Din Tai Fung
Multiple locations across Asia and in Los Angeles; dintaifung.com.tw
Service: Long lines, but professional staff.
Setting: A little cold, a little factory like, but clean and comfortable.
Must-Haves: Xiao Long Bao
Cost: Varies by location, but pricey for dumplings.
What's the longest you've ever waited in line for a dumpling? If you've been to a Din Tai Fung, the Taiwan-based dumpling and noodle chain famous for their xiao long bao (steamed soup-filled dumplings), chances are you've waited at least an hour.
Waiting in line, you can't help but be excited at the prospect of tasting what promise to be the greatest soup dumplings you've ever had. The chain has an interesting history. The founder, Yang Bingyi originally made a living selling cooking oil. Some time in the early '80s, he decided to start selling xiao long bao from the shop in order to supplement their income. The little juicy buns soon started outselling the oil, and the shop was converted into an actual restaurant.
Since then, the chain has expanded to ten countries (mostly in Asia with a branch now in Los Angeles). The New York Times named them one of the 10 best restaurants in the world in 1993. Both branches in Hong Kong have been awarded Michelin-stars. In other words, this is no ordinary dumpling house.
But can it live up to its reputation? I finally got the chance to check it out when I was in Tokyo a couple months back.
The first thing you notice is the line. The massive, never-ending line. Talking to the hostess, it seems like the line is a constant feature and it begins to form about an hour before opening every day of the week. Man! We're talking Momofuku Noodle Bar levels of waiting here.
An hour later, we were finally seated in the modern, clean, and comfortable-but-sterile dining room.
Though the chain is most famous for their dumplings, they do offer a wider menu with noodles, fried rice, soups, and salads forming the bulk of it. For my purposes, we focused solely on the dumplings and steamed buns, placing an order for every flavor they offered.
The classic soup dumplings come in a variety of flavors. At this location, they included pork, pork and crab, scallop, and a sea urchin variation (my favorite one) amongst others. All of the dumplings arrive at the table perfectly crafted with delicate pleats, a savory liquid center, and a small morsel of meat inside. You can't knock them on their craftsmanship—by outward appearance, these are indeed the epitome of soup dumpling artistry.
It's when you bite into them that their flaws are revealed. It's not that they are poor dumplings—they're not—but they aren't the pinnacle of xiao long bao perfection I was led to believe they be. For starters, the skins are a little dry. It seems counterintuitive that a dumpling filled with soup steamed in a moist environment would have dry skin, but they do. The skin is papery and devoid of the signature stretch-and-pull that marks great dumpling skins. When eating a soup dumpling, I want to have to tug at it a bit before it gives in. These skins offer no such stretchiness.
The flavor of the soup inside can't be faulted. It's well seasoned, flavorful, and very clean tasting—almost too clean, in fact. What the dumplings have in flavor, they lack in joy and exuberance. I see soup dumplings as down and dirty delicious, while at Din Tai Fung, the sterility of the entire operation detracts from the joy of eating. I like my soup dumplings to be electric guitar rock and roll, not harpsichord Baroque.
Even the morsel of meat inside the soup is almost clinical in its perfection. Barely a hint of fat mars its lean, lean texture. It's ground too coarse and seasoned too modestly. They're the classic cold beauty. Outwardly beautiful but emotionless within.
That joy does appear in other parts of the menu. The cute, shrimp-topped shao mai, for instance, are delightful. No soup inside, but plenty of rich, savory, tender pork. The cute shrimp carefully laid out over the opening of the little purses is crunchy, sweet, briny, and flavorful.
Steamed green vegetable and pork dumplings are also fantastic, with plenty of moisture from the greens and a pronounced porky flavor.
Steamed buns suffer from the same problem as the soup dumplings—fillings that are entirely too clean tasting. The perfectly fluffy, tender steamed buns themselves are great, but coupled with the pork filling, they are both hard to hate and very, very hard to get excited about.
Turns out my favorite dumplings of the meal came at the end: red bean and mango-stuffed steamed dumplings are entirely new to me, and extremely delicious. I don't know whether it's the effect of the red bean paste on the skins, or whether the fillings were just so delicious that I didn't notice, but the skins on these dumplings seemed to have just the right texture.
Like most food in Japan, Din Tai Fung is not cheap. A steamer full of eight dumplings rings in at about $13. More if you opt for one of the seafood flavors. For that price, you can get about 30 better dumplings in New York's Chinatown (check out our search for The Best Soup Dumplings In Manhattan here), and that's without having to wait an hour to be seated.
In many ways, I'm glad that Din Tai Fung has yet to make its way to New York (though I can't imagine it's a long way off). I can see myself having a very troubled relationship with the restaurant if it were to move to my city. On the one hand, their dumplings are so perfectly formed, so dainty, and so pretty that I'd be compelled to visit just to admire them. I'd go in time after time thinking and hoping that maybe just this time they'd warm up to me and show the same sort of perfection inside as out.