Around Town

Fish-shaped Japanese waffle pop-up will open permanent shop in Dunn Loring

A popular taiyaki pop-up based out of Chantilly is settling down near the Dunn Loring Metro station for its first-ever permanent shop.

After working the D.C. area’s farmers market circuit since 2021, Rice Culture will start selling the fish-shaped, Instagram-ready Japanese treats out of a brick-and-mortar store in the Shops at Avenir Place — potentially as soon as this October.

The new location at 2672D Avenir Place will offer an expanded menu with taiyaki ice cream to take advantage of the space built out by Bruster’s Real Ice Cream, which closed in 2020, Rice Culture co-founder and baker MikkiJo Bayawa says.

“We’ll be serving Asian-inspired soft-serve flavors in the taiyaki, and the taiyaki will act as the cone,” Bayawa told FFXnow. “So, that’s something that’s going to be new and exciting, a menu item that we wouldn’t have been able to serve at farmers markets.”

Rice Culture began early in the COVID-19 pandemic out of a similar craving for comfort that spurred a national frenzy of bread-baking.

A native of New Jersey, Bayawa moved to Northern Virginia about five years ago to work on Amazon’s data centers. Upon arriving, however, she found no substitute for the taiyakis hawked at the Jersey-based Japanese grocery store Mitsuwa — a void that particularly stood out once the pandemic limited her and fiancé Kevin Tsai’s travel away from their Centreville apartment.

So, she decided to fill the gap herself, buying a machine that could make up to six taiyakis at a time. Though the waffles are traditionally filled with red bean paste or vanilla custard, Bayawa experimented with different flavors, from cream cheese and Nutella to ube jam — a nod to her mixed Japanese and Filipino identity.

Within a couple of hours of posting some of her creations on Instagram, a “complete stranger” reached out and asked if they were for sale, she says.

“I just got excited and I was like, yeah, sure, I’ll deliver them to you too,” Bayawa recalled, dating that first delivery to January 2021.

From there, the operation grew quickly. After five days, Bayawa and Tsai had to cut off orders, and within a week, baking and delivering the treats became an all-day affair, prompting a search for a professional kitchen and additional staff.

In March 2021, Rice Culture moved into Chantilly’s Frontier Kitchen, and since then, it has regularly appeared at farmers markets, festivals and shopping centers throughout the D.C. region, including the FreshFarm market at Merrifield’s Mosaic District and The Block food hall in Annandale.

Rice Culture can’t claim to have introduced taiyakis to the D.C. area. That honor appears to belong to the Lai family behind the now-shuttered Vietnamese restaurant Four Sisters, who offered taiyaki ice cream at their Boba & Bites shop that opened at the Mosaic District in 2018.

However, Rice Culture remains rare in the region for specializing in the desserts and serving a wide variety of flavors, with 10 or more on rotation every month.

“I think that’s really appealing to customers in this market who want to try something new,” Bayawa said. “They want to try something different, and they want to try also something that is Instagrammable, something they can share with their friends, and our product definitely meets that market need.”

With Rice Culture now successful enough that she could leave her Amazon job, Bayawa has big ambitions for where the business could go, looking at Loudoun County, Maryland, D.C. and even the New Jersey and New York area as potential areas for expansion.

But the temporary pop-ups will be paused once the Dunn Loring store opens, possibly returning in the winter or spring depending on how long it takes to “work out the kinks.”

“We’re trying to create a recipe and a process where anyone that we hire can make the taiyakis just as delicious as me and Kevin, so that me and him can look at growing and opening multiple Rice Culture stores,” Bayawa said. “So, if that means taking a step back from the farmers market, that’s something that we might have to do.”