Last week, we pitted two Ballard newcomers against each other in a battle to the death. It was Staple & Fancy (inside the Kolstrand building) versus The Walrus and the Carpenter (which lives at the same address, with just a thin pane of glass between its floor and Staple & Fancy's). I was of two minds on the matter: While I prefer the full menu at Staple & Fancy, W&C is the place in town for eating oysters right now. And I would be perfectly fine eating at either rather than going almost anywhere else in the neighborhood.
Once I turned the voting over to you, the readers, the split was similarly close. We had a decent turnout at the polls and both joints obviously have their dedicated fans, but with the final tabulation came a narrow victory (55%) for . . .
. . . Staple & Fancy. Ethan Stowell's newest squeaked out the side-by-side win last week, but this time around we're focusing not on geographic proximity, but a single food item done famously by two very, very different restaurants.
The Contenders: Din Tai Fung (reviewed this week) is a world-famous soup-dumpling purveyor begun as a family operation in the corner of an oil shop in Taiwan and now boasting huge and gorgeous locations all over the world. Mandarin Chef (which I reviewed a few months back) is famous only among Seattle-area dumpling fanatics. It too is a family operation, begun by Sang and Lang Lam as a tiny storefront on University Way. The difference here is that Mandarin Chef still remains the tiny family operation it always has been--a half-dozen tables and Sang back in the kitchen doing what he does best: making dumplings.
The Stats: Din Tai Fung has the size, the weight, and the reach, to be sure. It has the resources of a major international restaurant operation behind it, and decades worth of practice at making the "Juicy Pork Dumplings" (soup dumplings, by any other name) for which it has become famous. And Mandarin Chef has the Lams.
The Battle: Size isn't everything, right? All the advantages that Din Tai Fung has can also be crippling when it comes to taking on a small, fast, and feisty local competitor. The worst thing DTF had going into this fight was reputation: It was supposed to serve THE BEST DUMPLINGS IN THE WORLD. And the minute some place gets saddled with that kind of expectation, it's a recipe for disaster.
As a matter of fact, that's pretty much what this week's review of Din Tai Fung was all about: expectation. DTF serves some good dumplings, to be sure. But because I was looking for the best in the world, I didn't find them. Not only that, but those trademark soup dumplings? They kind of left me wanting.
As a matter of fact, even while writing the review, I mentioned that there were at least two places in the world that I'd been to personally that served better dumplings. One of the places I had in mind? Mandarin Chef. No one told me that I'd be eating the best dumplings man has ever known when I first stepped into the small, wrecked dining room at Mandarin Chef. I just sat down and ordered a plate, and accidentally stumbled upon some of the best dumplings I've ever had.
The Final Score: Mandarin Chef takes this one on psychological grounds. It's the kind of place you stumble across accidentally and expect very little of, but then are surprised to find yourself sucking down something as delicious as Sang's jiao zi. I still liked my dinner at Din Tai Fung a lot, and will likely be going back as often as I can manage. But when those nights come which require an accounting of the best things you've ever eaten and where, DTF's soup dumplings will not make my list. The space in my heart currently reserved for Best Dumplings goes to the jiao zi at Mandarin Chef, hands down.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, it's your turn. Click on through to our Versus poll page right here and choose this week's victor. Next week, I'll reveal the results of the dumpling battle, and be back with a new poll. Oh, and while you're at it? Why not follow me on the Twitter in order to stay up-to-date on all the news unfit for print. You can find me tweetering away at @Jason_Sheehan, so why not come join the 140-character fun?
Oh, and while you're at it? Why not follow me on the Twitter in order to stay up-to-date on all the news unfit for print. You can find me tweetering away at @Jason_Sheehan, so why not come join the 140-character fun?