Din Tai Fung: A First Look

Photo courtesy chowtimes.com
As reported earlier today, Din Tai Fung--the highly anticipated Taiwanese dumpling house--opened very quietly over the weekend at 700 Bellevue Way Northeast, inside Lincoln Square. There was no big announcement, no fireworks. But because this was one of those restaurants that Seattle-area grubniks have been drooling over for months, it didn't take long for word to leak out that the doors had been unlocked and the kitchen fires lit.

Saturday was pretty much all the new place got in terms of a soft open. By Sunday, according to the Seattle Times and Nancy Leson (who has been on this place like crazy-go-nuts, tracking down every opening night rumor, every whisper of news said by anyone, for the past couple months), the wait for a table was upwards of three hours.

Yes. Three hours. For dumplings. So why all the craziness and breathless anticipation?

Well, for starters, this Bellevue location is only the second Din Tai Fung to open in the United States. Los Angeles got the first one back in 2000, and people went completely bonkers for it. And it took the company--which is based in Taiwan, but has locations everywhere from Japan (11 locations), China (15 and counting), Singapore (8) and Korea (4), to Indonesia (5), Malaysia (2) and Australia (just 1, in Sydney)--ten years to come back to American soil.

Second, the place comes with one helluva backstory--beginning with the flight of its founder, Bingyi Yang, from China to Taiwan in the summer of 1948 (right in the middle of a civil war), moving through the establishment of a business selling cooking oil and then, eventually, transitioning into the dumpling business when Bingyi and his wife, Penmei, realized they couldn't make it solely in the cooking oil game. The first Din Tai Fung dumpling shop was set up in the corner of the family oil shop, and from these humble beginnings, the place grew into an international restaurant group well known enough that folks half a world and half a century removed would wait for hours just to get a taste.

Din Tai Fung essentially made a name for itself selling xiao long bao, otherwise known as soup dumplings--the kind with the soup on the inside. And there are plenty of people out there who would claim that Din Tai Fung serves the best soup dumplings in the world. Or if not the best, then at least the benchmark--the xiao long bao to which all other xiao long bao are compared, thin-skinned and juicy, hand-made in every shop by cooks whose only job is to make dumplings by the hundreds and thousands every single day, and offered in all sorts of varieties.

Currently, the hours of dumpling availability are running from 11am-10pm, but Din Tai Fung may extend those into the wee-small and keep the lights on 'til 3am in order to serve dumplings to...whoever is up and about in Bellevue at 3am, I guess--a demographic which strikes me as extremely limited. But it also seems to beg the question: how far would you drive for the best dumplings ever at 3 in the morning? Personally, I would've made the drive to L.A. if I really, really needed some great dumplings, so just going to Bellevue doesn't seem that bad. And doing it at 3am should at least be quick.

Anyway, all reports right now are that the Lincoln Square shop is handling the massive crush of dumpling lovers with some aplomb, suffering no terrible disasters and getting xiao long bao into people just as fast as ever they can. Wait times will likely mellow out a bit as the weeks stretch on, but I'm already feeling a bit anxious. It's been a long time since I had some seriously great dumplings. The last time was at Mandarin Chef, actually, for jiao-zi--and that was already six months ago.

Honestly, I just don't know how much longer I can hold out...

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