Whenever I get depressed over the state of our union — particularly the bitter divide between those who value the diversity of our land and those who see immigrants as a threat to their sovereignty — I hop into my Mini (built with parts from 27 countries!) and head to Pike Kitchen in Rockville. I see the future of America in the hole of every mochi doughnut.
Pike Kitchen is an Asian food hall tucked into the Edmonston Crossing shopping center on, as you might have guessed, Rockville Pike. Its founder, James Park, has cobbled together a half-dozen or so vendors who serve some of the most popular items from Vietnam, Korea, Japan, America and, if you consider the origins of tea, China. But Park has done something more: He has encouraged the vendors — especially the ones he owns and controls, such as Pike Bakery — to push the limits of their expertise.
To that end, before Pike Kitchen opened in October, Park and baker Fred Kim made a trip to New York’s Chinatown to conduct a little corporate research, otherwise known as spying. They wanted to figure out how the bakers at Alimama Tea produce their mochi doughnuts, these crusty, chewy and otherworldly rounds with a variety of shimmering glazes and pebbly toppings. Once back home, Kim was able to reverse engineer his own version, relying on glutinous sweet rice flour and a ton of trial and error.
Back in Korea, street vendors sell a simplified version, Park says. The original is more like an oversize doughnut hole, a shade smaller than a baseball, filled with red bean paste and dusted with sugar. The doughnuts at Pike Bakery, the coffee and bake shop inside Pike Kitchen, appear to need no explanation. They’re instantly identifiable as fried rings of dough, as familiar as anything sold under a “Hot Now” sign at Krispy Kreme.
But these rounds are foreign. They’re basically elastic, so different from the doughnuts you’ve devoured before, whether cake or yeasted. These doughnuts are a crave-worthy combination of American junk food, Japanese mochi cakes, Korean ingenuity and Dominique Ansel glamour. If you can’t see the metaphor yet, allow me to point it out: The attraction of the mochi doughnut lies in the sum of its parts, just like the country where it was invented. Don’t believe it? Try the chocolate mochi doughnut with golden sugar pearl sprinkles, and then get back to me.
The more time I spent at Pike Kitchen, the more I found similar mash-ups, the kind of funky, free-form associations that either give you hope for this land of (mostly) immigrants or make you cling to your Wonder Bread. I sucked down a dirty horchata latte (available at Monster Tea) spiked with espresso and boba, the dark tapioca pearls that led me to simultaneously sip and chew my Italian-Latin-Asian beverage. I picked my way through a dish called Hwe Dupbop (from the Bowl Play counter), a “Korean-style” Hawaiian poke bowl in which the slices of tuna and salmon were essentially silenced by a domineering vinegar gochujang. Both latte and poke will toy with your expectations, generating a response somewhere between amused and confused.
Over in the corner, there’s a counter called K Street Food, which sells yawn-inducing pork-and-kimchi tacos wrapped in cold flour tortillas. Skip those and focus your attention on the exceptional mandu-guk soup, in which soft, silky dumplings loll in a beef broth punched up with garlic. Or, better yet, try K Street’s unorthodox preparation of tteokbokki, the Korean specialty in which chewy rice cakes are suspended in a cooked-down sauce traditionally weaponized with hot pepper paste. In this case, the rice cakes are buried in sauce and under a layer of white cheese, which pulls into long, loopy strings like mozzarella. The dish looks like something you might order at Mamma Lucia, and its sauce has a sweetness that leans closer to the stuff you ladle over spaghetti. It’s a Korean-Italian-American dish clearly catering to Western palates, and I dutifully ate it up.
There’s more fusion where that came from, too. Across the aisle from the Pike Bakery counter, there’s a display case featuring fried food on a stick, like the kind sold at Myungrang Hot Dog, the company that has made Korean street food popular on the sunny boulevards of Los Angeles. One of those snacks is an emulsified hot dog and mozzarella rolled in rice flour and panko, then deep fried. You’ll love it, and you’ll hate yourself for loving it. If you’re feeling really carefree, you can wash down this Korean carny food with a matcha Oreo frappé, but I wouldn’t advise it.
Pike Kitchen, of course, has more to offer than these experiments in Asian American accommodation. The Japomen counter serves up a decadent shoyu ramen, in which melt-in-your-mouth slices of chashu pork lounge in a chicken-and-pork broth that, every once in a while, ignites with ginger. I like the kimchi stone pot from Bowl Play, too, though I would have liked it more had there been even a single clump of chewy, sticky rice at the bottom of the bowl. Give credit to Park’s two partners in Pike Kitchen, Mike and Jay Kim, who also own Heebeen, a Korean barbecue and sushi buffet in Alexandria. The Kims are the operational brains behind the food hall, and they somehow make this engine of ingenuity hum along.
Yet I must admit, it’s the fusion fare that captures my imagination. I was thinking about this while waiting for my Thai tea ice cream topped with rainbow mochi (delicious!). Unlike so many other establishments, Pike Kitchen isn’t chasing after authenticity, or exclusively chasing after authenticity, whatever that term means. It’s chasing after something more important in this era: It’s seeking unity, starting with those amazing mochi doughnuts.
1066 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Md. 301-922-1585, pikekitchen.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Twinbrook, with a 1-mile trip to the food hall.
Prices: Varies by vendor.