There is a lot of bustle in the Totem Lake neighborhood of Kirkland, and the blocks on either side of the intersection of northeast 124e Street and 124e Avenue Northeast feels like the epicenter of it all. On one side, the hum of drills and jackhammers fills the air and children frolic around a small playground covered in AstroTurf at the glitzy Village at Totem Lake mall amid construction workers installing flooring.
Across the intersection is the decidedly sleepier Totem Square, a sprawling mall that, like Village at Totem Lake, has a few storefronts under construction, but at a much slower pace. There’s a real vibe of making new friends but keeping the old one between these two Totem Lake trade titans, as there are gems to be found in both places.
The Village at Totem Lake is where you’ll find national chains and an Eastside outpost for many restaurants with locations in Seattle. There’s Salt & Straw for ice cream, The SweetSide for cakes, and a location of local Korean fried chicken chain Bok a Bok. A Serious Pie concept location, run by Tom Douglas, is under construction, as is Hanoon, a new restaurant from the Mama Group, which runs the Mamnoon/mbar/Anar family of restaurants.
Overall, things feel upscale (even with the scaffolding and hammering) — like the minimalist dining room at Kati Vegan Thai (12540 120e Avenue NE, Suite 110; kativeganthai.com). This is the second location for owner Fon Spaulding, who opened her first location in South Lake Union in 2017. I loved the Angel Wings ($11) – shredded oyster mushrooms dipped in sesame batter and fried – and the khao soi ($18). ), a spicy coconut curry with tofu and rice noodles. The dish is topped with red onion and a heap of pickled cabbage, the perfect leaf for the rich, creamy curry.
Also fun is the Taiwan-based boba shop don’t yell at me (11900 NE Village Plaza, Suite 190; en.dontyellatme.com), its front decorated with a cartoon head with a toothy smile and a hand holding a steaming cup of tea. There is also a location in the U district, but I have heard of queues on the street as this location in Kirkland is almost asleep. The menu consists of milk teas, bubble waffles and pancakes. When your order is ready, a “ding” sounds through the stark white, under-furnished space, followed by an automated voice shouting the order number and the words “please take the meal.” The tiramisu milk tea ($6.25) – even at 25% sweetness – had a good amount of sugar. The cheese mousse gives that salty flavor and the rich black tea can also shine. The brown sugar pearls (50 cents) are a wonderfully chewy addition.
My final stop at the Village was for a boozy strawberry milkshake ($11.95) and truffle parmesan fries ($6.50) at Stack 571 Burger and Whiskey Bar (12540 120e Avenue NE, Suite 126; stack571.com/totem-lake). You might remember the milkshakes from Dinner at the Movies when my colleagues Moira Macdonald and Bethany Jean Clement saw the latest installment in the “Fast & Furious” franchise. I can report that the milkshakes (The Rock-sized straws have been replaced with eco-friendly paper straws) remain deliciously boozy and perfect for a summer afternoon. The fries—though oddly a bit dry—are not overly truffled and come with a nice trio of dipping sauces—romesco, Stack 571 hot sauce, and chipotle aioli. I am convinced that both of these are infinitely better when shared with a friend and light gossip.
At Totem Square, things look a bit more difficult around the edges. Some spaces are condemned, others under construction. The Egyptian restaurant is temporarily closed, the Brazilian BBQ buffet is open, but does not serve BBQ the day I was there. Yet there is Fang Noodle House (12085 124e Avenue NE; 425-608-1258; fangsnoodlehousewa.com). A few months ago, my colleague Tan Vinh raved about the hand-pulled pork belly noodles, fluffy 2-inch-wide noodles glistening with chili oil and chunks of pork belly. I can tell you that the spicy beef version ($16.99) is just as good, if not better. The wontons in hot oil ($7.89) are also delicious (thanks to the generous amount of Sichuan pepper). The big winner here was the Chilli Oil Fried Tofu ($6.09). These crispy golden cubes fresh from the fryer, drizzled with chili oil. The combination of creamy tofu enrobed in a crunchy, stony smooth coating with chili oil ticks all the right flavor boxes.
Another essential step is Aria Food & Bakery (12033 124e Avenue NE; 425-441-6044; ariafoodandbakery.com), a Persian bakery with the intoxicating smell of bread coming out of the doors. There is a huge silver oven pumping out various traditional Persian breads and cookies, as well as coolers filled with fresh cheeses, dips, drinks and frozen breads. The whole-wheat barbari — an almost comically long puffy flatbread sprinkled with sesame seeds ($4.50) — was still warm when the man helping us wrapped it up. I draped it over my arm like a butler with a linen napkin and was told that anything I hadn’t eaten that day I had to freeze immediately because bread is made without preservatives and is best grilled to order. When asked what we should eat with the bread, the man blinked almost in disbelief. “Everything,” he said with a laugh before gesturing to the pots of feta and hummus in his cooler. My bread didn’t make it to the freezer, my family dunked it into big bowls of soup and used it to scoop up labneh topped with roasted tomatoes and hummus. It is fabulous. Aria also sells pizza and sandwiches, as well as six other types of Persian flatbreads – a bit more to explore next time I find myself in Totem Lake.
Across the parking lot from Aria are Sahand Persian Grocery (12047 124e Avenue NE; 425-823-3194) and European Arbat Market (12053 124e Avenue NE; 425-825-5830). In the former, you’ll find everything from huge bags of dried limes and spices to dozens of teas, baklava and frozen lamb products. The latter houses a small deli, a large selection of Eastern European cheeses, frozen pelmenis, and a large assortment of bulk chocolates and candies sold by the pound.
Both malls offer adventure – the hardest part is deciding which type you want.