The Washington Post

Dumpling Dojo: Mall food, Hong Kong-style

The martial arts training center (or “dojo”) theme is applied to virtually every square inch of the small space, including drinks cooler and overhead punching bags. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

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 lemon grass chicken baowich: an open-faced bite, more taco than steamed bun. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

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.

These steamed dumplings were stuffed with a vegetable mixture nicely flavored with Chinese five-spice powder. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

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.

The martial arts mascot of Dumpling Dojo: It’s no Samurai Delicatessen. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.


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