If you want to experience the American melting pot, in all its greasy complication and compromises, go visit a mall food court, the place where foreign cuisines officially enter the mainstream, for better and for worse.
The food court at the Westfield Montgomery Mall in Bethesda is a fine example: It offers stands that sell kebabs, butter chicken, kung pao chicken, tacos, pizza and sushi, each warped to please the American palate in a way that would, no doubt, offend traditionalists.
The latest entrant to the Montgomery Mall food court is a Chinese regional operation, Dumpling Dojo, operated by Jeffrey Yu, the 28-year-old son of Hollywood East Cafe co-owner Janet Yu. Like his parents’ dim-sum palace in Wheaton, Dumpling Dojo draws inspiration from Hong Kong and Cantonese cuisines, without being slavishly devoted to them. (Dim sum doughnuts, anyone?)
Dumpling Dojo is far more conceptualized and Westernized than Hollywood East. The place even has its own mascot, a happy martial artist with a headband, topknot and lots of punching bags to beat on (with his hands and feet apparently, because this dude carries no weapons). It’s as if Big Boy finally put down that plate of hamburgers and watched a weeklong marathon of “Kung Fu.”
The Dojo menu playfully weaves Hong Kong, Cantonese and cross-cultural influences to the point where it becomes hard to separate them.Even though Dojo sells a traditional bao, one of its signature items is a baowich, an open-faced sandwich in which the slightly sweet, steamed dough acts more like a tortilla than a Cantonese bun. My lemon grass chicken baowich, above, was a toothsome bite of juicy meat and fresh garnishes wrapped in the pillowy dough, though virtually bereft of lemon grass’s delicate bite.
The place also hawks dumplings, pan-fried or steamed, which are served in a classic Chinese American to-go container with the sauce pooled at the bottom of the carton, making dipping a bit torturous. My steamed edamame-and-vegetable dumplings were slightly gummy, but the filling was dusted with Chinese five-spice powder, providing that ticklish combination of sweetness and mild heat. The steamed spicy shrimp dumplings, freckled with crushed red pepper flakes, were meatier and righteously chewy, the heat prominent but not searing. Call it Soccer Mom Hot.
The loser at the table was my order of Dojo Beef, a bowl of white rice paved over with a blacktop of stir-fried beef. It was insufferably sweet, lacking any discernible flavors that would point you farther east than a rest stop along the New Jersey Turnpike. It was practically stir-fried sloppy Joe meat. I didn’t finish it.
As I contemplated my meal, I couldn’t help but notice the trio of middle-aged Asian women sitting to my left, on yet another table embedded with marketing materials. They were dining on Subway sandwiches and McDonald’s coffee, while I, a Midwesterner whose family tree branches out to Germany and England (and God knows where else), was surrounded by food far closer to their ancestral home.
Here we were, thousands of miles from anything our forefathers and mothers would have recognized as native soil, noshing unceremoniously in this garnished encampment of tables, advertisements and bastardized foreign food. Perhaps only in a food court could I experience this simultaneous sense of pride and embarrassment: that America is big enough (in almost every sense of the word) to embrace the flavors from all parts of the world and cheap enough to continue to feed us mass-produced junk.
I felt I got the better end of the deal this time around.