Monday, May 4, 2009

The Gentrified "Soup Dumplings" of Din Tai Fung (Arcadia)

One of Eastern China's most popular culinary exports would have to be the Xiao Long Bao (known as "XLB" or "Soup Dumplings"). These little, pouch-like creations have become so popular across China, that a version of them are even served at Southern-style Dim Sum restaurants. In the West, they're gaining popularity, and just the mere mention of the Xiao Long Bao as a "dumpling" will ignite countless posts and counter-posts decrying the error in using "dumpling" to describe these Baozi (Steamed Bun).

So in Southern California, we're lucky enough to have quite a few restaurants famous for their version of Xiao Long Bao (literally, "Little Cage/Basket Bun"). Perhaps the most controversial of all of the Chinese restaurants that focus on this dish would have to be Din Tai Fung, Arcadia branch. Din Tai Fung originated in Taiwan, and it garnered so much of a following that they eventually decided to open up branches in Japan, China, Korea, with the Arcadia branch representing the first U.S. shop by this revered eatery.

So, why the controversy? There are many factors. For one, due to the name alone, the Arcadia Din Tai Fung consistently has massive crowds waiting in line to get in to this restaurant. With constant large crowds comes the inevitable backlash of "it's not worth the wait" or the need to be contrarian. To be fair, besides that is the Price-to-Quality factor: Din Tai Fung is definitely one of the most expensive XLB restaurants in Southern California (and all their other dishes also tend to be slightly more expensive than the industry average).

And ultimately, there's also the taste factor with lots of fans of Din Tai Fung (declaring their XLBs to be "the best in So Cal!") and as many detractors decrying them as mediocre at best. I've even had one dear Chinese Cuisine Hound tell me that their parents refuse to eat at Din Tai Fung because they feel the prices are "ridiculous" for the quality, which they found average at best.

So it's amidst this maelstrom that I've finally gotten around to writing about Din Tai Fung (Arcadia). :) I was first taken to Din Tai Fung by some San Gabriel Valley Hounds years ago, and through odd circumstances (and the insistence of out-of-town friends and guests visiting), I've ended up eating at Din Tai Fung at least ~12-15 times over the years.

(Note: English romanization of the Chinese dishes favor easier pronunciation - thanks again to my SGV Hounds. :)

One of the most surprising dishes that Din Tai Fung makes is their simple Tsao Ching Tsai (Sauteed Seasonal Vegetables) with American Broccoli.

This may sound like a "throwaway" dish, but I've found over the visits that getting some greens to balance out all the fatty meat dishes is a good thing. (^_~) Add to that the fact that Din Tai Fung probably makes the tastiest version of Sauteed Broccoli with Garlic that I've ever had, using a good, high-heat stir-fry, Rice Wine and Garlic. The result is a fragrant, high fiber, tasty plate of vegetables that offers a nice counterpoint when consuming so many dumplings and buns.

Their Tsai Rou Hwun Twun Tahng (Vegetable & Pork Wonton Soup) is nothing like the more popular (and famous) Southern version of Wontons, with Din Tai Fung using a version of their Xiao Long Bao skins to stuff them with a mixture of Nappa Cabbage and Qing Jiang Tsai (Qing Jiang Vegetable) and Marinated Ground Pork. The 3 times I've ordered this dish, the Wonton Skin has been a bit too soft, with little "chew" or bite left, resulting in very soft, simple little bites of Vegetables and Ground Pork in a basic Chicken Broth. It's not bad, but nothing outstanding either.

But probably the most surprising dish (completely unexpected) at Din Tai Fung is something that's usually made with leftover Rice and not highly sought after: Fried Rice(!), or more specifically, their Pai Guu Dahn Tsao Fahn (Pork Chop Fried Rice).

I'm not sure how Din Tai Fung achieves it, but in the ~12-15 times I've ordered their Fried Rice dishes, it's been consistently excellent except once, when the Fried Rice tasted rushed out and undercooked. The Pork Chop Fried Rice specifically has a perfect texture of a good wok-fried Rice with the right amount of Egg mixed into it, Green Onions and Oil. It's fluffy, so fragrant, with just the right texture and taste. The actual Pork Chop is almost inconsequential in comparison to the Fried Rice (it's that good). :)

On a related note, their regular Rou Hsi Dahn Tsao Fahn (Pork Fried Rice (with thin strips of Pork)) isn't as good, with a fattier, older cut of Pork used in comparison to the Pork Chop.

Their Hsien Rou Zhong Zi (oddly translated as "Pork Rice Bun") is a decent version of the popular family dish, with a slightly, too-lean chunk of Pork surrounded by Nuo Mi (Sticky Rice). It's a decent introduction to Zhong Zi (Sticky Rice wrapped in Bamboo Leaf), but compared to some of the more common versions of this dish, it lacks the fragrant Chestnut and/or Duck Egg, and falls short in the overall execution of the Pork filling itself.

The next dish is one of Din Tai Fung's most popular dishes, next to their XLB: Xiao Long Tahng Bao (translated on their menu as "Small Dumplings w/ Soup") served on Weekends Only.

They are essentially a mini version of the most popular Xiao Long Baos, served with a large bowl of their light House Chicken Broth, with a bit of Egg and Green Onions inside. You can then eat them straight, or with a bit of the Chicken Broth with each bite, or in the traditional XLB style with a dab of Soy Sauce and/or Dark Vinegar with a bit of Fresh Ginger.

These Xiao Long Tahng Bao are cute little diversions, and are tasty when chased with a bit of the Chicken Broth, but don't seem as compelling or interesting as their regular Xiao Long Bao. Still, when it was a weekend visit, my guests would insist that I order these and they always turned out to be a hit.

Their Hsien Yu Zhen Jiao (Fish Dumplings) are one of 5 different types of "official" Dumplings on the menu (Jiaozi). Note that all 5 are Steamed Dumplings instead of the more popular Shwei Jiao (Boiled Dumplings), resulting in a drier end product.

The Fish Puree filling is decent, but has a slightly briny aftertaste on each of the 3-4 times I've ordered it. And as aforementioned, with their Steaming process, the Dumplings turn out to be a bit too dry for my tastes. And after having the delicate, soft and supple, fresh-made Dumpling Skin and Fish filling at Noodle House, Din Tai Fung's version feels really mundane by comparison.

But ultimately, Din Tai Fung is known for one thing, and it's this one dish that's the source of all the controversy and incessant arguments: Xiao Long Bao (interestingly translated on their menu as "Juicy Pork *Dumplings*" (for non-Chinese customers, it's understandable that they think these are "Dumplings" when even the restaurant (and website) translate them in English as "Dumplings") (heck, if it wasn't for my San Gabriel Hounds setting me straight years ago, I would've thought the same thing)). :)

Unlike most "Soup Dumplings" or "Little Basket Buns" around town, Din Tai Fung's version uses an extremely thin skin, really soft and delicate. In fact, after having their version and revisiting old-time favorites like Mei Long Village and J&J, I can see both the appeal and the hatred for Din Tai Fung's version.

Most of the versions of XLB that I've tried around town have been far more rustic, rough, and thicker skinned, making Din Tai Fung's version sort of like a gentrified version of this dish. The skin is so thin and supple that it's at once enchanting and off-putting for those not used to it. Once you get used to it, I actually like the thinner skin of these Bao.

The filling is another controversial matter: It's usually a bit of Marinated Ground Pork, with some Pork Gelatin / Fat, that melts as these Buns are steamed, resulting in a little pouch of marinated Pork and a burst of Pork Broth when you bite into one. The filling is a matter of taste, and while I find Mei Long Village's XLB to be more flavorful (just on filling), the combination of the thinner, supple Skin at Din Tai Fung, and the lighter, sweeter Pork and Broth makes this a winner... sometimes.

For a dish this popular, the results have been inconsistent, and could be a source of some of the outcries about this restaurant. Of the ~12-15 times that I've ordered their Xiao Long Bao, about 1/2 of the time, it's been spot-on delicious and perfectly executed :), while the rest of the time has been "good, but not great," (the Broth and Pork taste being not as vibrant and soulful as their best versions), with 2 (hopefully) aberrant visits resulting in absolutely *bad* Xiao Long Bao (they were lukewarm, and the skin was already hardening, and the filling tasted slightly old). One always hopes that a restaurant can be 100% consistently good, but that's not always the case, and perhaps this is one of the areas that has led to the controversy about this place.

Their Dan Dan Mian (Noodle with Sesame Sauce) is an odd rendition of the classic Chinese Noodle dish.

It's a lot less sweet and fragrant than other versions in the San Gabriel Valley, having a much more salty flavor, with heavy accents of Soy Sauce and Ground Peanuts dominating the Noodles.

Besides their Pork Chop Fried Rice, the second most popular Fried Rice dish amongst my guests in each of the visits has been the Hsia Ren Dahn Tsao Fahn (Shrimp Fried Rice).

Like the Pork Chop Fried Rice, their Shrimp version uses the same expert execution of fluffy, perfectly balanced Fried Rice (not too oily, not too dry), fragrant with accents of Green Onions and just the right amount of Egg, but mixed with large, butterflied Shrimp. For Shrimp lovers, the choice is easy, but I prefer the pairing with their Pork Chop as a matter of personal taste.

Another of their Steamed Dumpling dishes that catches people's attention is the Ji Rou Zhen Jiao (Chicken Dumplings). Chicken filling in Chinese Dumplings is a rarer finding compared to Pork or Seafood. Like the Fish Dumplings, the choice of Steaming leaves the Dumplings a touch on the drier side, but the Chicken filling works better than the Fish in this case. The result is a lighter, leaner filling of Ground Chicken that provides a break from all the Pork-centric fillings, but unfortunately little else.

Recently, Din Tai Fung managed to expand their Arcadia restaurant with a new dining room literally just around the corner, a few steps away from their original location. This new addition helps take care of the overflow of customers at their original location's main entrance, with both sides communicating with each other via walkie-talkie, sending customers over whenever there's an open table.

While the original space is clean and a little "fancy" (for a simple Chinese eatery), the new dining room around the corner really pushes the attempt at a "high end" dining scene (at least compared to most Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley).

On the most recent visit, Din Tai Fung's new dining room is advertising the newest addition to the menu: Zha Jiang Mian (Fried Thick Sauce Noodles).

Din Tai Fung's version uses Ground Pork, Dried Tofu and Tomatoes as the base, mixed with Tian Mian Jiang (Sweet Noodle Paste). Sadly, this dish is extremely stingy on the toppings (which looks like a lot at first, until you mix it up with the amount of Noodles provided - you end up with ~10-20% of the Noodles with no Sauce left to eat with it).

Besides that, it's actually a pretty "dry" rendition of the classic Noodle dish, being slightly bitter and a lot more salty than the typical Zha Jiang Mian. It's not something I'd order again unfortunately.

Another odd/interesting-sounding dish at Din Tai Fung is their Hsia Ren Shao Mai (Shrimp & Pork Shiaomai) which sounds like very popular Cantonese Dim Sum dish Shao Mai (it's using the same characters), but in true Din Tai Fung fashion, it's their fusion rendition of the dish, with a tall, flute-shaped Dumpling skin, stuffed with Marinated Ground Pork and topped with a whole Shrimp.

The problem with this dish is the quality of the ingredients and flavor profile: It tastes literally like a version of their Xiao Long Bao filling, in a much thicker Dumpling Skin, and topped with a previously frozen Shrimp that's overly briny.

Their Rice & Pork Shiaomai suffers an even worse fate, with the Ground Pork and whole Shrimp replaced by Nuo Mi (Sticky Rice) with small bits of Ground Pork, in the same thick, tall Dumpling Skin. With it being predominantly Sticky Rice, the result is an overly dry, gummy dish that fails on all accounts (we've tried this dish 3 different times and the results have always been the same).

Din Tai Fung also carries four styles of the more traditional, larger Baozi (Steamed Buns). Their Tsai Rou Bao (Vegetable & Pork Bun) uses the same filling as their Tsai Rou Zhen Jiao (Vegetable & Pork Steamed Dumplings) and Tsai Rou Hwun Twun (Pork & Vegetable Wontons), except wrapped in their flour exterior and steamed.

It is unfortunately the typical type of Baozi (Steamed Bun) that made me shun them in the first place (and the most commonly found type): A dry, mealy dough exterior, a bit tough and chewy, with the same Marinated Ground Pork and Nappa Cabbage filling found earlier. Especially after the made-to-order, made-from-scratch Baozi at Noodle House, it's hard to enjoy this mediocre version.

Service is par for the course for a Chinese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley: You just wave and flag down a waiter or waitress when you need refills on Hot Tea or Drinks, etc., and the food is generally delivered pretty quickly. There's a pervading pressure to turn over tables as fast as possible (due to their popularity and throngs of people waiting), so that's one negative aspect in dining at Din Tai Fung.

Prices range from $3 (for a single Zhongzi) up to $9 for the most expensive dish. This may seem like it's cheap, but we average about ~$16 - $25 per person (including tax and tip) each time we go (compared to say, $7 - $10 per person at other similar type restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley).

Din Tai Fung (Arcadia branch) is an interesting culinary example of extreme love and hate all rolled up into one place. The more refined, polished setting (much nicer than most San Gabriel Valley Noodle / Dumpling / XLB locations), the more "genteel" Xiao Long Bao (Little Basket Buns / Soup Dumplings) with its super-thin skin add up to an appealing dining experience for many (as attested to by the absurdly long lines for Lunch and Dinner, especially on the weekends).

But the overly polished nature, higher prices and massive crowds, along with mediocre execution of many of their dishes has generated such a severe backlash that it's become the most popular Chinese restaurant to hate on these days (which is unfortunate). There are enough gems at Din Tai Fung to warrant a visit (at least to try their XLB once (hopefully on a good day)), but as to whether they are consistent enough and have enough dishes to capture one's attention for repeat visits is something that Din Tai Fung's back of the house has to work on, to truly achieve greatness.

Rating: 6.1 (out of 10.0)

Din Tai Fung (Arcadia)
1108 South Baldwin Ave.
Arcadia, CA 91007
Tel: (626) 574-7068

(New Dining Room)
1088 South Baldwin Ave.
Arcadia, CA 91007
Tel: (626) 446-8588

Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Fri, 11:00 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
Sat - Sun, 10:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
[Dinner] Mon - Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Sunday, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.


WeezerMonkey said...

Din Tai Fung gets such a bad rap from snobby foodies. I am proud to say I like the place and its thin-skinned XLB. The place is spacious and is perfect for groups.

Loved your reviews of all the non-XLB offerings!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi WeezerMonkey,

Thank you. (^_^) I'm glad to know that you enjoy Din Tai Fung's thinner, silkier XLB's as well. :)

If this place only served Xiao Long Bao and were able to get them to a ~90%+ consistently amazing-level (like the best versions I've had there), I'd rate this place much higher. :)

KK said...

Have you tried the stewed range chicken soup? (Yuan zhong ji tang if I remember correctly). It's a very simple chicken broth served in a ceramic mini pot, really good flavor (although I'm sure it tastes better in Taiwan and Japan's DTFs when they use local range chicken or jidori equivalent). The crab XLB (xieh fun xiao lon bao) should be pretty good too.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi KK,

Yes I have tried the Chicken Soup (I didn't get a chance to take a pic :). It's pretty light and I found it good, but not great. Thanks.

pink said...

What a great recap, and great pics!

I've only been there once, and I thought it was a little boring. Yes, their XLB were good, but everything else was really average at best.

But, I'm willing to give it another shot. It's been a few years, so maybe things have changed. Your post has me drooling!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi pink,

Thank you! (^_^) Yah, I agree. Whenever I find myself being taken back to DTF, there are only 3 things I consistently enjoy: The Broccoli w/ Garlic, Pork Chop Fried Rice (divine!), and their Xiao Long Bao ("Soup Dumplings"). Those are safe bets, but their other offerings are ~OK at best.

Vince S. said...

Good review, EK! As always.

WeezerM: DTF here in the US is really sub-par. I am not saying that just to be different or snobbish but I have tried DTF from Taipei to Singapore, and from Malaysia to Australia to Japan. Of course here in the US too.

Taipei's first DTF Xinyi location is hands-down the best. Why do I say that? It's not a franchise and it's mostly the pork. Taiwanese pork is famous for being, well, succulent. And they don't even export them.

DTF in the US afterall is a franchise. I know this for sure since I have spoke to them about a franchise possibility in another location in the US. Yes, they do provide kitchen/management training. And yes, they do monitor the quality. Yes you need a minimum of some upper 6-figure investment. However, the local ingredients dictate the taste eventually. US pork just isn't the same somehow.

That being said, it's not like I avoid DTF here at all costs. It is indeed a great introduction to friends who have never tried this cuisine. DTF's modern decoration in the second location is very inviting. That concept is hardly echoed throughout other restaurants in the area but is already a common scene in Asia. The chic decor with an occasional splash of traditional Chinese artistries.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Vince S.,

Thanks for your insight on the other DTF's around the world. Good to know. I see similarities from what you're describing with Japanese food (e.g., Sushi) here in LA versus Tokyo. Sometimes the quality of the fish, the proximity / freshness from catching something that night and selling it in the morning, versus having it shipped overseas to the U.S.... there's a difference in quality / freshness.

edjusted said...

Ah, DTF. Love it or hate it. That's the question.

I'm not crazy about DTF mainly because I don't think the hype or the wait is worth it, especially for the price, but I wouldn't say I hated it. I do prefer XLB's with thicker skin, and I definitely prefer XLB's that aren't so sweet. I really like the shrimp fried rice though. :)

On a side note on what KK & Vince S. said: has anyone else who's been to Taiwan ever noticed that the chicken mcnuggets at McDonalds (yes, McDonalds) tastes much better than the chicken nuggets here? Seriously! Oh well, there goes any goodie cred I might have.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi edjusted,

Thanks. Yah, Din Tai Fung is definitely interesting. (^_~) And on your other question I have no idea, but Chicken McNuggets?! No Golden Arches talk here! :P

Anonymous said...

The zhong is shanghai style, which is why there is only pork in it. Duck egg and all that is more southern chinese. FYI.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anon,

Thanks for the info. Good to know. :)

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