There’s a lot of hustle and bustle in Kirkland’s Totem Lake neighborhood, and the blocks on either side of the intersection of Northeast 124th Street and 124th Avenue Northeast feel like the epicenter of it all. On one side, the buzz of drills and jackhammers fills the air and kids scamper around a small AstroTurf-covered play area at the glitzy Village at Totem Lake shopping center amid construction workers installing flooring.
The other side of the intersection is the decidedly sleepier Totem Square, a sprawling strip mall that — like Village at Totem Lake — has a few storefronts under construction, albeit at a much slower-feeling pace. There’s a real make-new-friends-but-keep-the-old vibe going on between these two titans of Totem Lake commerce, because there are gems to be found in both locations.
The Village at Totem Lake is where you’ll find national chains and an Eastside outpost for many restaurants with Seattle locations. There’s Salt & Straw for ice cream, The SweetSide for cakes and a location of the local Korean fried chicken chainlet Bok a Bok. A location of the Tom Douglas-run concept Serious Pie 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 120th Ave. N.E., 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) — shreds of oyster mushrooms dredged in a sesame batter and fried crisp — and the khao soi ($18), a spicy coconut curry with tofu and rice noodles. The dish is topped with red onion and a pile of pickled cabbage, the perfect foil for the rich, creamy curry.
Also fun is the Taiwanese-based boba shop Don’t Yell at Me (11900 N.E. Village Plaza, Suite 190; en.dontyellatme.com), its storefront adorned with a cartoon head with a full-teeth smile and a hand holding a steaming cup of tea. There’s also a location in the U District, but I have heard of lines down the street there while this Kirkland spot is almost sleepy. The menu consists of milk teas, bubble waffles and crêpe cakes. When your order is ready, a loud “ding” reverberates in 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 foam gives that salty tang and the rich black tea is able to shine through as well. The brown sugar pearls (50 cents) are a wonderfully chewy add-on.
My last stop at the Village was for a boozy strawberry milkshake ($11.95) and truffle Parmesan fries ($6.50) at Stack 571 Burger & Whiskey Bar (12540 120th Ave. N.E., Suite 126; stack571.com/totem-lake). You might remember the milkshakes from Dinner at a Movie fame 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 by environmentally friendly paper ones) remain boozily delightful and perfect for a summer afternoon. The fries — while strangely a little dry — aren’t overly truffled and come with a nice trio of dipping sauces — romesco, a tangy Stack 571 sauce and a chipotle aioli. I’m convinced both of these items are infinitely better when shared with a friend and light gossip.
Over at Totem Square, things feel a bit rougher around the edges. A few spaces are boarded up, others under construction. The Egyptian restaurant is closed temporarily, the Brazilian barbecue buffet is open, but not serving up barbecue the day I was there. Still, there’s Fang’s Noodle House (12085 124th Ave. N.E.; 425-608-1258; fangsnoodlehousewa.com). My colleague Tan Vinh raved about the pork belly hand-pulled noodle a few months back, chewy, 2-inch wide noodles glistening with chili oil and flecks of pork belly. I can tell you the spicy beef ($16.99) version is just as good, if not better. Also mouth-numbingly good (courtesy of Szechuan peppercorn in copious amounts) are the hot oil wontons ($7.89). The standout winner here was the fried tofu with chili oil ($6.09). These crunchy golden cubes arrive fresh from the fryer, doused in chili oil. The combination of creamy tofu coated in a crackly, pebblelike crunch coating slicked with the chili oil ticks all the right flavor boxes.
Another must-stop is Aria Food & Bakery (12033 124th Ave. N.E.; 425-441-6044; ariafoodandbakery.com), a Persian bakery with the intoxicating smell of baking bread wafting out of the doors. There’s a massive silver oven pumping out different traditional Persian breads and cookies, plus coolers filled with fresh cheeses, dips, drinks and frozen breads. The whole wheat barbari — an almost comically long puffy flatbread dusted with sesame seeds ($4.50) — was still warm when the man helping us bagged it up. I draped it over my arm like a maître d’ with a linen napkin and was told that whatever I didn’t eat that day I should immediately freeze, as the bread is made with no preservatives and is better if toasted on demand. When asked what we should eat with the bread, the man blinked his eyes almost in disbelief. “Everything,” he said with a laugh before gesturing to the tubs of feta and hummus in his cooler. My loaf didn’t make it to the freezer, my family dunking it into big bowls of soup and using it to scoop up labneh topped with roasted tomatoes and hummus. It’s fabulous. Aria also sells pizzas and sandwiches, plus six other types of Persian flatbreads — just more for me to explore the next time I find myself in Totem Lake.
Across the parking lot from Aria are Sahand Persian Grocery (12047 124th Ave. N.E.; 425-823-3194) and Arbat European Market (12053 124th Ave. N.E.; 425-825-5830). In the former, you’ll find everything from massive bags of dried limes and spices to dozens of teas, baklava and frozen lamb products. The latter is home to a small deli, a large selection of Eastern European cheeses, frozen pelmeni and a big assortment of loose chocolates and candy sold by the pound.
Both shopping centers offer adventure — the toughest part is deciding which kind you want.