Friday, October 24, 2014

Reviewed: Xiaolong I "bao down" to Din Tai Fung

Restaurant: Din Tai Fung (South Coast Plaza location)
  • Cuisine: Chinese, dim sum
  • Location: 3333 Bristol Street, Space 2071 (upper level), Costa Mesa, CA 92626 
  • Pricing: $
  • What's delicious: Pork xiaolongbao, Cucumbers, "Dan dan" noodles
  • Perfect for: Foodies, homesick Asian expats, families/kids, carbo loaders
  • FYI: Either arrive early (as in the minute they open) or go at an off-time.  Even if you do arrive early, however, you will likely have to wait.  But what better place to bide your time than South Coast Plaza?

After having dined at Din Tai Fung during my first trip to Hong Kong in 2010, I returned home to NYC and immediately reached out to the restaurant's Taiwanese headquarters via email:
"Dear Ms. Fang,
I hope this email finds you well.  My friend and I recently returned from Hong Kong for a week, where we ate at your Causeway Bay location about 4 times during our 6 day visit.  We simply could not get enough of the xialongbao, handmade noodles, and friendly/efficient service.  We promised ourselves that we would find out if you would be interested in franchising in New York City, where the both of us reside.  I know that you recently opened a location in Seattle.  Please let us know if you have any East Coast expansion plans. 
Many thanks, in advance, for your attention to this email.  All our best..."

And here's the response I received:
"Dear Lindsay,
Thank you for your email.
We are glad that you had great experiences in our Causeway Bay branch.
It is our mission and responsibility to provide high standard quality services and food to you and all of our customers.
As you mentioned, we just opened a branch in Seattle. It seems to be impossible to open another branch soon.
As most of our dishes are hand-made, it will take a certain amount of time to train a qualified chef.
Therefore, we don’t think opening in NYC will happen soon.
Thank you for your understanding.
If you have any other question, please do not hesitate to contact me."

So, in other words, "fcuk off, Yankee."  Kidding.  I cannot tell you how bummed I was to read that response.  Not to mention completely dumbfounded as to why Din Tai Fung wouldn't want to open/franchise in NYC.  

Fast forward four years and 3,000 miles: With a handful of US locations - all on the west coast with four shops, alone, in the LA area - making my way over to Din Tai Fung was top on my "priority eats" list upon my move.  
Finally, after almost four months to the day that I left NYC, my sister and I made our way over to Din Tai Fung's newest location at South Coast Plaza, a mall in Costa Mesa.

Having read horror stories that the lines for a table were wrapping around the block three times over, my sister and I made it a point to arrive right when they opened.  At 10AM.

Assuming that we'd be the first in line, I was shocked to see that 1) there were folks already seated AND dining, and 2) there was a lengthy queue!  We waited for about ten minutes before realizing that there was not one, but two lines: One for folks who had just arrived, like us, and the other for those who had been texted with the notification that their table was ready.  You can imagine my surprise when we were told that the restaurant wouldn't be ready for us for another hour, but that they'd send us a text message once they were.  

Posing with a life size dumpling while waiting in line for a table
There's only one thing that sucks about waiting an hour for a table at 10:30AM on a Sunday morning: Most of the stores at South Coast Plaza don't open until 11AM.  
At 11:15AM, I received the following text, "Please check in with your entire party in the next 8 minutes and we will begin to arrange your seating."  Needless to say, my sister and I hauled ass out of Intermix... 

Seated at last!
Although we were seated at a table in the bar area, I was able to observe that there was a proper dining room and an outdoor seating nook, to boot.  

No Din Tai Fung would be complete without a windowed "dumpling making room," where eager visitors can watch each and every step of the xialongbao process; and this location was no exception.

In an effort to taste as many dishes as possible - and because "family style" dining is encouraged - my sister and I chose to split everything we ordered. 

Even before our food arrived, I made sure to prepare my dipping concoction consisting of soy sauce, sliced ginger, vinegar, and Din Tai Fung's famously addictive chili oil.

Crunchy Persian cucumbers were tossed in a tangy, sesame oil-based dressing before being neatly arranged in to an aesthetically pleasing tower.  A halved garlic clove and small chunk of red bell pepper attractively crowned the dish.

Pork xialongbao
Believe it or not, our inaugural order of "stateside" xiaolongbao was nearly as perfect as it was at both the Hong Kong and Singapore Din Tai Fung locations.  
The delicate dough that enveloped the perfectly rich and salty broth was unbelievably thin; and when it comes to dumplings, "thin is in."  
My only gripe was that the pork meatball was ever-so-slightly overcooked.  However, regardless of that minor flaw, it was still the best version I've enjoyed this side of Asia.

Vegetable + pork and shrimp + pork dumplings, noodles with spicy sauce
Served atop a tangle of house-made noodles and spicy chili sauce was a bountiful duo of vegetable/pork and shrimp/pork dumplings.  
Similar to the xiaolongbao, I found the exterior dough to be impressively thin, but the fillings slightly overcooked.  

Pork chop fried rice
Although I swore off pork a few months ago, there are certain circumstances in which I will retract my "no pig pledge."  A meal at Din Tai Fung just so happens to be one of them.
Having fallen in love with the pork chop fried rice in Hong Kong, I was thrilled to find that this version was relatively identical.  The only difference?  Once again, the protein was slightly dry and lacking the trademark juiciness that I was so fiending for.

Despite my gripes about the proteins being slightly dry, our meal at Din Tai Fung was excellent and, without a doubt, destination-worthy in every sense.  If you have not yet been to one of the restaurant's five LA-area locations, GET HERE NOW!  


Lindsay, Beverly Hills Bites

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