Ware is a Minnesota company, it was no surprise to find that the store had a huge selection of bundt pans, from mini to giant sizes, and in shapes from sand castles to roses.

A potpourri of ethereal scents lured us into Basin, a store filled with colorful bars of soap in with a chunky, hand-made look. Priced at $3.95-$5.95 per bar, they seemed more of a gift item than a replacement for the usual bar of Dial.

We browsed several of the 13 different sports-fan shops, such as Field of Dreams and Champs, stuffed with pro and college jerseys, hats, sweatshirts and so on. We looked in on Ridemakerz, which specializes in radio-controlled cars; and Archives, filled with scrapbooking supplies. Rainbow had an edgy assortment of sunglasses and clothes. There was Corda-Roy's Originals — bean-bag chairs made of corduroy.

Several stores are devoted solely to Mall of America souvenirs. Maybe it's not that strange to think of it as a destination rather than just a place to buy stuff, because tourists account for half the money spent at the mall. While resting on a bench for all of 10 minutes, I was asked directions by two different groups of shoppers with foreign accents. Canada, England, Japan, German, Denmark, Norway and Sweden are the leading countries for international tourists, according to the mall press kit.

The Lake Woebegone USA store, billed as "Gateway to Central Minnesota," offered books and videos by "A Prairie Home Companion" radio personality and author Garrison Keillor. Slogans on the mugs, T-shirts and hats give a humorous look into Minnesota culture and the Scandinavian heritage:

• "American Duct Tape Council: It's What Holds America Together"

• "What happens in the garage stays in the garage."

• "You can always tell a Swede, but you can't tell 'em much."

• "What part of Uff Da don't you understand?" (For those who really don't understand, the Norwegian exclamation means "Off it!" Perhaps it's Minnesota's equivalent of Utah's "Oh my heck!")

We stopped for a lunch/dinner at Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, which takes its theme from the "Forrest Gump" movie. It's full of shrimp shack ambience, with fishnets and a rack of hot sauce hanging on the walls.

The wait staff has an interesting way of communication; a blue license plate on each table says "Run Forrest Run!" and a red one says "Stop Forrest Stop!" You set out the red one when you want your server to stop at your table for something and the blue one when you don't.

The menu is boiled shrimp, barbecue shrimp, fried shrimp, coconut shrimp, Cajun shrimp, shrimp Po'Boys, and stuffed shrimp, and more shrimp, just the way Bubba would have done it.

Besides Bubba Gump, there's Famous Dave's, Kokomo's Island Cafe, Napa Valley Grille, Rainforest Cafe, Tucci Benucch (Italian), Twin City Grill (American), Tiger Sushi, and Wolfgang Puck Express.

For entertainment, we checked out The Park in the center of the mall. It's seven acres filled with 30 rides and attractions. It has an outdoor feel, thanks to skylights that let in about 70 percent natural light, and the 400-plus live trees. Most of the rides are tame in comparison to larger parks such as Lagoon. The ride prices were confusing, with "loon," "duck," and "hummingbird," packages of various "points." Perhaps a lot of people just give up and buy the all-day pass for $24.95. The roller coaster ride was $4.50 each, and it took us up and down the treetops and around the park, similar in wildness to Lagoon's Jet Star ride.