WHEN you see a line of people waiting for tables outside a restaurant, it's simultaneously intriguing and off-putting. Sure, there's usually something about the spot that's memorable, often a good deal (Versailles' garlicky roast pork, for example) or an after-hours experience (think Pink's), but just as often, there's bound to be disappointment because our dining options in this crazy city are so many and so varied that you know you can get even better food somewhere just down the street from wherever you see the people lining up.
But at the popular soup-dumpling house Din Tai Fung in Arcadia, seeing so many people so much of the time means fresh, fresh dumplings steaming their way out of the kitchen every minute. If you live nearby, it's all good news that Din Tai Fung has a new branch -- an annex, really -- and can serve double the number of patrons. (Maybe more important is that there's a big parking lot near the new spot's entrance.) Now you can time your visits to avoid the maddest crowds.
And if you don't live nearby, mark a map with a flag on this spot for weekends or other convenient times (before a visit to the arboretum, for example, or after an early morning at Santa Anita racetrack watching the horses work out). Because if you pick your time well -- not much later than 10:30 on a weekend morning, not much later than 5:30 or 6 on a weeknight, you'll have less wait time and more at-table time.
The food's the same in both places; in fact, the two cafes share a kitchen, though they're in adjoining mini-malls. In the new spot, whose address is Baldwin Avenue but whose entrance faces a rear parking lot, the décor is sleek and bright and dominated by the glass-walled dumpling room. There, half a dozen white-clad chefs frantically roll out long snakes of dough, cutting and shaping and doing whatever dumpling masters do to create the remarkable petite swirls of white dumpling skin that surround the fillings.
Each tin steamer -- you'll probably want to order a few per table -- typically holds 10 small dumplings. Some are crescent-shaped, some look like little cartoon sacks of gold, others resemble tiny sea anemones in the act of catching shrimp. There are also yeast-dough buns and sticky-rice buns.
Even if you don't know what to order at first, chances are you'll immediately be attracted to the house specialty -- because who can resist the "juicy pork/crab dumpling"? These are the remarkable soup dumplings, tiny pockets of dough filled with deliciously seasoned meat with a spoonful of fragrant broth in each. You bite in, the hot juice carrying the flavors to your palate, the chewy texture of the dumpling extending the experience . . . wonderful.
Vegetarian dumplings are great too, with fabulously fresh greens and roots, minced as if by elves into impossibly small, uniform bits -- lots of crisp texture and bright flavor.
And shrimp and pork shu mai are excellent -- a juicy ground pork meatball wrapped in dumpling skin and topped with a sweet pink shrimp.
Accompany the dumplings with sautéed seasonal vegetables -- broccoli or spinach in recent weeks -- a generous plate with big brown-edged slices of toasted garlic scattered throughout. And for some, the Shanghai rice cakes are a favorite choice: a mound of what looks like sliced scallops but is instead appealingly glutinous half-dollars of rice cake, served with sliced sautéed onions in a mild oyster sauce.
The noodle soups are only so-so. They're served with impossible-to-manage long noodles (as if a single goes-forever noodle is wound into your broth); the sweeter dumplings such as the red bean have less finesse than the savories.
The wait staff, clad in trim black uniforms with red vests, is experienced, deft and helpful if brusque or amused by the wild-eyed ordering of first-timers confronted with so much activity and so many choices.
Whether you live around the corner or are just driving by, consider takeout. The management has made a science out of people-moving, passing out order forms so you have put in your order before you're led to a table and hustling you along as you finish your food.
If you're not in the mood, just phone in your order (the menu, with helpful pictures, is on the website). For every person waiting in line, it seems, two glide up to the counter, pay for their waiting stack of to-go boxes and head out happily -- and immediately -- with the loot.
Din Tai Fung
Location: 1088 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia, (626) 446-8588, www.dintaifungusa.com
Price: Dumplings (10 pieces), $4.50 to $8.50; soups, $6 to $7; sautéed vegetables, $7.
Best dishes: Juicy pork-crab dumplings; vegetable and pork dumplings; vegetarian dumplings; Shanghai rice cake; sautéed vegetables.
Details: Open for lunch from 11 a.m to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; for dinner from 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, until 9 p.m. Sunday. Lot parking. Major credit cards.