Din Tai Fung - Arcadia
His tools: a wooden dowel and an oversized tongue depressor. Rocked back and forth on a work surface, the dowel flattens pellets of dough, each the size of a dinner mint, into perfectly uniform discs as thin as parchment. The tongue depressor is then used to scoop up small amounts of the raw ground pork filling, smearing it onto the flat rounds like paste.
Then with sleight of hand more amazing than anything David Copperfield has ever demonstrated, he picks up a filled specimen and pleats the top in a knitting motion with his nimble fingers. Within seconds, the piece is crimped with spiralling folds and transformed into a tight bulbous sphere. Grouped ten to a basket and steamed over a roiling vat of water, a juicy pork dumpling, or xiao long bao, is born.
Outside, within view of the glass window from the dumpling assembly room, dozens of people mill about, waiting for their chance to indulge in these perfect pouches of pork. For the pleasure, they will wait an hour or more.
On this sunny Sunday morning, I am one of these people -- queueing up in a ritual that has become a familiar routine for me and every customer since Din Tai Fung has been in business in Arcadia. To come is to wait.
And wait. And wait.
Cumulatively, I estimate that I usually spend more time waiting for a table than I do driving from Orange County to this sole American outlet of the legendary Taiwanese restaurant.
But much has been written about Din Tai Fung in the seven years that it has been open. For every person that gives it praise, there is another that thinks its food is overrated and its popularity fueled by hype.
In the same impassioned breath that a Lord of The Rings fan would disparage the Star Wars films, some proclaim that there are better dumpling houses in San Gabriel Valley. While there may be some truth to this, the same futility lies in both pleas, because regardless of what is said, George Lucas and Peter Jackson get richer, and the line at Din Tai Fung never gets any shorter.
A few years ago, after being stuck in it for the tenth time, I was fed up, and I defected to Mei Long Village, a nearby competitor which also serves up highly regarded and equally delicious steam baskets of xiao long bao without so much as a two-minute wait. But within a few months, I found myself crawling back to Arcadia, like a masochistic junkie.
My drug of choice was, of course, the Juicy Pork Dumplings ($6.75) and they are worth the hour lost in limbo.
As soon as it is served and the lid is removed, a plume of white steam billowed from the basket. Inside, I found them -- those precious, cute buttons with Curly-Q tops I saw being born earlier -- now sporting sagging bellies full of broth.
Picking one up with chopsticks is a task to be done tenderly, as if moving a vial of nitroglycerin. Handle it roughly, and the whole thing explodes, spewing out fatty juice and flavor. But experience has taught me how to do it properly, treating the fragile outer membrane with respect.
After it was safely perched in my Chinese soup spoon, I nibbled the top off to expose its juicy innards and then sipped the hot soup welled up inside. It's a rich, porky brew -- savory and flavorful to the max. But the decadence didn't end there. What's left after the last drop of broth is gone, was a fatty morsel of pork and the supple noodle skin. I garnished it with refreshing slivers of julienned ginger and dribbled on a slurry of vinegar, soy sauce, and chili paste before I gulped it down with a single and determined slurp.
But to wait an hour and only eat the dumplings is folly. So we ordered a plate of veggies -- required to offset the richness of those protein purses. The best to fulfill this duty was the Sauteed Green Beans ($7.00), which were first oil-blanched and then wokked with minced garlic and salt. The quick blanching in hot fat rendered the leathery outer skin tender while leaving the rest crisp and greener than emeralds.
For one starch, we tried a plate of Stir Fried Rice Cake ($7.00), which chewed much like soy-sauce flavored gum. The dish was full of contrasting textures -- with crunchy onion, bok choy, napa cabbage and pork playing against the bounce and chewy firmness of the densely compacted rice flour dough.
The Fried Pork Chop ($3.25) was aromatic, crusted with a dusting of five-spice and cooked to a mahogany luster. Once all the white meat was consumed, I found myself gnawing on the bones like a snarling dog.
Less than stellar was the Pork Fried Rice ($5.75) -- one of the dullest plates I've ever had. Flavorless and downright bland, not even the fatty strips of pork strewned within was able to save the dish from a banal existence.
The Wonton Soup ($5.50) was better. Featuring the clean, bright flavors of freshly boiled chicken, the subtle broth brought with each sip the essence of the bird. Swimming in it, like a graceful Esther Williams, were shrimp enveloped in a flowing gown of sheer noodle.
On the flip side, opposite in every respect to the Wonton Soup's subtlety, was the Roasted Beef Soup ($5.50). Robust and full-bodied, beneath its dark and murky depths lurked licorice-flavors of anise and the cloying sweetness of beef fat.
Still swooning over the xiao long bao, we soon found out that not all things dumpling are worth ordering. The Vegetable Dumplings ($6.75) were dry and mealy. If the thin wrappers of the Juicy Pork Dumplings were silk, these were made of burlap -- simultaneously tough, chewy and thick.
Thankfully, the Red Bean Dumpling's ($4.50) used the same thin wrapper as the xiao long bao. And it was the perfect dumpling closer to the meal. Designed as dessert, it's stuffed with a candy-sweet bean paste -- a confection that has the stick-to-your teeth consistency of peanut butter.
With Din Tai Fung's expansion to bigger digs in the same plaza set to open in May, I'm hoping the wait will decrease. But to think that a larger space will make it faster to get in is as hopeful as thinking that the next George Lucas or Peter Jackson spectacle won't find an opening day audience of geeks.
Din Tai Fung
1108 S Baldwin Ave
Arcadia, CA 91007