I was, I confess, expecting to see a lot of mournful faces in the line outside the original U.S. Din Tai Fung in Arcadia last weekend, only a few hours before it was scheduled to shut down for a remodel. The faded strip-mall restaurant may not have served the first xiao long bao in town when it opened a decade and a half ago, but it certainly kicked the movement into high gear, and the soup dumplings – XLB, for short – drew Westsiders into the San Gabriel Valley in a way that no other Chinese place really had before.
It was among the first Taiwan-based restaurants to catch on in the United States, and the chain was reportedly a hit in Shanghai, the city where the XLB was born. The original Arcadia store begot a second restaurant just around the corner from the first, and then swank mall outlets in Glendale and the South Coast Plaza. Even as it became a cliché, and certain cognoscenti (including me) touted the soulfulness of the XLB at Mei Long Village, the cheerful sturdiness of the XLB at Dean Sin World and the plumpness of the XLB at Long Xing Ji, it is also true that most of those people could be found at Din Tai Fung more often than they could at the places they supposedly liked better, although when you called them out on it they would insist that they were there for the limpid double-boiled chicken soup or the sautéed mustard greens with ginger.
And while it is true that Din Tai Fung was set to open a new flagship restaurant up the street in the Westfield Santa Anita mall, it was not that long ago that the original store had added truffle dumplings to its menu and begun to serve throughout the afternoon. Even the XLB had achieved a kind of polished delicacy they hadn’t quite shown before. I had a wonderful lunch — steamersful of XLB; spinach with garlic; cold sliced cucumbers with chile; chewy rice cakes sautéed with slivers of pork but it was seasoned with sadness. I’d had a lot of great dumplings in that room.
Two days later, I was in the huge new Din Tai Fung, a few steps from the Nordstrom’s and not far from the gleaming mega-restaurants Dongpo and Hai Di Lao – Westfield Santa Anita has clearly become the SGV’s center of Chinese grandeur. And if you’ve been to the Glendale or Costa Mesa stores, you’ll definitely recognize this one – a glassed-in clean room where masked dumpling makers cluster like surgeons around an operating table, triple-height ceilings, and acres of dark carved wood.
There is an elaborate system in place to deal with what are bound to be endless waits. You still order by ticking boxes on a bilingual paper menu, although the servers in the new place seem more eager to explain the difference between steamed beef soup and braised beef soup. The prices tend to be 10-15% higher in the new place. The boba tea menu is expanded – if you want sea-salt whipped cream on your iced green tea, you’re in the right place. The dumplings are served in new bamboo steamers instead of the battered metal ones down the street. The XLB are pretty much the same — thin-skinned, beautifully pleated, meaty, almost engineered – which is to say that they don’t quite pop on your tongue like steamy bubbles, but neither are they likely to leak on the way to your spoon.
Do I miss the old shop? Terribly, not least because I am finally enabled to sharpen my nostalgia on behalf of Din Tai Fung, which is really pretty good, rather than at its expense. On the upside: matcha smoothies. It’s a tough call.
Din Tai Fung, at Westfield Santa Anita mall, 400 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia, (626) 446-8588, dintaifungusa.com