No trip to Taipei is complete without a visit to Din Tai Fung, the original vaunted xiao long bao house that spawned an international soup dumpling empire.
At least that's what the guidebooks tell you. And me, and everyone else, which leads to some long, long waits for an order of dumplings. You can expect a line at any of the dozens of Din Tai Fung locations in 11 countries, but especially at the chain's original Taipei branch on Xinyi Road, which opened back in 1972. Two-hour waits kick in by midday, with the line snaking down to the end of the block and across the street.
That's a lot of time for a traveler to devote to a single meal, particularly in a city where you eat just as well in the middle of the street at 12 a.m. as you would in a formal restaurant dining room. On a recent trip to Taiwan, with only a couple days in Taipei, I found myself wondering if giving that much of my time to Din Tai Fung was really worth it.
I'll put it this way. Din Tai Fung's original branch makes some of the most refined soup dumplings you can eat: whisper-thin skins and delicate brothy fillings without a drop of excess grease. The julienned ginger soaking in black vinegar is cut as thin as pencil lead so it's incredibly fragrant and not the least bit pungent; the shrimp and pork siu mai are sweet and meaty but not cloying like lesser versions.
The whole experience is very nice and proper. And if you visit first thing in the morning, like I did, you can skip that whole line and have a pleasant meal. I can't say the soup dumplings changed my life, but that's a lot to ask of any restaurant. So to travelers looking to know what all the fuss is about: Go in the morning and skip the line. (Yes, soup dumplings make great breakfast.)
Or consider this: There's a lot of Taipei that you can eat in the three or so hours you'll devote to waiting on line and eating at Din Tai Fung. Here are four great places near the restaurant you can visit in that stretch of time, including some soup dumplings I actually enjoyed more than the supposed gold standard.
Great Soup Dumplings (at a Fraction of the Price): Jin Ji Yuan
Practically around the corner from the original Din Tai Fung is YongKang Street, which thanks to its bevy of hip restaurants, tea houses, quirky small shops, and brutalist concrete playground slides, is popular with tourists and young locals. That includes my host, none other than former SE-er Robyn Lee, who introduced me to her go-to soup dumpling spot: Jin Ji Yuan.
Where Din Tai Fung is sleek and modern, Jin Ji Yuan is old school and shabby. Downstairs is dominated by an open kitchen that spills out onto the street, devoted to steamers full of soup dumplings and deep pans for frying chicken. Head upstairs and you'll encounter a no-frills dining room and check-off-what-you-want menu that includes all sorts of steamed dumplings and simple dishes served over rice.
You're here for the xiao long bao. Compared to Din Tai Fung's, the skins are a little thicker and richer, but they're also more moist. The filling is also less refined—a thicker grind of pork and broth that's more overtly porky and fatty. No, the ginger isn't cut as neatly here, and the dumplings don't dissolve in your mouth the way they do at Din Tai Fung, but to my barbarian Western palate, Jin Ji Yuan's soup dumplings have a little more oomph than Din Tai Fung's—an experience that's just as valid, and, when you consider prices and service times at mere fractions of Din Tai Fung's, a total winner.
"Jin Ji Yuan" translates to "golden chicken garden," a.k.a. fried chicken, and you'd do well to save room for an order. That well-salted skin is as crisp and crackly as they come, and the meat's tender and juicy enough to be served at any Southern chicken joint with pride. Now if only Jin Ji Yuan stocked honey and biscuits...
Soft Serve Ice Cream: 8% Ice
Soft serve ice cream went from virtually unheard of in Taiwan to Major Thing in 2013, when warring convenience store chains 7-11 and FamilyMart both introduced it to customers. The fight for ice cream dominance turned a Western curiosity into a national obsession, and now you can get soft serve in grocery stores, cafes, and high-end ice cream shops.
Among that latter category is 8% Ice, a successful mini-chain with six branches across the city, including one right near Din Tai Fung and Jin Ji Yuan. In addition to soft serve you'll also find hard ice cream in elaborate flavors like rose petal or roasted hojicha tea with honey, but I preferred the bright, true-to-flavor soft serve offerings that change regularly. Pictured above is a dong ding oolong soft serve, and the ice cream beautifully reflects the tea's nutty roasted flavor and honeyed sweetness. It's refreshing and light, more sherbet-like than super-creamy ice cream.
Taiwanese ice cream culture features an interesting trade-off between texture and flavor. The low-end convenience store and grocery chains serve a super-creamy, heavily stabilized ice cream that feels like the ice cream truck stuff we get in the States, but tends to taste like stale breakfast cereal marshmallows. Meanwhile the high-end shops like 8% serve incredible flavors but with lots of crunchy ice crystals—a choice that reflects the local preference for light and icy sweets like shaved ice instead of dense, fatty ice cream that would weigh you down in the country's oppressive heat. It's just one of the quirks of local food culture to accept, like cones that, wherever you go, always taste of styrofoam.
Market Crawling and Fresh Tofu: Dongmen Jiang Ji Douhua
One light snack deserves another, and now's as good a time as any to visit Dongmen Jiang Ji Douhua, a small tofu vendor in the local covered market. The market itself is a throwback to old Taipei before the high-rises came: a labyrinth of meat, fish, produce, and dry goods vendors housed in a makeshift structure that opens onto the street. It's busiest early in the morning, so if you want to skip the rush, head there after 10 a.m. or in the early afternoon.
Dongmen Jiang Ji Douhua (another Robyn Lee favorite) is one of the market's prepared food vendors, and they sell exceptional douhua (a.k.a. "tofu pudding"). It's the simplest of dishes: fresh tofu, a light sugar syrup, and boiled peanuts sprinkled on top, ordered hot or cold. If you've only bought your tofu in plastic box form at the grocery store, tasting this douhua is like eating just-made ricotta or mozzarella for the very first time. It has a full, rounded beany-buttery flavor enhanced by the barely sweet syrup, and it's clean and bright on the tongue. Dongmen's is the best I've had since...well, the last time I was in Asia; it's especially rich and plush.
Incredible Tea: Wistaria Tea House
There are tea shops closer to Din Tai Fung, but while the suckers are still waiting on line there, walk the extra kilometer and a half to one of the city's lauded places that doesn't make you wait: Wistaria.
There's no finer place to drink in Taiwan's highly developed tea culture than this 1920s-era Japanese-style house turned government dormitory turned political dissident meeting den turned tea sanctuary. Tea service costs about $10 per person per tea. If that sounds steep, consider that each tea will last you a dozen or so steepings, and you're tasting high quality teas that retail at times for hundreds of dollars a pound, in a peaceful, contemplative space that feels like a throwback to the 1930s.
Wistaria's pu-erh selection is especially great: well aged, complex fermented teas that hit you down to your core. Seek out the smooth, rich Yiwu for starters, but in general Wistaria's teas range from good to consciousness-expanding. It does for tea what Din Tai Fung claims to do for xiao long bao. And you won't have to wait on line for it.