Photo by Anne Fishbein
Those of us who crave great Chinese dumplings on weekend mornings long ago learned to bow to the tyranny of the masses, joining the throngs milling around Empress Pavilion or the foyer of Yung Ho, edging out Mercedes sedans in the parking lots of 888 and Sam Woo Seafood, roosting so close to one another at Dumpling Master and Pearl’s that one sign of a successful expedition may be vivid chile-oil stains on the elbow of a shirt.
But there may be no restaurant wait in Southern California to rival the one at the Arcadia outpost of the famous Taipei dumpling parlor Din Tai Fung, swarms spilling out from the restaurant’s modest foyer, into the parking lot, and halfway to the racetrack. Efficiency may be key at Din Tai Fung — customers are required to fill out little order pads when they sign up for a spot in line, ticking off quantities of soup dumplings, spicy roast-beef noodles, and vegetable buns before returning the forms to the hostess — but on weekends you often have a solid hour to browse through the café-cum-bookstore on the other end of the shopping center, picking through the selection of Badtz-Maru backpacks, Afro Ken Dog mechanical pencils and an aisle’s worth of gear bearing the image of Bang2 Feces, a singing, dancing cartoon turd that is unaccountably popular among Taiwanese teenagers at the moment. Sometimes it seems that two-thirds of the tables at Din Tai Fung are littered with go-cups of tapioca-laced boba tea from the bookstore, and if you haven’t bothered to lubricate your wait in line, you will probably feel a little cheated.
Soup dumplings, the specialty, are among the most popular Taiwanese imports in years, thin-walled spheroids filled with pork, seasonings and teaspoonfuls of jellied broth that transform themselves into mouthfuls of impossible juiciness, hits of intense flavor. In New York, jump-started by the popularity of the Flushing restaurant Joe’s Shanghai and continued by a hundred other places, soup dumplings have usurped kung pao chicken and cold sesame noodles as the totems of Chinese-restaurant style. In Los Angeles, the crab-laced soup dumplings at Mei Long Village inspire sighs. But it took Din Tai Fung to transform the soup dumpling into high-tech industry.
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While you are waiting for a table, you can peer into the restaurant’s glassed-in kitchen, which resembles nothing so much as the clean room at a silicon-chip factory, peopled with teams of chefs, dressed in impeccable white coats, who have broken the making of these soup dumplings into a precision industrial process. Squadrons of workers make the dough and stretch the dough, sever ropes of dough into slender discs and form them into little balls, roll them flat on a cutting board, stretch them thin around spoonfuls of pork, pleat them into vaguely dome-shaped objects that resemble nothing so much as tufted Victorian-era hassocks.
To kill time before the soup dumplings arrive, there are stretchy, precision-cut noodles served in a deeply flavored distillation of black chicken or gamy roasted brisket; extremely wonderful pork won ton in broth; gooey lozenges of rice cake stir-fried with pork and Chinese cabbage; and tall, open-topped shiu mai dumplings, resembling tiny reactor towers, filled with pork and crunchy shrimp. The buns filled with minced Chinese vegetables, barbecued pork and sweet bean paste are fine.
But don’t fill up. While one can reasonably argue that the soup dumplings at Mei Long Village are sweeter and those at Dumpling Master meatier, the soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung are incontrovertibly engineered to be the state of the art, elastic, ultrathin wrappers bulging with the steamy weight of the soup within, served 10 to an order in bullet-shaped aluminum steamers that look like relics of the Taiwanese ’50s. In most restaurants, soup dumplings, however delicious, eventually leak, spilling the better part of their payloads through the perforated steamer bottom and out onto the table. You can get three or four orders of soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung — and over the course of a meal, you probably will — before you find so much as a single dumpling that has breached so much as a drop of soup. Pick them up carefully, garnish simply with a shred or two of fresh ginger and a few sparing drops of black vinegar, and inhale.
1108 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia; (626) 574-7068. Open Tues.–Sun., 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 5–9:30 p.m. Lunch for two, food only, $8–$14. No alcohol. Lot parking. MC, Visa. Recommended dishes: steamed pork dumplings, pork-and-shrimp siu mai, fried rice cake.