Eating Out, Travel

Journey to the Original Din Tai Fung

The first Bay Area location of Din Tai Fung (DTF!) opened in Santa Clara last week and lines were so astronomically bad, that DTF decided to implement their first ever reservation system. And now someone is selling reservations on craigslist for $50. Seriously?!

While I appreciate the quality and consistency of their product, I haven’t been blown away by their dumplings. And I’m not convinced their product is worth a three hour wait. Before I get ahead of myself, here’s some background:

Din Tai Fung makes Taiwanese xiao long bao aka XLB aka “soup dumplings.” XLB originated in Shanghai and traditionally featured thicker skin with little soup. This evolved into what is technically called xiao long tang bao (tang meaning soup in Mandarin). This thinner skin and juicier version is the one we commonly see served now and what Din Tai Fung popularized.

My first XLB experience was at Joe’s Shanghai in NYC in my tweens. That was a while ago, and my memory isn’t perfect, but I still remember how juicy the XLB were. Joe’s version is not as petite or refined as DTF’s, but they are generous with the soup filling and that’s what stuck with me after all these years.

When I eat at DTF, I love how thin the dumpling skin is, yet how resilient they are to breaking. However, I find myself wanting more soup filling – both in flavor and quantity. In the quest for the ideal XLB, I knew I had to go to the original location of DTF in Taiwan.

A couple weeks ago, I got that opportunity as I was visiting relatives Taiwan. Mr. A and I waited in eager anticipation along with a crowd of many other foreigners. The wait was only 40 minutes for our party of five. That was a breeze for DTF standards!

The original Din Tai Fung - only a 40 minute wait!
The original Din Tai Fung on Xingyi Rd, Taipei – only a 40 minute wait!

Upon entering, it was immediately clear this space had been modernized and renovated since its modest start in 1958 as a cooking oil shop. The brightly lit dining room spans two floors, with the signature see-through glass wall revealing the dumpling makers. The servers were the best of any DTF I’ve been to – most were bilingual and all conducted themselves with refined ease.

The food was also a nudge above the DTF across town in Banqiao and a step above the Costa Mesa location in the OC. We tried four of the savory XLB. I may have been influenced by being at the original location, but the classic Pork XLB did indeed taste better here. The broth was fattier and more generous. The pork filling also had more depth of flavor.

Side note: I didn’t have the Truffle Pork XLB on this visit, but I’ve tried it twice before, and it would be my favorite overall if the price wasn’t $3 per!

The glorious Truffle & Pork XLB (this one from the Banqiao store)

But back to this meal. We had two other dumpling types, Shu Mai and Potstickers – both with shrimp & pork filling. The shu mai were uniquely filled with broth, similar to the XLB. The best shu mai I’ve had. The potsticker was not as crispy as the one I first tried in their Costa Mesa store.

To supplement all the dumplings, we tried a few of the savory dishes. The Shrimp & Egg Fried Rice was the weakest link, bland and unremarkable. The Hot & Sour Soup wasn’t noticeably spicy, but had a nice tangy note. The Mustard Green Noodle and Beef Tendon soup was average.

For dessert, I always get the Taro XLB. This is a dense, sweet XLB with real taro – a must try if you love taro! I also tried two other desserts for the first time, Eight-Treasure Sticky Rice and Sesame Mochi in Sweet Rice Wine Soup. I love all sticky rice so this version was a hit. The various dried fruit toppings included plum and kumquat. The Sesame Mochi in Rice Wine was also a quick favorite of mine, as I already love warm sesame mochi and rice wine separately. Combining the two flavors was a perfect match. Now I have not one, but three desserts I’ll get from now on. 😀

Without a doubt, the original DTF was better than the other locations I’ve tried. The pork XLB, while not quite my #1 of all time, made me a believer in Din Tai Fung being the best chain XLB in the world.

*So what is my favorite XLB ever? The foie gras XLB at Benu in SF – the thinness of the skin, the most folds I’ve ever seen, and the silky broth! This would be XLB perfection if there were one. Now that I would wait three hours for.

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