I awoke with a great hunger this morning, and since the Mrs. and daughter were still depositing some of our fortune in the great state of Nevada, I figured it would be a perfect time for a houndly hunt for soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung Dumpling House. So after laying out appropriate provisions for Binky, I headed west in Herman, making my way to Arcadia.
Din Tai Fung is in a mini-strip mall on Baldwin Avenue. When Herman and I approached the address I could already see cars lined up in the parking lot, their drivers trolling for parking places, and a gaggle of people standing outside the restaurant. These were good signs. So once oncoming traffic cleared, and other cars inched forward in the lot, Herman and I turned in to the lot and crouched, Hermans motor purring as we waited for a stall to open. Fortune must have been shining down on Herman and I today, because only after about 60 seconds some folks obligingly got in their car and pulled out of the stall almost directly in front of Herman and I, so we pounced.
As I inferred, people were sitting on park benches provided by the management or standing around under some market umbrellas outside the restaurant. So as I had never been to Din Tai Fung before, nor to any Chinese dumpling house, I was not sure of the protocol. I figured out these people were not in a line, per se, so I made my way through the crowd in to a small reception area and was greeted by a hostess at the podium. At Din Tai Fung when you check in at the podium you are asked how many in your party and given a number. Your number and the number in your party are written on a paper menu that is handed to you on a small clip board together with a pen. You then take your time perusing the menu while waiting for your table, and check off your choices. You are also handed a ticket with your number on it. You can hang on to all of this until you are called, or turn in your annotated menu to the hostess when you have finished filling it out, retaining your ticket.
I was told the wait would be about 30 minutes. I took a seat on a bench near the podium, which is right in front of a window in to the kitchen. So I was able to see the cooking staff stretching rolled dough and pinching off pieces of dough that would be molded into pouches for food. I was also able to see stacks of stainless steel steamer containers being moved on and off a steam source. The dough pinchers were very busy. The reception area was also very busy, with groups of people clumping every few minutes as they arrived and checked in. Some of the veterans, I realized, knew enough to stop at a Chinese bakery on the way over to Din Tai Fung, so while they waited outside they enjoyed a little snack. This was good strategy, because the 30 minutes I was quoted stretched out to about 50 minutes. It was, however, worth the wait.
When you are seated at your table a pot of hot tea is waiting, as is a small ramekin of julienne ginger, and a condiment tray with ground pepper (it appeared), soy sauce and a dark vinegar. So I poured some tea for myself and proceeded to mix some of the vinegar and a bit of soy with the ginger, thus constructing my dipping sauce.
I had made as my menu selections one order of the juicy pork dumplings and one order of the shrimp soup dumplings. These are what this place is famous for. I had arrived at the podium and checked in at approximately 11:30 this morning, at about 11:40, right after I had checked off my menu choices, I and all of my fellow dumpling aficionados that were gathered, were informed, sadly, by the host via the loudspeaker system, that they had already SOLD OUT ALL OF THE SOUP DUMPLINGS. According to the L.A. Times, Din Tai Fung only prepares 40 orders of the very labor intensive soup dumplings a day, and only on weekends. So it became very apparent to this hound, that if one craves the succulence of soup dumplings, he or she had better get up pretty early in the morning. So, regrettably I scratched the shrimp soup dumplings off my menu form, and checked regular shrimp dumplings.
Almost immediately after being seated this wondrous stainless dumpling steamer arrived at my table, and when the waitress removed the stainless cover, a cloud of steam expanded up and out, revealing ten beautiful, perfectly constructed onion shaped pouches of dough encasing juicy pork. This was as impressive a dramatic presentation as any high end joint I have been to.
In addition to the condiments, at each table setting is a small soup cup, Asian style soup spoon, and a plate the size of a bread plate, and one package of disposable chop sticks. One side of the chopstick wrapper had the restaurant name, address and logo, but the other side was very interesting. It had printed in red ink:
CAUTION: Dumplings are hot!
Then beneath the warning message, in black ink:
TIPS FOR EATING DUMPLINGS:
1. Gently lift the dumpling and place it on your spoon.
2. Take a nibble on the dumpling skin and sip the juice.
3. Now it is safe to enjoy your dumpling.
As I contemplated the disturbing/intriguing message on the chop stick wrapper, two thoughts came to mind: First of all, since I dont believe the dumplings are made from tobacco products, the warning cant be coming from the Surgeon General, therefore the dumplings must be damn hot, so hot that the restaurants attorney, or its insurance carrier, or both deemed it necessary to print a disclaimer. Secondly, no real hound, worth his daily ration of Milk Bones is going to first nibble and sip. That is not the houndly way to achieve the ultimate in gustatory satisfaction. So as I approached the first dumpling with my quivering chopsticks, glancing at the distinctly un-houndly Asian women at the next table over, nibbling and sipping from their spoons, I boldly picked-up a dumpling with my chopsticks and popped it in to my mouth and bit down.
Yes, the dumpling and its inner juices were hot, but not unbearably so, the real, significant sensation was one of wonderful flavor bursting out of the little pouch of goodness, of a little ball of ground pork swimming in a tiny sea of broth encased in that ingenious pouch. I quickly snatched up another, and then another. Amazingly, I, Chino Wayne, one of the most chopstick inept examples of all humankind, actually, in this haze of dumpling deliciousness, almost never once faltered with my chopsticking. I view this as an omen, as an indication from everything and every being on high, that this interlude in the dumpling house was meant to be for this natural born hound. The fact that out of eventually 30 dumplings consumed this morning, only one dumpling became damaged with a breach to its watertight integrity by clumsy chopstick handling gives credence to my theory that this day, which was indeed a special day of convergence for Chino Wayne and Chinese dumplings was pre-ordained, by some super chow being, eons and eons ago in the deep, dark past, at the very beginnings of the Universe.
Between cycles of cramming juicy pork dumplings in to my mouth I developed my gripping and dipping technique. The little pouches of goodness, as I mentioned before, are shaped like an onion, with the bulbous part of dumpling walls very, very thin, almost translucent, with a ball of meat jiggling within the hot broth, and the top end of the dumpling crimped together very neatly with many folds of dough. So the proper technique, as developed by I, Chino Wayne, while on the hunt for deliciousness this day, was to grip the bulbous part of the dumpling with the ends of the chopsticks, being careful not to breach the integrity of the dumpling hull, then convey the dumpling to the dipping dish, and turn it on its head, so that the crimped folds of dough could pick up threads of ginger and the soy and vinegar, then re-invert the dumpling and convey it to the mouth, in one swift motion.
As I polished off the final juicy pork dumplings I realized that I would never eat sausage and eggs for breakfast again, not after I had discovered that the perfect application of pork for the morning meal is as a juicy pork dumpling. It was at about this time that I flagged down the waitress and asked her to bring me a second order of the juicy pork dumplings.
Then the shrimp dumplings came. I love shrimp, so this was a no brainer for me to order. A very nice amalgam of dumpling, this time crescent shaped, and shrimp, but not as much liquid as the juicy pork dumplings. Nonetheless, I polished off all ten of the shrimp dumplings with dispatch, because mid-way through them the second order of juicy pork dumplings arrived. After polishing off the second batch of juicy pork dumplings I made final observations and withdrew from the field.
Observations were that the dumplings, once the steam is released from the stainless steamers, begin to rapidly cool. As they cool they begin to adhere to the parchment like paper lining the bottom of the steamer. So it is important for two reasons that one must dispatch a batch of dumplings as rapidly as possible. First because for maximum taste sensation, the dumplings have to be steaming hot when you put them in your mouth and bite in to them. Second, because as the dumplings cool they begin to stick to the paper lining, and the chopsticks as gripping and lifting tools become less capable of actually picking up the dumplings, and no self respecting, Gringo, hound, would want to be reduced to having to scoop up dumplings with his soup spoon.
Another observation was the very intriguing looking soup at the next table over, which was clear and held some crescent shaped dumplings that were absolutely translucent and luscious looking. Also on the list for the next visit will be the shiao mai shrimp dumplings and the juicy crab and pork dumplings, in addition, if the moon, planets and stars are in perfect alignment, SOUP DUMPLINGS.
There were very few non Asian patrons in this establishment. As I sat waiting to be called for my table, those very few Gringos that finished their meals and were walking out all seemed to be giving me the eye as they walked out. I imagined they were thinking, Oh no, another white guy has found this place, pretty soon my gem of a find, where the real Chinese food is served will be out of the bag and Ill never be able to get in. So fellow hounds, while I recommend you do visit this establishment, and maybe even one day am able to enjoy your company while I am enjoying some dumplings, please, keep this find in the dog pack, just between us hounds, OK?
Total tab for two Juicy Pork Dumplings (10 ea), one Shrimp Dumplings (10) and one Pot of tea came to $20.00
Din Tai Fung Dumpling House
1108 South Baldwin Avenue
Arcadia, CA 91006