Sunday, March 16, 2008
The Most Sublime Dumplings in America
Here it is, the mother of all soup dumplings -- Din Tai Fung. I never thought I'd say this, but it does live up to the hype. The photos don't do them justice. They make them look like any old dumplings at other dimsum or Shanghainese places. Well, I went. I ate. And I'm officially hooked.
I also discovered the wait isn't as bad if you go to the newly opened wing around the corner that's almost as good as the original location.
Let's focus on the flavor and juice. The moment the wait staff sets the steamer on your table and uncovers the lid to reveal ten perfectly steamed "juicy pork dumplings," as the menu states, you have to grab one quickly. Be gentle so as not to puncture the delicate skin or you will lose the essence of these little morsels. If you are right-handed, take the spoon on your left hand, grab the dumpling with your right hand using chopsticks and place on the spoon. Make a small incision in the top part of the dumpling to let the steam out as the soup inside the dumpling is scalding hot. Suck out the juice. What heavenly juice it is. Not a hint of overpowering pork smell. Instead I taste all the goodness coming from the broth that has been simmering for hours. Not too salty and seasoned just right. I left some juice and dipped the dumpling into the vinegar sauce, topped it with some fresh ginger strips and in my mouth it went. I tasted the pork, ginger, maybe green onions, revelatory with the delicately flavored soup. They were simply the best soup dumplings I've had in this country.
The second-best dumplings we had were the pork and crab soup dumplings (above). The soup alone wasn't as flavorful as that of the pork-only dumplings but it was very good consumed in its entirety. The extra-thin skin helps keep the xiaolongbao, or "xlb," as the soup dumplings are called among the cognoscenti, light and airy. Perhaps the downside is that you don't quite feel full until you've had one too many.
Another must is the steamed chicken soup, which is so comforting and palate-cleansing that even non-chicken lovers relished it at our table. I myself don't usually like chicken soups unless I have the Korean kind with lots of ginseng and spices to temper the strong chicken smell and fat. But the chicken in this soup had been steamed before it was even dunked into the soup, so there is very little fat. The broth had hints of ginger that made for an incredible combination with the chicken meat, which had a mild flavor. The star of the chicken soup is undoubtedly the broth. It tasted a bit like the "supreme soup stock" at Triumphal Palace that made those bean curd rolls so sumptuous.
It helped to have some sauteed spinach with garlic to balance out all the meat and shellfish we were eating. Other non-soup dumplings were ok but nothing special, including the fish dumpling, which I found too dense and not as flavorful; vegetable and pork dumplings, which had a strong sesame oil smell that didn't go too well with the dumpling; shrimp and pork dumplings that didn't seem as well incorporated; and vegetarian dumplings that I found tasteless.
Other dishes were ok but again, were overwhelmingly overshadowed by the superstar of this meal. The Shanghai rice cake dish was sliced rice cakes sauteed with some greens and onions in a slightly salty and sweet brown sauce. It was amusing that the rice cakes bore a striking resemblance to the rice cakes used in Korean rice cake soup (ttuk guk) that is eaten to celebrate the new year (or maybe our rice cakes bear a striking resemblance to the Chinese version). The shrimp fried rice was fluffy and mild-tasting with an occasional shrimp thrown into the mix. It seemed purposely neutrally seasoned not to steal the limelight from the boldly-flavored dumplings.
If you have room for dessert, the sweet red bean dumplings are decent but a bit too sweet for my taste. I would recommend walking off those dumplings by heading a few steps over to JJ Bakery in the same minimall. JJ has an immensely popular array of baked goods, including red bean bread or plain old white sliced bread that people were standing in line to buy in bulk. The bakery has an impressive dessert selection such as mocha mousse (which was just ok), black cherry mousse and green tea mousse that I have yet to try but looked promising.
If you want to get really adventurous with dessert, however, you'd have to drive another 10-15 minutes to Rowland Heights, which we only recently discovered thanks to our very well plugged-in friend. Class of 302 (site is currently under construction), an unlikely name for a place serving such an ethereal dessert and allegedly the only place in LA or possibly America, that serves it. Think dark green tea ice cream that isn't just dyed green but truly tastes like green tea. Now think that ice cream has been shaved into fluffy layers and topped with red beans and chewy mochis (rice cakes). It was massive, but two of us managed to finish it because it was so incredibly delectable. This was after a full Din Tai Fung meal, mind you.
Others ordered a fruity version featuring vanilla or cream ice shavings topped with chopped fresh mango and strawberries, which was very refreshing but not nearly as good as the green tea version. This differed from one of my favorite Korean desserts, patbingsoo, with shaved ice topped with red beans, fruit, milk and rice cake in that the shaved ice is made out of ice cream or cream instead of water like the Korean version.
Quick shoutouts to AC for letting us shadow him in SGV, QL for helping with equipment and KD for the dessert shots!
Din Tai Fung
1108 South Baldwin Avenue
Arcadia, CA 91007
(This is the original location's address. The new wing is between the minimall of the original location and Wells Fargo Bank)
1130 South Baldwin Avenue
Arcadia, CA 91007
Class of 302
1015 South Nogales Street #125
Rowland Heights, CA 91748