Din Tai Fung: Dumpling Paradise

It’s quite a drive from my house in Culver City to Arcadia, a suburb of Los Angeles east of downtown with a predominantly Asian population, mostly Chinese I suspect. It can take 40 minutes or over an hour depending on traffic which, as you know or probably correctly suspect, is freakin’ horrible. Although I despise traffic, having lived in SoCal for nearly fifteen (!) years has given me a certain zen-like immunity to its impact. As long as I have the proper tunes and remember to breathe, I can navigate even the worst traffic and come out the other end calm, without white knuckles from gripping the wheel, without a voice hoarse from screaming at other drivers.

So this past Saturday evening when we finally got to that veritable Shangri-La of dumplings, Din Tai Fung, after a tough wrangle through Eastbound weekend traffic, I was as calm as could be expected. However, I was starving when we got there! And after waiting fifty-five minutes for our table, I was practically ravenous and desperate for food. Which probably explains how the three of us devoured in less than a half hour fifty dumplings, a plate of green beans, a small mountain of cucumbers, braised beef soup, a pork chop, and a plate of hand-made noodles with shrimp. Of course, pangs of hunger aside, it’s pretty easy to over-order at Din Tai Fung. It’s just so good. So damn good.

Justly famous juicy pork dumpling, with julienned ginger & sweet black vinegar.

I won’t bore you with the whole history of Din Tai Fung, especially since you can get a good dose of it from their website if you’re so inclined. In short, a small dumpling shop in Taipei hit it big and ended up opening several branches in Japan and finally, America. They’ve won all sorts of international accolades and are beloved around the world. And they’ve managed to feed millions of customers and expand rapidly without any sacrifice in quality. They take the dumpling very seriously. Their credo, at least according to their website is: “Creating steamed dumpling is not just a technique, but an art.” And this dedication to their art shows. Their dumplings are magnificent!

If you need more info on the history or menu or locations visit www.dintaifungusa.com.

My buddy Geoff was visiting from NorCal this past weekend and Regina and I had in mind to take him to Golden Deli, that wonderful Vietnamese outpost in San Gabriel, thinking it would revitalize us after a day of nursing a Def-Con 4 hangover (post-bachelor party). However Geoff urged us toward Din Tai Fung, having heard of it from another good friend, and being as taken with good Asian food as we are, had been hankering to go. We could hardly refuse.

Din Tai Fung actually operates two restaurants practically adjacent to each other in neighboring buildings. Store #1 is more comfortable perhaps and warmer in feel. Store #2, which Regina refers to as “the Annex” is more modern but has the advantage of a terrarium view of the prep kitchen, where you can watch as twenty guys of Asian and Hispanic heritage quickly and meticulously craft thousands of dumplings for the day’s sales.

Regina put her name in at the host stands at both restaurants, and each smiling hostess quoted around fifty minutes for a table. We strolled a bit to kill some time and found a local shit-hole (pardon my French) dive bar. An oppressively loud Lady Gaga track from the jukebox did not make the depressing Station Bar any more inviting, and the vodka did nothing good to my empty stomach. But as we waited we filled out our order cards for each restaurant. This system of pre-ordering is slightly brilliant. Because by the time our table was ready and we settled in for a goodly grub our first dish, the crispy pork chop, hit the table in under three minutes.

Perhaps slightly pedestrian, the pork chop was the first casualty of our ravenous onslaught.

The soy-marinated pork chop was delicious — salty, a little sweet, chewy, crisp at the edges, and very satisfying in a simple way. However, compared to the food that followed, it was a trifle pedestrian. I’ve had better pork chops, but it was a nice way to start the meal and fight back the hunger.

The cucumbers were perfect – lightly pickled, crunchy, fresh, with a whisper of sesame and the barest hint of spice. I love cucumber, especially when they’re like this. Simple and great.

The subtle accent of sesame oil made for a refreshing pickled cucumber.
Rich broth, tender beef, yummy greens. Very good.

Our braised beef soup was next and the broth was robust and delicious, with a thin sheen of oil on the top, which although anathema in Western cuisines is a very welcome sign of authenticity when it comes to Asian broths. The beef was tender if a little unremarkable. The greens were excellent.

The first dumpling course to hit the table is Regina’s favorite, the crab and pork dumplings. The crab flavor is delicate, the filling is flavorful and super-juicy, and the wrapper is perfect. As with all their dumplings they are best with a touch of sweet black vinegar and perhaps a bit of soy or chili paste if you’d like. Each person is given a plate of very finely julienned fresh ginger which you can season your sauce with or eat small amounts with each dumpling. Since the steamed dumplings are filled with broth as well as meat, I suggest you eat them from the provided soup spoon, as shown in that first picture (yeah, back up that way!). Take a bite, slurp a little soup out, blow on the dumpling (they’re always shockingly hot), and down it. Repeat. Up to fifty times.

Crab and pork dumplings are tasty little bastards!
The juicy pork dumplings are perfectly moist and flavorful.
 
These dumplings are truly incredible. They are beautifully made and stunning to look at, perfectly pleated like tiny draw-string purses. The handmade wrappers are flavorful, chewy, incredibly thin and yet strong enough to contain the filling and the broth.
The fillings are wonderfully moist and delicious. The robust and juicy pork dumpling might be the star. Both Geoff and I declared them the winner overall. In fact, we ordered three trays of just the pork ones — that totaled thirty dumplings. We had no trouble finishing them.   

Wok-fried green beans are perfectly executed. Simple and excellent!

Up next were the wok-fried green beans. Absolutely stunning, perfectly executed, with the skins of the beans wrinkled from the first fry and then lightly sauced in the wok. I love green beans cooked like this. Just divine.

Din Tai Fung also makes superb noodles. Sauteed with shrimp, bok choy, and spinach the noodles were excellent. The wheat noodles (a bit like thin udon) were springy and perfectly cooked. My only reservation was that the sauce could have been a bit more flavorful. A nice hit of fresh ginger would have been a great addition.

Handmade noodles are delightfully toothsome and the shrimp flavorful, with a nice little snap to them.

The final course and final dumplings of the day were the newest addition to the menu, the green melon and shrimp dumplings. These are excellent. The filling was sweeter than the pork, more interesting than the crab, and very elegant. The melon (or gourd, not sure which) adds a vegetable sweetness and a softer character to the filling. And the minced shrimp made the filling flavorful and delightfully seafoody. It was a great combo, and if we hadn’t already eaten way more than we should have, I’d have been eager to devour another order.

New item green melon and shrimp dumplings. Fantastic addition to the menu!

This is only my second visit to Din Tai Fung and I can’t wait for a third. All told it was a fantastic meal! I can’t urge you strong enough to eat at this marvelous restaurant. It’s heaven on earth for dumpling fans. It’s worth the drive, it’s worth the wait, it’s worth seeking out. Go now.

It’s always packed at Din Tai Fung. Prepare for long waits on Saturday nights.

Not a great picture, true.

Din Tai Fung Store #1

1108 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia, CA 91007
(626) 574-7068

Din Tai Fung Store #2 (Annex)
1088 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia, CA 91007
(626) 446-8588

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