Several months ago, my eldest son convinced me to join him for soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung restaurant. I was resistant at first, even more after he said we’d have to get there early and wait in line for at least an hour.
How could shopping mall food be worth that wait time? Since the restaurant was in my favorite shopping mall, I agreed to go. It helped that I could happily work in some shopping under the guise of waiting for our table.
So off we went mid-week to take our place in line. We arrived at 11:30 a.m. to see the line already snaked around the building. Every table was taken from the minute Din Tai Fung opened was taken! Thankfully, my son stood in line for about 25 minutes while I happily poked around in a nearby store. We were given a wait time of 30-40 minutes. It wasn’t long after window shopping that we received a text summoning us. Overall, the 45-minute wait, not too bad!
Surgically Perfect Dumplings
We confirmed our table and were ushered into the main dining room. Moving past a glass walled kitchen, we watched several men attired in white surgical outfits and masks. We were in awe seeing the restaurant’s famous dumplings processed at such a mesmerizingly steady and methodical pace.
Each man in the production process had a separate job. One rolled out the pork filling into bite size balls and weighed each one before deeming it acceptable. Another rolled out the dough into small round balls and weighed them before passing them to another person, who then rolled each one into a flat, precisely-measured diameter.
The dumplings were pure art, with the outer edges of each circle slightly thinner to optimize the characteristic folds. All this before the big finale, where the last dumpling-making experts placed the filling into the dough. From there, each dumpling was expertly folded into the finished product and contained exactly 18 folds. It was finally ready to be placed in a bamboo steamer. The entire process was quite a show and we hadn’t been seated yet!
The servers at Din Tai Fung were very helpful for first timers like me, but we decided to stick to basics for our inaugural meal. The dishes are cooked to order and arrived as soon as they are ready. We started with soft sesame noodles that were white as snow and simply blanketed with a delicious sesame sauce. If you love sesame this is a dish to try. Green beans with garlic followed our delectable noodles – so delicious and crisp with a strong yet not overpowering garlic flavor.
The Famous Pork Xiao Long Bao
Finally, the long-anticipated pork soup dumplings, Pork Xiao Long Bao (XLB). They arrived in the traditional bamboo steamer basket as 10 bite-sized XLB dumplings. Because the broth is so hot, we were advised to place each dumpling in our soup spoon and poke the underside with a chopstick to release the broth. This would allow each dumpling to cool before we devoured them.
Surprisingly, some aficionados scorn the hole poking method. Instead, they simply place the dumpling into their dipping sauce to cool before eating. We’ve found dipping the dumpling in your own concoction of rice vinegar, soy sauce, ginger and chili oil gives the dumpling a nice spicy accent. But whichever method you employ, slurping the hot broth and dipping the dumpling in sauce or not, dumplings are always delicious.
How to describe this first XLB tasting? Din Tai Fung dumplings have a hot steamed wonton-texture skin, stuffed with a mildly seasoned pork-filling and swimming in delicately salty broth. They are like an Asian version of Grandma’s chicken noodle soup in a bite sized package.
Of course, you can never go wrong adding fried rice with pork chop to your order. It’s comfort food heaven – lots of fluffy rice with soft egg and a crispy pork chop on top. All the soups are very traditional and come in large bowls giving a foursome a nice cup to sample. The short rib soup is a deep red spicy broth with large hunks of tender beef and fresh bok choy; simple but delicious.
The History Behind Din Tai Fung
Din Tai Fung’s founder Yang Bing-Yi came to Taipei from China in 1948, and found work at a bulk cooking oil delivery company. When the company closed ten years later, he opened his own cooking oil business in 1958. As cooking oil became more available in local stores in smaller containers for home use, his business declined. In 1974 needing to make a change, he hired a chef to make dumplings and turned his business into a restaurant.
Focusing on consistency, service and quality, Din Tai Fung soon started to receive accolades from around the world.
Many travel and food magazines raved about the food and the word quickly spread among food lovers. In 1993, the New York Times rated them as a top ten gourmet restaurant in the world and their success was sealed.
But the real crown came in 2010 when the Hong Kong restaurant was awarded a Michelin star. As you can imagine, this is a rare honor for a restaurant chain. With Chinese New Year approaching this February 16th, it could be the perfect spot to celebrate!
Knowing some of these interesting facts might entice you to dine here:
- Din Tai Fung has 119 restaurants in 14 countries with an average wait time of 1-3 hours.
- Each branch has an open kitchen to showcase their famous dumplings and each dumpling is weighed before cooking to the following specifications: 5 gram dumpling skin, 16 gram pork stuffing and always 18 folding edges.
- Employees are trained from 3-6 months in the art of making Xiao Long Bao before they are deemed ready for the glass walled kitchen.
- Each branch serves a daily average of 1000-2000 customers which in dumpling terms means they make 100,000 to 200,000 Xiao Long Bao each day!
Recently, we returned to the restaurant with a couple of doubting diners who wondered why we had to get there before 11:00 a.m. Sure enough, there was the long line snaking as expected. It ran outside the restaurant a half hour before opening. When we started thinking about a plan B for lunch, I suggested we persevere. In about 25 minutes we were seated and even given a seating preference (inside/outside/bar) before they handed us an order form.
Another 15 minutes later, we are enjoying hot green tea and taking turns watching the action in the open kitchen. Din Tai Fung is the ultimate Asian comfort food destination. It’s a fun experience especially if you are lucky enough to live near a location or can travel to one of their restaurants. Most are popping up in American malls and are an unbeatable combination of excellent food and dining entertainment. Even our guests who didn’t want to wait were converted and said the experience was worthwhile and not to be missed.