Here's a sight that never gets old: dozens of chefs crowded into a kitchen, each one rapidly turning out a dazzling display of dumpling after dumpling. Wherever in the world I visit Din Tai Fung, I stand at the window and stare: the chain's dedication to dumpling-making is undeniably impressive.
Din Tai Fung is the premier Taiwanese restaurant export, known primarily for its xiao long bao (aka soup dumplings), but with a menu that includes other kinds of dumplings, along with noodles, fried rice, greens, and more. While there are Din Tai Fung restaurants in numerous Asian countries, Seattle is only the second metropolitan area (after Los Angeles) in the United States where the chain has expanded, with a second restaurant opening just last week in University Village.
The area's first Din Tai Fung opened with much fanfare in Bellevue in 2010. From the start, people waited for hours to get in, with long lines continuing to this day. The sensation is already the same in Seattle, with waits the first week at about 90 minutes during lunchtime, growing longer throughout the day.
So, is Din Tai Fung worth the wait?
The soup dumplings are beautiful. They're smaller than almost any other I've tried (and I've tried many, including ones I've made myself!), but perfectly constructed with a consistent number of pleats. The skins are remarkably delicate—so thin that you can actually see some soup inside. After dipping one in black vinegar spiked with ginger, pop the whole thing in your mouth for a clean bite of pork and aromatics penetrating a refined broth (there's also a pork and crab filling, as well as a pricey truffle version). The xiao long bao are truly delicious, and clearly the best in town, though the playing field is quite small.
The problem, for those who know xiao long bao: there's not enough soup inside, and the soup isn't hot enough. When I lift a dumpling, there's no tell-tale, teardrop-shaped droop from the soup. In fact, there's virtually no droop at all. And then there's the issue of temperature. My dining partner for my first Seattle visit, a Taiwanese friend who similarly has eaten at Din Tai Fung in Taipei and at numerous other soup dumpling joints, has calculated that you should ideally wait 60-90 seconds from delivery to bypass "burn your mouth out" temperatures, after which you have a two-minute window of "just the right temperature" before the soup goes gets too cold.
My soup dumpling verdict on Seattle is the same as back in 2010 when Din Tai Fung opened in Bellevue: please make xiao long bao that leaves me breathless, not brothless. And when you get the additional broth in there, please make it hotter.
As for the rest of the menu, the food was decent, though consistently underwhelming, mostly lacking seasoning. I felt like everything could have benefited from a hit of MSG. I really wanted to love something, but had only a shrug-my-shoulders "like" of most items, while my Taiwanese friend summarized the meal as "meh." But it's just a week in, and based on the Bellevue experience, the slightly weak food will see some degree of improvement.
The big question revolves around the xiao long bao. The Bellevue dumplings are still subpar to my favorites just north in Richmond and Vancouver (at Shanghai River and Long's Noodle House), and to what I've had at Din Tai Fung in Taipei. (Note that in Taipei, I actually prefer Jin Din Rou's xiao long bao.) Regardless, the restaurant will be popular; based on the ongoing lines in Bellevue, I'm sure Din Tai Fung will be a big success in Seattle.
About the author: Jay Friedman is a Seattle-based freelance food writer who happens to travel extensively as a sex educator. An avid fan of noodles (some call him "The Mein Man"), he sees sensuality in all foods, and blogs about it at his Gastrolust website. You can follow him on Twitter @jayfriedman.