Jonathan Gold | L.A. restaurant review: Din Tai Fung’s dumplings hit the mall
The soup dumpling is practically endemic in the San Gabriel Valley, a fixture on the menu of every restaurant that even pretends to serve Shanghai-style cooking, and at a lot of restaurants that don’t. Some Cantonese restaurants feature xiao long bao on their dim sum carts, often cradled in tiny aluminum cart tins as insurance against leakage. (Those XLBs are rarely worth eating.) Half of the other restaurants that serve them are rumored to buy pre-made ones from other kitchens. XLBs are notoriously hard to make well, and online message boards have bristled for decades about the flaws of one version or another. People tend to be passionate about these things.
XLBs were already popular here when Din Tai Fung opened in Arcadia a dozen years ago, but even the doubters had to admit that the restaurant raised the dumplings to another level. Din Tai Fung was the first U.S. branch of the most famous dumpling parlor in Taipei, a city that takes its dumplings seriously. Din Tai Fung’s dumplings were assembled in something resembling a high-tech clean room, in full view of their eventual consumers.
Although 4 out of 10 dumplings at other restaurants tended to tear themselves apart before you got them to your mouth, Din Tai Fung’s dumplings were structurally impeccable — you could work through 20 steamerfuls before you found one that leaked even a drop. Where other restaurants’ XLBs occasionally suffered from broth that was either too thick or too thin, Din Tai Fung’s filling was always just thick enough, a hairsbreadth on the correct side of unctuousness. Even the tiny knots on top, where the dough was gathered, were tender where other models were dry and chewy, a trick accomplished by rolling out the wrappers so that they were thinner at the edges than in the middle. You could call Din Tai Fung’s XLB less soulful than dumplings with thicker skins, more pungent fillings or more generous dimensions, but there is a reason the restaurant’s admirers wait two hours for a table on weekends, and it is neither the rice-stuffed shiu mai nor the noodles with sesame sauce.
So it is probably a big deal that Din Tai Fung has opened a new branch in Glendale’s Americana mall, taking a first step out of the San Gabriel Valley into a neighborhood not particularly Chinese. (Its second Arcadia location is practically around the corner from the first.) San Gabriel Valley restaurants, mostly Cantonese, have opened outside Chinese strongholds before, and the new Peking Tavern serves decent Shandong-style dumplings with its Chinese-influenced cocktails in a basement dining room downtown, but the experiments have not been aesthetically successful. The Glendale Din Tai Fung, an elegant dining room a few steps from the red-carpet entrance to Nordstrom, is as popular as the opening weekend of an “Ironman” sequel, and the lines there are twice as long.
To get to the restaurant, at least if you don’t manage to get there right when it opens at 10 a.m., you park in the Americana’s giant structure, take a half-dozen escalators down to the ground level and wind through the plaza, stopping periodically to glance at displays of phones or $1,400 handbags. You wait in line to give your cellphone number to one of the women behind the counter. Ninety minutes later, you get a text summoning you back to Din Tai Fung, where you will wait again. There will be plenty of time to hit the Apple store or browse the sale rack at H&M. This is probably the point. (If you decide to pass the time with a boba martini, which is almost as ghastly as it sounds, don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
When you are finally led to your table, past the glassed-in dumpling kitchen, you will be provided with ice water and a patient explanation of the process. This already puts you ahead of where you would have been at the Arcadia restaurants, where you are expected to fill out an order form before you are seated, and ice water is harder to procure than admission to Yale Law. You can get beer here, which is also an advance on Arcadia, as well as odd tea drinks, at least one of them — thick green tea topped with an inch of creamy sea salt foam — I actually enjoy. The soundtrack leans toward the less-demanding sort of electronica — the crowd is about 20 years younger here than it is in Arcadia.
Then comes the food, lots of it, landing with the relentlessness of Tetris shapes: lightly marinated cucumbers with garlic and chile; a delicate salad of julienned dried tofu and vegetables; crisp green beans briefly fried with garlic and crunchy mustard greens tossed with ginger; chewy Shanghai-style rice ovals stir-fried with chicken and cabbage; and eggy, fluffy pork chop fried rice.
Some people find it impossible to visit Din Tai Fung without trying the well-balanced version of Taiwanese beef noodle soup, crowded with thick chunks of braised meat, less spicy than it might be. The steamed chicken soup, which has a purity of flavor unmatched in local Chinese restaurants, is available either plain or with noodles; it outmatches any deli soup in town. The wontons, either Sichuan-style with chile oil or Cantonese-style in soup, are fine, if not the work of a specialist.
But you have come for the dumplings: the neatly pleated fish dumplings, the hearty vegetable dumplings, the dumplings stuffed with slivered zucchini (green melon) and shrimp. You will be unable to get the small dumplings with soup, which sell out the moment the restaurant opens on weekends — I’ve never managed to land an order.
And the xiao long bao are small miracles; plump, round spheres soft yet firm to the touch, delicately fragranced. When you pop one into your mouth, perhaps having wetted it first with a drop of black vinegar, it bursts into a mouthful of broth — boiling liquid if you haven’t allowed it to cool — transforming the filling of meat and aromatics into a loose, savory purée that melts away like pork-scented air. The sharpness of the vinegar and the bite of fresh ginger slash through the richness, refreshing your palate for the next dumpling the same way a dab of wasabi does on a piece of yellowtail sushi. You sip hot jasmine tea. There are nine dumplings left in the steamer.
The pork XLBs, as always, are better than the pork XLBs enhanced with crab, which tends to overcook and become a bit acrid in the intense heat of the steamer. The crab ones are good, just never as good as you’re hoping they’ll be. But the truffled XLB, expensive at $22.50 for a plate of five, can be pretty astonishing, exploding with black truffle intensity — a nice way to experience the aroma without splashing out $75 for a truffle supplement on the plush side of town.
Glendale Din Tai Fung
Can the king of soup dumplings survive the move to a mall?
177 Caruso Ave., Glendale, (818) 551-5561, dintaifungusa.com
Vegetables, $8.50; steamed dumplings, $8.50-$22.50; noodles, $7-$10; fried rice, $7.50-$10; desserts, $2.50-$6.
Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet and validated lot parking.
Cold cucumber with chile, juicy pork dumplings, truffle dumplings, potstickers, Shanghai rice cake.
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