Wednesday, December 8, 2010

FoodTrek: Getting My Xiao Long Bao Groove On

I came, I saw, I waited in a long line, and I had xiao long bao. Din Tai Fung, purveyors of the "juicy" soup dumplings known as xiao long bao, is open and ready to rumble in downtown Bellevue. Or, more to the point, to stop the rumbling of stomachs craving this unique and delicious dish.
Not enough soup for the droop, but still tasty - Photo by Wasabi Prime

The enjoyment of food is as much in the texture as its flavor. Chewy, soft, crunchy, delicate -- all these different sensations really enhance the experience of eating something and provide a memorable mouth-feel that really leaves an impression. That's the aspect of trying new styles of dishes that I enjoy, the promise of discovery. The joy of eating soup dumplings is the sensation of both solid and liquid, with the soft wonton skin holding both hot, flavorful broth and a small morsel of ground meat, usually pork. It's not a typical combination for American palates, and so I think people being drawn in to the novelty of a new restaurant like Din Tai Fung will walk away with something fresh, and hopefully it leads them to investigate other places that serve this style of cuisine. For those who are familiar and well-versed with the wild and crazy world of dumplings, the debate continues over whether Din Tai Fung is worth the hype, long wait times and so on. I'm  not jumping on either side of the argument, mostly because I'm not versed well enough to weigh-in with the dumpling pros. I'm a cheap dumpling date -- I like eating 'em any which way I can, just because they always taste like comfort to me. And really, the best way to enjoy food is when it's shared with good company.
Pork chop fried rice and sweet taro buns - Photos by Wasabi Prime

I was able to visit Din Tai Fung twice in one week, right after its crazed weekend opening that had people waiting in three hour lines and setting the local foodie scene ablaze with discussion. I didn't have nearly enough time during the first visit, just grabbing a quick seat at the bar (yes, there's a full bar in there -- weirdly wonderful, right?), and ordering up the small, bite-sized pork juicy dumplings and the sweet taro-filled buns. I liked being able to just sit and eat, but it was of course much more enjoyable to go a second time with Jay Friedman, Seattle's intrepid Gastronaut explorer, and his lovely co-pilot, Akiko, where we were better able to navigate the menu as a group.

Xiao long bao party - Photos by Wasabi Prime 

The company was grand and of course the nice thing about more people is you can order more items. I definitely enjoyed the delicate flavor of the pork soup dumplings, even if there wasn't enough broth to give it the signature "soup-droop." That's not an official term, I just like it because it rhymes. I was just pleased at the tenderness of the pork inside. In terms of notable flavors, the pork and shrimp shao mai were my favorite, along with the pork dumplings served in a spicy, lightly sweet sauce. The pork chop fried rice is a popular crowd favorite, but I may just order the pork on its own the next time. I love rice, but the crispy texture of the pork chop was what I enjoyed most.

Don't just order the soup dumplings - plenty of other yummy things - Photos by Wasabi Prime

I look forward to visiting Din Tai Fung again, mostly to accompany other friends who have expressed an interest in going, but I'm not in a hurry to go during its honeymoon fever pitch and long lines. I'm happy to bide my time visiting my old favorites for dumplings, where I meet with friends and we share tea, company and food -- in the end, that's all I care about. I think like a lot of restaurants, things will develop with time. I'm mostly hopeful that having a place as well known as Din Tai Fung will be the spark that inspires people unfamiliar with the cuisine to continue exploring beyond the foods that offer a side of fries. If that can happen, then I feel like Din Tai Fung is doing some pretty great work.

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  1. Fun to go with you, even though I had shoulder-droop after the "soup-droop" failure!

  2. This place does sound great, but I won't wait three hours for anything, not even dumplings.

  3. So not fair! When are they going to open one in the east coast! You guys already have so many . . . *sigh* . . at least I got to eat some in China this past year. :) Great post.

  4. Wow -- DTF in Bellevue? Sounds great! There are those who hate on DTF because it doesn't live up to the hype of "best xiaolongbao on the planet," but any restaurant that gets people interested in XLB and does a decent of presenting the form is a winner in my book.

  5. I wish we had these kinds of places around here, the food looks rather good... even though there wasn't enough soup!


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