By Siqi Liu ’19
Before my family embarked on our two-week road trip along the Pacific Coastline this December, my dad and I frantically searched the Internet for the best places to eat. I always thought I was the only one in my family with the foodie gene, I was wrong. As it turns out, my dad came up with an impressive list of restaurants for our trip that kept our stomachs as happy as we were from the rides at Universal Studios. During one of our last dinners in Los Angeles, we found a gem that to this day keeps me dreaming of soupy, hot steamed buns: Din Tai Fung.
A bit of a background: Din Tai Fung was founded all the way back in the 1970s in Taipei, where it gained fame from its xiaolongbao dishes. For those who are unfamiliar with this term, xiaolongbao is a type of steam bun that is shaped like a miniature bao and is cooked in a bamboo steaming basket, but has thin, dumpling-like skin. “Xiaolong” literally means “small basket,” standing for the small bamboo baskets they’re steamed in, and “bao” refers to its inherent similarity with the typical steamed meat or red bean stuffed bao you see at Wow Bao. Growing up, they’ve made up one of my favorite breakfast dishes (P.S. If you’re looking to put together a full, Chinese breakfast, I’d highly recommend serving xiaolongbao with hot Chinese soy milk and fresh Chinese crullers).
Going into Din Tai Fung, I already high expectations for xiaolongbao dishes: During my 2012 trip to Beijing, my mother and I visited the some of the most famous xiaolongbao restaurants in the city. But I also knew that Din Tai Fung has some pretty recognizable credentials, too: In the 90s, New York Times rated it as one of the top ten gourmet restaurants in the world; it opened three new branches in 2015 alone; and its website boasts praises from critics in well-known publications like Times and the Michelin Guide.
I was excited—excited enough to endure the one-hour wait as my family perused the menu and debated for the fifth time on whether we should order the braised beef noodle soup or shrimp & pork wontons. The upside is that I got to watch the chefs make xiaolongbao through their glass-window kitchen, which was pretty cool.
We were starving when we finally got our seats, but fortunately, the ball got rolling pretty fast from there. It seemed like only minutes passed before our first bamboo basket appeared on the table. I was surprised not only by how quick the service was but also its style—we ordered four baskets of xiaolongbao/steamed buns, but instead of serving them all at once, they came one by one. That way, none of them was sitting in the corner and getting cold.
The first dish we were presented was the pork xiaolongbao, and let me tell you: My family inhaled it. They were fresh off the stove, so I picked them up gingery with my chopsticks and took care not to poke a hole in them. The secret to eating xiaolongbao is to take a tiny bite first so the steam from the hot soup inside could cool a little before putting the whole thing in your mouth. And boy, I was in for a treat. The soup was perfectly flavored and not too salty, the skin was the right thickness, and the meat was tender. Needless to say, all ten of the xiaolongbao were gone in under a minute.
But that wasn’t even the best part. The highlight dishes of our dinner were the pork crab xiaolongbao, which I preferred over the plain pork xiaolongbao because I am a fan of seafood flavors, and the sweet taro xiaolongbao, which is simply divine for anyone with a sweet tooth. As someone who is far more of a savory than a sweet person, rarely orders dessert, and doesn’t like chocolate (gasp—I know), the sweet taro xiaolongbao was the perfect amount of sweetness. It wasn’t cloying or sticky, and even after eating practically the whole basket, I didn’t feel guilty.
I was also lucky enough to get a bite of my dad’s braised beef noodle soup, which had really thin, tender noodles and a mildly spicy flavor, but I’d say Din Tai Fung is still better with its steamed bun assortments. We tried to order the highly-recommended shrimp & pork shao mai, but they ran out, so we had to settle for the rice & pork shao mai. It which wasn’t bad, but it lacked the steaming hot soup that you get from xiaolongbao.
Overall, the dining experience was fantastic. I would probably faint out of happiness if Din Tai Fung decides to open a restaurant near my hometown in Chicago or Boston. So, if you find yourself on the West Coast, I beg you to do yourself a favor and try out this restaurant. Whether you’re weaned on xiaolongbao or looking to lose your xiaolongbao v-card, Din Tai Fung wouldn’t disappoint. Case in point: this pregnant lady who used to live in my neighborhood in Chicago craved Din Tai Fung so badly she and her husband flew to L.A. just to eat there. Now that’s true love.
Din Tai Fung
Location: Its U.S. restaurants are sadly limited to California and Seattle, but it has international locations in Japan, China, Singapore, and more.
Reservation: Only take reservations for a party of 6+ over the phone. Otherwise must wait in person, and it’s usually a long wait.
Overall Rating: 4/5