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Din Tai Fung Dumpling House

December 10, 2014

Usually, a friend’s recommendations never lead you astray.  For me, this is true when it comes to food and trying new places.  Nothing on social media, or the Internet, in general seems to catch my attention the way that food does.  Seeing food pictures, looking up restaurants, reading reviews, browsing menus, etc.  I love seeing food-related items on the Internet.  Months and months ago, I saw a friend of mine post a picture on Instagram that immediately caught my attention.  She had gone with her husband to dine at a dumpling house and she posted pictures of these dumplings that reminded me of the French onion soup dumplings that my husband, sister-in-law and her husband dined in at ChoLon in Denver.  To this day, the four of us still talk about that restaurant and how amazing the meal was.  Naturally, when I saw my friends dumpling pictures, I needed to find out more about this place.  Once I got the name of the restaurant, my husband and I decided that we needed to find the time to go.  At some point in time, I mentioned it to my parents, and they were intrigued as well and wanted to try out this dumpling house.  Unfortunately, the location of this restaurant really wasn’t anywhere near where we live or anywhere we tend to go.  Fast forward a couple of months and I discovered in the local food section of my local newspaper that this particular dumpling house was opening up a brand new location within South Coast Plaza.  Are you kidding me?!?  Just a 20 minute drive from where I live, this would be a great place for myself, my husband and my parents to go.  Of course, the restaurant, which has quite a reputation opened to much fanfare and constant 2-hour+ plus lines just to get a table.  After waiting several months for the hype to die down, the four of us ventured down to South Coast Plaza early one Saturday morning to try out Din Tai Fung Dumpling House and see if this restaurant was really everything everyone was saying it was.

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Having discovered that the restaurant opened at 10 am on weekends for lunch, and knowing that the only time we could possibly go to the restaurant and not be forced to wait an hour or more for a table, we decided to venture out early and be at the restaurant by the time it opened.  We ended up, on a drizzly Saturday morning, at the parking lot of South Coast Plaza by about 9:30 am.  By the time we wandered indoors and found the restaurant, we discovered that we weren’t the only ones who had the idea of being at the restaurant by the time it opened.  There were only a handful of people in line ahead of us, but there definitely was a line.  By the time the restaurant opened its doors at 10 am, there was a line around the restaurant, outside the mall and down the corridor leading to the mall’s entrance doors.  It was crazy to see how many people had actually come to the restaurant just to get a seat before the restaurant was even open for business.

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Din Tai Fung Dumpling House was originally founded in 1958 as a retail shop selling cooking oil of all things.  However, as business began to decline in the 1970s the owners knew they needed to change the direction of the business to meet consumer demands and somewhere along the way that translated to turning the business into a restaurant specializing in XiaoLongBao (soup dumplings).  It is these tiny soup filled dumplings that transformed the business into what it is today.  In 1993, Din Tai Fung was named among the top ten restaurants in the world, with the distinction of being the only Asian restaurant on this prestigious list.  In 2010, the Hong Kong branch of this Taiwanese restaurant was awarded with one Michelin star, and has since received this prestigious distinction every year since, a feat not accomplished by any other Taiwanese restaurant.  Though a Taiwanese restaurant, Din Tai Fung has expanded around the globe to include branches in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and the United States.  The recently opened South Coast Plaza branch features a large eat-in bar, a modern and spacious dining room that has both indoor and outdoor patio seating.  A main feature of the restaurant includes a glass-enclosed kitchen space where you can see workers cutting, kneading and rolling out the dumpling dough and stuffing it before they get steamed using the traditional bamboo baskets and are delivered fresh to your table upon ordering.  It’s fascinating to watch these cooks create your mouth watering dishes right in front of your eyes.

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I love ordering drinks at Asian restaurants because you get a variety of drinks that you don’t normally find in any other restaurants.  After perusing through the menu, I chose a lychee slush and my husband chose a cold glass of green tea.  The lychee slush, which was lychee syrup and ice blended together was cool, refreshing, and delicious.  What I really enjoyed about that drink is that it wasn’t overly sweet, which can be easy to do with lychee-flavored drinks as they tend to put too much sweet-flavored syrup into the drink.  I was so taken with my drink that I never bothered to asked my husband about his green tea until after the meal was over.  It’s ok, I’m not a big green tea fan anyway.

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My mom chose to order the lychee smoothie with boba.  Being that she’s the big boba fan, I’m not surprised that she had that added to her drink.  I’m kind of upset that I didn’t add it to mine either since I’m a huge fan as well.  The smoothie was smooth and creamy and incredibly refreshing.  The lychee flavor a perfect pairing for our dumpling meal.

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When you sit down at the table, each place setting contains your standard Asian set up: a small plate for you to eat out of, a ceramic soup spoon and a pair of chopsticks.  Since Din Tai Fung specializes in dumpling, you can’t go without some sort of a dipping sauce for your dumplings.  So, each place setting is also set up with a small sauce bowl with julienned ginger.  On the you are provided with soy sauce and hot sauce, both of which you’re supposed to add to the sauce bowl with the ginger.  It’s not pre-made for you because each person needs to decide for themselves how salty (soy sauce) and spicy (hot chili sauce) they want their dipping sauce to be.

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The food at Din Tai Fung is served family style and dishes are brought out as they cooked in the kitchen without any sort of rhyme or reason.  We started out with an item on the starter menu, the pork sticky rice wrap.  Essentially, you get shredded pork wrapped with brown sticky rice which is then wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed until cooked.  Once cooked, the banana leaf is removed and this wrap is brought out to the table.  I thought that this dish had the potential to be a real winner, but in the end fell a little bit short.  The idea of having sticky rice wrapped around shredded pork is a good one as sticky rice tends to be something you’d eat with a savory protein dish.  However, in this case, the dish fell short because I felt like it was lacking in flavor.  The sticky rice was a bit bland and I think could have done with some sort of seasoning, perhaps some soy sauce for saltiness.  The shredded pork was tender and juicy, and while had a little bit of flavor, it couldn’t overcome the blandness of the sticky rice.

Now to the dumplings.  In Chinese, these specific kinds of dumplings are called xiaolongbao, or sometimes shortened to XLB in English.  XiaoLongBao are soup dumplings, essentially little dumplings stuffed with soup, or broth inside, and then steamed in bamboo baskets until cooked and served immediately to the table.  Since this is what we came to Din Tai Fung for, we decided to order 3 different types of XLB, with each order containing 10 dumplings, so we’d have a variety to try.

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The first dumpling was the pork xiaolongbao, essentially pork soup dumplings.  Handmade dumpling dough wrapped around ground pork and pork broth that is steamed until cooked and served at the table in its bamboo basket.  From the outside, they look unremarkable, like any sort of dumpling you’ve seen before.  Large, one bite dough balls with an intricate twisty pattern created before the dumplings were steamed.  The idea is to grab a dumpling, dip it into the dipping sauce, and then pop it into your mouth.  It’s when you pop it into your mouth and bite into it, that you see how special they are.  One bite into the dumpling and you get a burst of flavor from the pork broth and the ground pork inside the dumpling as it starts swimming in your mouth.  You literally feel like you’re slurping up a spoonful of soup that exploded from inside the steamed dumpling.  The flavor and texture and feel of these little dumplings exploding into your mouth is different, and weird, and unique and oh so delicious.  There’s a reason that the dumplings are steamed and served immediately to your table, because they taste better immediately after cooking.  The longer you let the dumplings sit, the cooler the broth inside the dumpling gets and more sticky the dumpling dough starts to become.

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Although pork, aside from pork belly or bacon or even tenderloin and chops, isn’t really used much for cooking in the States, ground pork is extremely popular in Asian cooking.  Aside from ordering a few items that contained seafood or vegetables, every meat dish we ordered at Din Tai Fung was a pork dish.  I’m not even sure if I remember seeing beef or chicken on the menu.  The second bamboo basket of dumplings we ordered were the pork & crab xiaolongbao.  Again, like the pork dumplings, the magic comes when you pick up a dumpling, dip it in some sauce and pop it in your mouth.  Then the soup broth and the crab meat and ground pork come rushing out.  The pork & crab dumplings were exactly like the pork dumplings except that these contained a bit of crab meat.  The crab meat gave the broth a bit of a seafood flavor to them, but it was so slight that it really was kind of hard to distinguish between the pork xiaolongbao and the pork & crab xiaolongbao.

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Finally, our last order of dumplings was for the shrimp & pork shao mai.  Instead of being dumplings enclosed inside dough like the previous orders, this was more like a treasure bag.  It was exactly like taking the pork dumplings we’d had previously, but instead of sealing the broth and the ground pork inside the dough, the dough was cinched and there was a bit of extra dough at the top to form somewhat of a bag.  The extra bit of dough was used to encase shrimp and the shrimp helped seal up the dumpling itself.  Once it was steamed, it almost came out looking like a money bag overflowing with shrimp.  Comical, perhaps, but that’s what it reminded me of.  My husband and I agreed though, after having one of these shrimp & pork shao mai, that this was the best of the dumplings we ordered.  The shrimp really helped add to the flavor of the dumpling and it was like having a little extra treat with our pork soup dumplings.  I would definitely order these shrimp & pork shao mai again next time I dine at Din Tai Fung.

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In addition to the dumplings, we also ordered a couple of side dishes to go with our meal.  The first was a bowl of the mixed wontons with spicy sauce.  The mixed wontons contained a combination of shrimp & pork and vegetable & pork wontons steamed and sitting atop a spicy sauce.  Apparently, this spicy sauce is what people go wild for at Din Tai Fung.  So much so that you can order the spicy sauce on it’s own to use as a dipping sauce for your dumplings instead of just for the wontons.  I was kind of afraid that the spicy sauce might be too spicy for me, but I knew that my husband and my parents would enjoy it.  In the end, my husband forced me to give one a try and it wasn’t too bad.  The color of the spicy sauce was an angry red, but it seemed more so to be from the chili oil that gave off that color without an equally angry flavor than there being actual chili or chili flakes in the sauce.

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We also ordered the popular pork chop fried rice.  We wanted some rice to go with our meal, like any Asian person is used to having served at every meal.  And the pork chops here at Din Tai Fung are known for how incredible they are, so we decided to combine the best of both worlds and get the pork chop fried rice.  And it literally is a pork chop cooked and sliced into strips set atop fried rice made with rice, eggs and green onions.  We had a choice of either brown rice or white rice and we chose the brown rice fried rice.  The pork chop was actually tender, juicy and flavorful, which was great since my husband has a tendency of not touching pork chops at all.  He did, at least, try these pork chops, which was great.  Our waitress told us that we should combine the spicy sauce from the mixed wontons with the fried rice for added flavor for the rice, and my mom seemed to really enjoy that combination.

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Lastly, we ordered a greens dish of sautéed spinach with garlic.  While I love sautéed spinach, I sometimes don’t like the after effects of the filmy weird layer it leaves on your teeth after you eat it.  However, surprisingly, I’m not sure if it’s the spinach Din Tai Fung used or the way they cooked it, there was no weird filmy layer on my teeth after I ate the spinach.  In fact, my mom and I especially agreed that this sautéed spinach was fantastic.  It seemed simply like a plate of spinach sautéed with thin-sliced garlic until it was tender and flavorful, but I’m sure it was more than that.  But this really was some fantastic spinach, maybe the best spinach dish I’ve ever had and when it was gone, I kind of wanted more of it.

All too soon, it seemed like our meal was over.  I never would have thought that 30 dumplings and some side dishes between 4 people would be enough, but we were all kind of full, and we hadn’t gotten to dessert yet.  With 4 of us, we decided to give 2 different kinds of dessert a try.

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First off, we ordered the sweet red bean rice bun.  Much like the pork sticky rice wrap, this was sweetened red bean paste wrapped with white sticky rice before being encased in a banana leaf and steamed.  Once cooked, the banana leaf is removed and the sweet red bean rice bun is put onto a plate and served at the table.  Since I didn’t love the pork sticky rice wrap I wasn’t quite sure what the sweet red bean rice bun would be like, but after one bite, I was won over.  The sweet red bean paste inside the bun was fantastic.  Smooth and creamy with just a hint of sweetness and a lot of red bean flavor.  The sticky rice itself that was encasing the sweet red bean was also slightly flavored and had a bit of a sweetness to add to it’s sticky glutinous texture.  The combination of the two made for a filling and really delicious dessert.

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The second dessert we ordered was the sweet taro dumplings.  These dessert dumplings came highly recommended and it makes sense, this is a dumpling house after all.  Like the entrees, you get 10 dumplings in a dessert order.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t smart enough to remember to take a picture of the inside of the dumplings so that you could see the purple-colored taro paste inside the dumpling.  As it’s name implies, it is a sweet taro filling inside the dumpling.  Sweet enough to be called a dessert, but not too sweet that it’s too much.  The dumpling has a the right combination of sweetness to balance out the doughiness of the dumpling dough.  And though we were all kind of full from lunch, we finished off every last dumpling there was to be had.  I admit that when I was a kid, I was not a fan of taro anything, and now my tune has definitely changed.  These sweet taro dumplings were pretty darn good and a great way to finish off a meal.

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My husband and I loved Din Tai Fung Dumpling House.  Yeah, the idea of having to wait hours in line just to get a table isn’t so appealing, but arriving at the restaurant just before it opened to wait in a short line to get a table, that’s not so bad.  And the quality of the food and the service make up for having to wait.  The xiaolongbao were delicious, little pockets of amazing soup that bursts out of these small, delicate dumplings as soon as you bite into them.  Even something as simple as sautéed spinach with garlic was delicious.  The drinks were cool and refreshing, and the desserts were flavorful and filling.  My parents were probably a little less in love with Din Tai Fung Dumpling House as my parents were as they both felt that the restaurant was a bit overpriced, but yet, a great place to take an out-of-town guest for a nice meal.  In short, if you’ve never experienced a soup dumpling, xiaolongbao, before, you don’t know what you’re missing.  And if you’re within driving distance of a Din Tai Fung Dumpling House, you need to check it out!

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