My Challenge to Din Tai Fung
Leave me breathless instead of brothless
Nearly seven months ago, on April 24, I broke the news that Din Tai Fung was coming to the Seattle area. My prediction came true:
“Knowing the food scene here, knowledge of Din Tai Fung’s arrival will be cause for every food lover in Seattle to have a simultaneous orgasm – first when the news hits Twitter, and next when groups gather upon the restaurant’s opening.”
Indeed, since opening just over a week ago, there have been waits of up to four hours for entry.
Upon departure, reviews of the xiao long bao have been mixed. While many are simply ecstatic to slurp down the soup dumplings, most people I know who’ve had them elsewhere have expressed disappointment.
Count me in as disappointed.
It’s not normally right to review a restaurant so soon after opening. And to be fair, the opening has been quite an accomplishment, and much of the food is very good. (You can read my fuller write-up in the upcoming issue of Northwest Palate.) But here my focus is specifically on the xiao long bao—the main reason most people go to Din Tai Fung. Its raison d’etre. And since the staff has had at least three months pre-opening to work on their dumpling technique (in an August 24 email, the public relations firm representing Din Tai Fung wrote, “Currently, there is a team hard at work, practicing the art of rolling dumplings, from dawn until dusk, 5 days a week.”), I don’t think it’s too early to critique the xiao long bao—and to make my challenge.
Actually, back in April, I offered the preliminary challenge: “How to make the xiao long bao as great in Seattle as they are in Taipei. Something seems to get lost in translation when food like this travels far.” As an example, I noted that Beard Papa’s cream puffs in Seattle are not nearly as compelling as the ones you find in Tokyo.
As someone who’s tried his hand at xiao long bao at home, I have great appreciation for the difficulty in making these dumplings. I’ve fiddled with the filling recipe (varying the amounts of ground pork and pork belly), struggled to get the gelatin right using pig skin instead of packaged gelatin, and watched in admiration as my partner put me to shame in pleating the dumplings properly. (Din Tai Fung takes pride that each dumpling has 18 pleats.) I even put a photo of my imperfect dumplings in the April blog post.
And that’s when David Wasielewski, owner of Bellevue’s Din Tai Fung, wrote and asked me to replace that photo with one from Din Tai Fung’s. His photo, at the top of this post, shows the trademark droop. The sag. The teardrop-like shape that shows how the unthinkably thin wrapper (I’ve eaten xiao long bao all over Taipei, as well as in Shanghai, Vancouver, and in places where they’re available in the States, and Din Tai Fung’s are the thinnest I’ve ever had) strains to effectively hold the broth. (I should say that in Taiwan, Din Tai Fung’s xiao long bao rate a 9.0 in my book, while the ones at Jin Din Rou are a 9.5, as I like the broth and meat—the two other components, besides the wrapper, by which I rate xiao long bao—a little better.)
Din Tai Fung’s photo is on the Bellevue menu, but when the dumplings come to the table, they do not resemble that photo. Actually, from watching the workers in the kitchen, I could tell that the wrappers were thicker. (Last time in Taiwan, I spent time in one of the restaurant’s kitchens watching the xiao long bao production.) Plus, I found it a bit disconcerting that instead of gently placing the uncooked dumplings in the steamer baskets, some of the workers were shot-putting them down.
As you can see from this photo, the xiao long bao do not droop as promised. I have not been able to see the meat or soup inside, as I have elsewhere. Oh, they’re juicy inside, but there’s no shot of broth. Instead, it almost feels like the skin is wrapped around a clump of meat.
So, much as the workers were throwing down the dumplings, I’m throwing down the gauntlet. I’m repeating my April challenge to Din Tai Fung: Make xiao long bao that leaves me breathless, not brothless.
Because, sad to say, right now, your xiao long bao are ma ma hu hu.
You get high points for enthusiasm, but deductions for execution.
You need to thin out those wrappers a bit, and get more gelatin in there. Make them like they make them in Taipei.
I’m hoping that Wasielewski will want to meet this challenge. I know he doesn’t have to do that. There will be thousands of customers (including the inevitable Yelpers, some eating xiao long bao for the first time) who will rave about the soup dumplings as they are, proud (rightfully so) that we have landed the second Din Tai Fung in America. (The first is in Arcadia, outside of Los Angeles.) People will say that these are the best xiao long bao in the Seattle area.
Which is a lot like saying the Mariners are the best baseball team in Seattle.
Unfortunately, that’s often pretty meaningless.
It’s the same with dim sum in Seattle. Some people say it’s great. I say those people probably haven’t ever had good dim sum. Hey, as I wrote in that April post, “For many, it’s not about the quality of the orgasm, but just having one.”
I remain one of those food snobs (I’ll label myself that so you don’t have to) who, when asked where to find the best dim sum, says to drive two hours north to Richmond to find your pick of quality places. I won’t eat dim sum here until I see marked improvement.
Come to think of it, with four hour waits at Din Tai Fung, I’d suggest that some people invest their time in driving to Richmond and back to see what soupy soup dumplings should be like.
I, in fact, am headed to Vancouver for the holiday weekend, and will be making up for my disappointing xiao long bao here by sampling a few places there, like Long’s and Shanghai River (my two favorites at the moment, approaching a rating of 8.5) and maybe a place called The Place.
But I’d certainly like to save time and gas, and get good dumplings here. Din Tai Fung, here’s hoping that can still happen…
(I did enjoy these shrimp and pork shao mai more than I did the xiao long bao.)