Monday, May 17, 2010

Din Tai Fung Dumpling House- Arcadia

Exterior Din Tai Fung

It seems like Arcadia only has two famous restaurants: the Derby, and Din Tai Fung. Really, what do tourists come to Arcadia really for? There are six main things: the Santa Anita Racetrack with a trip to the Derby, the Westfield Mall, the Arboretum, Rusnak Mercedes-Benz Arcadia (the large amount of new Benzes mean something!), and Din Tai Fung.

Now, what do most food bloggers only have on Arcadia? Din Tai Fung. Or nothing at all. The local teachers and school staff of Arcadia also like Din Tai Fung. So over the past year I've done a lot of writing about the Arcadia dining scene. But I left out the most hotly debated and frequented restaurant in Arcadia: Din Tai Fung- until now. 200th post= something good to write about. Just like how the 100th post was on Green Onion Pancakes, and how the 199th post was Aureole. (Go read that if you haven't already! No comments yet)

Chefs at Work
(Before renovation: clear window. Now, a greenish backsplash of bamboo steamers have been added. And the telephone on the side? Gone as well)

A little bit of history with Din Tai Fung. We've most certainly have liked their restaurant. I've been eating there as a kid since they opened in the early 2000's and it was a favorite of ours as it was convenient on our driving route back then. We would constantly eat there as well as for take. Besides, the owner was always friendly to us and treated us well, even giving some freebies to us sometimes. So nice! There were plenty of favorites back then: The Xiao Long Bao, of course, pork chop fried rice, red bean buns, red bean dumplings, eight treasures sticky rice, red bean cake, stir fried rice cake, stir fried green beans, and chicken noodle soup. All were good, all were tasty. We would even bring our friends there. That one time, owner Frank gave us a hot steaming basket of red bean cake. Mmm...

Din Tai Fung Decorations
(Fun cabinet to look at while you wait)

But I haven't been back for a long time. In fact, after their renovation to match the second location of Din Tai Fung (around 2008), I haven't been into the restaurant. However, there was a experience with catering once which was exceedingly enjoyable. It was DTF at its best. That I will explain somewhere...

Cold Case- Buns and items for Take Out
(Want to bring something home? Here's some of what's available)

So we went in this time to Din Tai Fung with a mostly open mind, but with that previous experience ingrained to our minds. This time, we did not even need to wait like most people usually do! We came early enough around 5:30 before the rush. But really, if you come anytime during the weekdays, you will not need to wait like how you would on the crazy weekends. The two reasons this plaza gets so busy is just Din Tai Fung and the JJ Bakery. Both two very frequented places by local Arcadians. On a side note, a stereotype on JJ Bakery from a student: You're not Asian if you haven't eaten something from JJ Bakery. Bwawawa....

Interior Din Tai Fung
(The people were looking at my camera directly, drawn over for privacy...)

We took a corner seat and sit down to soak in the renovated interior. Sure enough, it was quite different. Before, it was a modern but comfy feeling. Now, it was even more modern, but not the cold type of modern (do you even get what I mean?).

Interior Lamps

More details were even added. This wall used to be white instead of green, and now there are even more paintings!

LA Times Praise for Din Tai Fung

The LA Times article wasn't new though. I took a picture anyway.

(preliminary selection. We added and subtracted more later)

Looking at the menu, the prices have not really gone up much since almost nine years ago (shocking, nine years already?). Yes, they are higher than most dumpling and noodle places. That is why I called Din Tai Fung more high end- not only the costs are higher, the interior is nicer (although at Full House, the interior is older but you can spend much more compared to here at Din Tai Fung!).

Table Setting

And the table setting was not much new either. Even the vinegar and soy sauce containers had those fruits on them like they did nine years ago! Those are cute. :)


Enough talking anyway. After ordering on the sheet, our appetizer (named appetizer- you then get to pick from several items the server talks about) of cucumbers arrived (3.50USD). These were different than our old favorite Mandarin Noodle Deli, but they were still quite good. They were basically seasoned and marinated cucumbers (not much vinegar, more salt if anything) and topped with some chili oil. Simple, but the cucumber flavor stood out a lot more! Of course, we changed it a bit with a touch of vinegar. You don't need to really though. Both ways are solid! Not bad of a deal either as these small Japanese cucumbers cost quite a lot.

Stir Fried Spinach

Sauteed Seasonal Vegetables (7.50 USD), or in this case, Sauteed Spinach, came next. According to our waiter, Din Tai Fung does not use MSG just like Elite, so these definitely seemed lighter in flavor compared to most places that use MSG. It was just a slight hint of chicken stock and garlic with these fresh pieces of spinach! Simple but well done.

Chicken Noodle Soup before mixing

The House Special Chicken Noodle Soup (Steamed) (7.50 USD) came next. But before we ate it, there was some assembling to do.

Chicken Noodle Soup with Soup in Bowl

What the waiter did was simply pour the hot soup into the big bowl with the noodles. But we did more...

Chicken Noodle Soup with Green Onions added

We asked for some green onions, and added that in for some extra brightness. Plus, it looked prettier with the green onions. Don't you think so too?

Chicken Noodle Soup

My personal sample of the chicken noodle soup was very good. It was just as good as before! Chewy noodles, flavorful chicken broth. No, it's certainly not the same as Souplantation's chicken soup- this has more flavorful chicken notes plus the slight spice of ginger. With the green onions, it was even better! And the chicken pieces were still flavorful, even if they were boiled.

Pork Chop Fried Rice

A plate of the Pork Chop Fried Rice (6.75 USD) came next. Yes, it was a much smaller portion compared to May Mei which is just footsteps away, but it was still delicious anyway. The base was the very fragrant fried rice, made with fat kernels of rice with strands of egg and bright green onions. Providing the additional flavor was the crispy pork chop, seasoned simply with salt and pepper and possibly some spices. The pepper flavor was not as strong as it used to be, which for me was a good thing. Overall, a nice dish, but small in portion. Din Tai Fung's portions are smaller and a bit more expensive after all compared to most restaurants, but they are good and prepared differently compared to most places.

Pork Xiao Long Bao

The main event came next: a steamer of Juicy Pork Dumplings, or Xiao Long Bao (7.25 USD). These were different compared to what you would get outside the US at other Din Tai Fungs. First of all, due to health reasons, DTF had to use metal steamers instead of bamboo like at the catering party. Thus, these dumplings would not be as delicious as at the party anyway due to less flavor coming in from the bamboo. Secondly, some debate that the meat is different at international DTF's, saying that they would be more tender. I don't know if that is true or not, as I haven't been to a Din Tai Fung outside of the United States.

Pork Xiao Long Bao Closeup

Instead of waiting, you should really eat these as soon as possible when they arrive at the table. However, I was busy with the bowl of chicken noodle soup. By then, the dumplings had cooled down just a tad in just about three minutes, and getting them out of the steamer was not as hard as it would be fresh from the steamer.

Pork Xiao Long Bao Juice

One of the specialties of Xiao Long Bao at Din Tai Fung is the amount of juice inside the Xiao Long Bao and the ultra thin skin. You see a lot of it in the spoon, but there was still more hidden inside the dumpling that only became noticeable when the whole dumpling went into my mouth! Unlike most places, DTF's juice is not as robust, again due to the lack of MSG which brings the umaminess. But there is still plenty of porky flavor to enjoy, with slight hints of Xiao Xing wine and ginger in the background. Less MSG= better in my book. I've been trying to eat healthier this year. You probably can't tell!

As for the skin, I haven't met a XLB skin that has been as thin as DTF's version. It's ultra thin, but yet it doesn't break as easily as you would expect. In addition, it has a flavor that seems so fresh- and no other restaurant I have seen has that scent and flavor that comes out from a fresh batch of these XLB. To solve the being careful with Xiao Long Bao situation, use a spoon with the chopstick! After propping up the dumpling slightly, slide the spoon under and take it away. It works every time.

Steamed Pork Xiao Long Bao Filling

And here's the filling. As you can see, I was so hungry I ate the skin and slurped the juice already! The filling is similar to the juice. Porky, but not ultra robust because of the lack of MSG. Like usual, there were the notes of Shao Xing wine and aromatics of ginger and green onion.

Overall? Excellent! But after the catering experience, this seems like just "OK"! Bwawawa. Although everything was the same, with the carefully made pleats by the chefs and sometimes the manager, it just didn't compare to the catering party where the Xiao Long Bao was scalding hot and ultra delicious.

Crab Xiao Long Bao

The Juicy Pork and Crab Dumplings (Xie Fen Xiao Long Bao?) (9 USD) arrived right after the regular XLB. To mark the difference, there was a piece of carrot inside the steamer.

Crab Xiao Long Bao Closeup

Like the Juicy Pork Dumplings, these had the same beautiful pleats with the skin. I think these looked even better!

Crab Xiao Long Bao Juice

However, there was not as much juice at all. All the juice was being absorbed by the crab and pork filling! I could really only feel the juice when the dumpling was in my mouth.

Crab Xiao Long Bao Filling

Eating the dumpling, I could get some flavors of the crab and pork, but I found the crab flavor to be lacking compared to last time's catering. I would say this was an off day, as usually the crab flavor is very good in these dumplings! Overall, not as good as usual on this visit, but I'm sure if I went another day it would be better. :)

Red Bean/Taro Dumplings

After eating plenty of food, we ended our meal with a steamer of Red Bean/Sweet Taro Dumplings (5.00 USD). Usually you will just get red bean or taro, but we asked for a split of both flavors so we could try both.

Closeup Red Bean and Taro Dumplings

Like the Juicy Pork Dumplings and the Juicy Pork and Crab Dumplings, these dumplings had the same beautiful pleats made by skilled chefs.

Red Bean and Taro Fillings

And inside were simply red bean paste and sweet taro paste. Sorry for the disgusting looking photo! I only had a plastic fork to cut at this stage. Anyway, other than the thin skin again (similar to the other dumpling skins in this visit), what made the difference were the pastes. The red bean paste was saccharine and full of red bean flavor. On the other hand, the taro paste had plenty of taro flavor, but to us it was perfectly sweet. So if you like sweet things, order the red bean dumplings. If you like a mildly sweet dumpling, choose the taro filling. Or order half and half if you have mixed feelings! :)

Overall, another great visit at Din Tai Fung. However, after the catering, we found the main event- the Xiao Long Baos, to be less impressive as they used to be ( OBVIOUSLY a biased opinion now due to that experience). After all, the combination of very careful work (they threw away a batch at the party as they were half steamed but due to gas issues they had to stop working, and thus threw them away as steaming them again would be bad for the dumplings), bamboo steamers, and right away eating (less than one minute in between all this!) made for the freshest Xiao Long Bao ever!

And the unbiased opinion: As long as you don't mind the higher prices, Din Tai Fung is a great restaurant to go to. The different variations compared to the "standard" that you find are pleasant to enjoy and are not found anywhere else nearby Arcadia. The choices other than the Xiao Long Bao are all quite fantastic, especially things like the fried rice. So if Xiao Long Bao doesn't suit you, you have tons of other great choices to enjoy! Din Tai Fung is definitely more than just Xiao Long Bao- it is a solid noodle and dumpling place.

Din Tai Fung
1108 S. Baldwin Avenue
Arcadia, CA 91007
Phone: 626-574-7068

Din Tai Fung on Urbanspoon

Din Tai Fung in Los Angeles on Fooddigger


kirbie said...

What a great and thorough review. You've never been to DTF elsewhere? You must try the ones in Taiwan..there is definitely a difference. Though I like the one in Arcadia, Taiwan ones are better. I didn't know you could do half and half on the taro/red bean dumplings.

Protocol Snow said...

Taiwan DTF is undoubtedly better. You should go if you have a chance, but it's even more chaotic than the Arcadia branch, believe it or not. All the Japanese and Korean tourists who come to Taiwan inevitably eat at DTF once.

EatTravelEat said...

Thanks! I would have gone to the Beijing DTF but decided to visit another restaurant instead! For the taro and red bean dumplings, just circle both and the server will ask you to make sure you want half and half (see the menu photo).

Protocol Snow,
I've never been to Taiwan yet so can't comment, although I want to! The Arcadia branch really isn't that busy other than on the weekends. I'm always surprised to hear how DTF is so fast food style! I've never had that type of experience before.

Julia P. said...

Mmmm...I go to Din Tai Fung often. You should take pictures of the larger part of the restaurant too:) I thought it was a hotel when it first opened.

EatTravelEat said...

Haha, when I get to go to DTF again I will! Should have gone to the next door location instead, but that's for next time. :)

imjustatree said...

man this is a delicious place. i just went a coup months ago. i just like the juicy pork, but i could eat a couple of those orders by myself...and the red bean is good too! i had that chicken noodle soup too and i really liked it. souplanation wishes they got some of that mojo, but i stil love them anyway. is this your favorite xlb place in the area?

Jess Wu said...

Hey! Stumbled across your blog. I just started travel & food blog of my own, and it seems very similar to yours. I've had Din Tai Fung in Taiwan many times, but have never been to Arcadia. This was interesting and informative.

EatTravelEat said...

It is quite nice! Not my favorite XLB (that one is in Beijing as stated on the sidebar) though due to the temperature issue (you can only eat it hot, hot, hot and not warm). I used to like Mei Long Village but then after getting a batch of sour tasting XLB and sickness I haven't been back! Other places I like in Arcadia are Chang's Garden and in Monrovia, Bamboo House. If both of these place's skins were just a bit thinner though I would like them even more.

Jess Wu,
Thanks for visiting! Nice blog BTW. I wish I will eat at Joel Robuchon someday. :)

noobcook said...

I think Din Tai Fung is from Singapore. Finally a "brand" I recognise on your blog hehe. I like their fried rice and xiao long bao (pork dumplings)... yes green onions garnishing do wonders for chicken noodle soup ;)

foodbin said...

Congrats on this 200th post-over here we have a DTFung restaurant, too and i like their Xiao Long Bao- the soup for the Chicken noodle is so clear and it must be tasty.

EatTravelEat said...

I think you would know even more brands if I decide to write out the stuff I had in Beijing! (e.g. Crystal Jade).

Thank you! Their Xiao Long Bao and the Chicken Noodle are delicious!

elmomonster said...

As you know, I'm mainly an OC recluse. But DTF? That's the one thing to make me drive out once in while. You're right, DTF has no equal when it comes to those thin-skinned dumplings. So awesome. So good. So worth the drive.

EatTravelEat said...

Of course I know ;). I now need to visit the OC more often like I did a few months ago!

Unknown said...

Hey, ETE! Great post! I'm so jealous you have DTF in Arcadia. I've been to DTF in Beijing, Shanghai & Singapore. Now I feel like having some xiaolongbaos!

SinoSoul said...

o c'mon, no love for Sinbala? That's what I think of when Arcadia comes up. And the awesome bowl of Taiwanese duck soup in the Plaza next to 99.

EatTravelEat said...

Thanks! Xiao Long Baos are delicious. :)

The only thing I get from Sinbala are their frozen food products and their sausages! Rarely do I order something from the menu, but my friend likes it.

Taiwanese duck soup in the plaza next to 99 (with Waltrips Music?)? Hmm...don't know where is that. You know better than me! :)

Wandering Chopsticks said...

I think DTF is OK. Their XLBs are thin-skinned, but too chewy. When cooled, the skins are rather tough. And too small. It tastes like a juicy dumpling, but not a soupy dumpling. I last went because my friend wanted to try it, but I always leave feeling like I spent too much. Nice ambiance, quality, but feels too corporate to me compared to the mom and pop places I prefer.

EatTravelEat said...

Wandering Chopsticks,
Agree with your commentary. The pork dumplings though are called "juicy" and not soupy so maybe that's why you may think it is just ok!

It does feel bit corporate even though this DTF is owned by a family living in Arcadia that drives to work everyday to see operations. :) Guess it's the professionalism!

Wandering Chopsticks said...

Ha! I think it's more because I know they have locations in Taiwan and China and Singapore. So they are corporate. :)

EatTravelEat said...

Wandering Chopsticks,
Kind of like Little Fat Sheep a few years back right? :) Multiple locations all over the place and in China.

DTF didn't feel industrialized until this visit, since the manager didn't visit us when we were there. Otherwise it feels very different and industrialized (especially now due to the swanky red, black, and white uniforms). But I'm one out of the few, I guess.