Din Tai Fung's Dumpling Dilemma

Does this Bellevue hot spot's signature dish live up to its legend?

Finding Din Tai Fung was the easiest thing in the world. I got off the elevator and all I had to do was look for the line. At the hostess stand, I was told it would be 45 minutes before I could get a table. She marked my menu, handed it over, and looked back over her shoulder into the full room behind her with its traffic of servers and customers walking out with pretty black and white and red bags of leftovers. It was an hour before I saw the inside of that room again, and I was lucky. Once inside, I ate shrimp and pork shu mai, bottle-necked and cinched like beggar's purses with a shot of broth in the bottom and an orange-pink shrimp stopping their mouths. I ate a bowl of house beef soup that was nothing but slabs of grayish boiled beef in a clear broth that tasted vaguely of salt and was haunted by the barest hint of lemongrass. I moved the spoon between the bowl and my mouth with my eyes closed, pressed in close among the flood of other customers who had been let in along with me, and tried not to think about how long I'd waited for this. I hefted a pork bun, weighty in my hand, and bit into it as if I were taking a chunk out of a baseball filled with barbecued pig. It was good—the dough pillowy and warm, the meat candied like a pork SweeTart—and I tried not to think about the hostess walking the hallway at Lincoln Square like an Atlantic City ring card girl, smudged white board held high, singing out, "Two hundred and lower!" while I looked at the top of my menu and its number: 294. I ate shrimp and pork dumplings, fingernail-crimped in the fish tank full of dumpling-makers at the front of the restaurant, and they were good, packed tightly with ground pork and chunks of shrimp and shards of green onion. I ate sautéed spinach that came in a green dome set on a white plate— snapping at it with my chopsticks and smelling more than tasting the sting of the garlic from its pan. The dumplings I dipped in a bowl of black vinegar with a nose like tear gas and a powerful, sour flavor that I couldn't get enough of. With the spinach, I chewed sticks of ginger. And then I ate more dumplings: the xiao long bao—"juicy pork dumplings" on the menu—that are the pride and the draw at Din Tai Fung, the soup dumplings that people go crazy for and wait an hour, two, three in order to taste. I pick one up by the little twist at the top and watch it, waiting for its full belly to droop, pregnant with broth. My dumpling hangs there, pinioned between my chopsticks, resolutely refusing to impress me with its weight, its fullness. It looks like a tiny, flat-bottomed UFO. And when I pop it in my mouth—the whole thing, all at once—it is fine. There is a squirt of broth when I bite down, a small flood of salty, meaty liquid preceding the texture of the dumpling skin, the pork. It's a good dumpling, but not a great one. I try not to think about my bored pacing in the hallway outside Din Tai Fung, the way I'd stared into the glass-walled room full of dumpling makers like observing marmots at the zoo, watching them as if they were TV—the weirdest, slowest, quietest reality show ever. I try not to think about the seditious conversations that went on in my head while I'd waited ("Man, why don't you just go to Lucky Strike, bowl a few frames, eat some nachos, and go home") or all the hype that'd attended the announcement that Din Tai Fung was coming to Seattle. I chew, I taste, I swallow. It's a really good dumpling. It's just not the best dumpling ever. And, unfortunately, "best" is what Din Tai Fung promises—set up right from the start to offer an experience it cannot possibly provide. Go online. Read the fawning reviews of other locations (one in L.A., others scattered around the Pacific Rim—in Kyoto, Sendai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta, Seoul, and elsewhere) and the way that people make a mecca of this place, render unto it revelatory powers and lay claim to crowded dining-room epiphanies. Din Tai Fung has been around for decades, started in Taiwan by a Chinese army deserter named Bingyi Yang, who began with an oil shop that sold a few steamed dumplings and noodles to make ends meet. Now it's a worldwide dumpling superpower. You don't go to Din Tai Fung for dumplings; you go for the best dumplings in the world. That's what I was expecting, rubbing shoulders with all the other dumpling supplicants and then sitting in the actual dining room, dying for that first taste and ready for a revelation of my own. Didn't have one. Shouldn't have expected it. It was my David Foster Wallace moment: another supposedly fun thing I'll never do again. No, wait. That's not true. Later that night, I am lying in bed and thinking about Ghostbusters. It's a good movie—funny and strange and trés-'80s, with some great lines and great characters. But say you have a friend who, for whatever reason, has never seen Ghostbusters. You say "Jesus Christ, what's the matter with you? You've never seen Ghostbusters? It's the best movie ever!" You immediately watch the DVD, and your friend ends up disappointed. Ghostbusters is not the best movie ever. You've oversold it. Yet had you just casually put it on, saying something like "Check it out, this is kinda funny," odds are good that your weird friend would then love Ghostbusters too, and walk around for a month quoting it to people like it'd just come out last week. The minute I first saw it happening, I should've jumped up and told everyone in Seattle not to believe the hype about Din Tai Fung. Having never eaten at Din Tai Fung's Singapore, Seoul, or Sendai branches and having no earthly idea how good or bad it was, I should've said "These are not the best dumplings in the world," simply because no dumpling, so called, ever could be. Say something is the best and, almost without exception, it cannot help but disappoint. On the other hand, I have the opportunity now to say something different, which is this: Don't believe the haters either. A lot of people out there, feeling betrayed maybe, have now turned on Din Tai Fung and claim it is a waste of time, money, and space. And that's wrong, too—a reflex reaction, absent rational consideration, just like the prior lovefest. Din Tai Fung does good dumplings. Any place that focuses on dumplings with such savage concentration—weeks of training for the local dumpling-makers, decades of practice around the world—can't really do less. These are fresh dumplings, made by hand, often just minutes before they're whisked away to the floor, by a small army of cooks who do nothing else all day. There are problems with the trademark soup dumplings: they're not full enough and rarely hot enough, and are slapped down into the steamers with a bit too much vigor by those responsible for their finishing. They also lack the inherent sense of danger that a proper soup dumpling should have: the potential for delicious, scalding broth to come pouring out when poked, aiming unerringly for the face. But many other varieties hold their own against all comers. The shu mai are big and unique in design. The shrimp and pork dumplings are packed full, and their skins have the chewy-but-not-too-chewy texture that is the most difficult trick for a dumpling maker to pull off. The noodles (both fried and boiled), which no one ever really talks about, are delicious and subtly flavored, and remind me of those set down in front of starving crowds in a hundred different Chinatown restaurants whose names no one ever remembers. The service is friendly and as fast as it can be in a restaurant that's so busy it has to take tables by the gang—walking them in five and 10 at a time as if dinner were a ride in some odd corner of Disneyland. And considering the popularity of Din Tai Fung, the prices are reasonable. You can stuff yourself for $40. I have had better dumplings in my time, sure. But I haven't had many. As organized and ruthlessly efficient as is the system for working the dine-in crowds, so too is the takeaway operation. There is a special window, a register, and a totally overwhelmed girl standing there with a fistful of menus and a tired smile stapled up around her ears. On another night, I stride right past the waiting crowd and, looking at an hour-and-a-half wait, go to the window where my order is taken immediately: dumplings, dumplings, and more dumplings, chicken fried rice, a double order of pork buns. I'm told it'll take 20 minutes, maybe 25, and I feel like a dumpling Einstein. I step back out into the hallway and, trying to be casual about it this time, stand by the fish tank and watch the dumpling-makers again. It's fascinating to see the machine in action, but then, in the corner of my eye, I catch sight of a Bellevue cop coming through the doors to the skyway next to Din Tai Fung. He's walking with purpose, making straight for the restaurant, and he looks scary/pissed as only a man with a uniform and a gun really can. Cop goes in, cop comes out. Cop stalks off with no lawbreakers in tow. Everyone needs stories to root them in place. In the year I've been here, I've collected a few. I've got a Ballard story, a couple of Eastside stories, a West Seattle story, and plenty of Market stories. Now I have a Bellevue story—a classic. Twenty minutes pass and I go back to the takeout window, where the girl working the counter is waiting for me. "Sorry," she says. They're all out of pork buns. I ask her what happened. The girl leans forward and asks if I'd seen the police officer come in. As it turns out, the cop had snaked my pork buns. The girl tells me the whole story—how he'd come in, looking angry, and said that he'd come in five times and every time they'd been sold out of pork buns. "He looked so mad," she says, laughing. "I was scared. I didn't know what to do!" So she gave him my pork buns, which were the last in the house. She apologizes profusely, offers me pork-and-vegetable buns instead, and, because she's funny and honest about it, I tell her it's no problem. I totally understand. Would've done the same thing myself. But inside, I'm steaming. There was a time in my life when I got mad at cops for taking my beer, my weed, my driver's license. Now they're taking my pork buns. My order comes up quickly after that—a huge bag, full of everything I love in the world, less one thing. I take it to my car and start eating while everything is hot. The soup dumplings again are flabby and lack danger, but the shu mai are great and the wonton-shaped shrimp and pork dumplings are delicious and pretty juicy in their own right. The replacement pork-and-vegetable buns are steamy and delicious, cut through with chopped spinach. About half of the order makes it to my living room, where I sit and eat in peace—liking Din Tai Fung a lot more because it didn't consume three hours of my life and no one was telling me it was the best dumpling restaurant in the world. Sitting there on my couch, with black vinegar running down my chin and my breath sour with garlic and broth, I think about Ghostbusters and wonder if it's showing on cable anywhere. I've never bought the DVD because God knows I've seen it enough. It's one of my favorite movies, after all. Not the best movie ever, but still. Price Guide Juicy pork dumplings $9.50 Shrimp and pork dumplings $9.75 Shu mai $11.25 Pork buns $4.25 Beef soup $7.75 Pork fried noodles $8.50 jsheehan@seattleweekly.com

 
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