The news yesterday that a sewage backup temporarily shut down Din Tai Fung sent a surge of schadenfreude through the Taiwanese chain's detractors, who believe the restaurant's signature soup dumplings - or at least those served in Bellevue - aren't all that great.
Unfortunately for fans of xiao long bao, Din Tai Fung has very little local competition in the Shanghai-style dumpling department. While at least a dozen Seattle restaurants list xiao long bao on their menus, purists complain the term's often misapplied to a dish closer to pork potstickers than the vaunted dumplings jiggling with hot broth.
Hard Wok Cafe is perhaps the newest restaurant to serve xiao long bao, or XLB (if you're not the type to order a Sauv Blanc with your foie, feel free to forgo the shorthand.) The Taiwanese restaurant opened last December in the Ding How Shopping Center at 12th and Jackson, serving bubble teas, shaved ice and snacks. The snug ell-shaped room feels something like a Taiwanese sorority lounge: There's Taiwanese pop music on the sound system and the sweets selection includes Hello Kitty sponge cakes.
But plenty of patrons order a bamboo steamer stocked with eight "steam mini buns." That's a testament to the collective hunger for soup dumplings, not the quality of Hard Wok's product: I spent a fair amount of time trying to decide on which side of the "passable" line I'd place them.
The dumplings aren't terrible, but they have a few significant flaws. They lack the distinctive paunch of a ready-to-maim dumpling sagging with juice. The skin's too thick, the broth's too mild and the meat's too salty. But at $6.25, I didn't feel robbed either.
Although the xiao long bao are of no help to the anti-Din Tai Fung crowd, Hard Wok is still pretty adorable. While I didn't have a chance to try the scallion pancake or pork burger, both of which looked good when waitresses whisked them through the kitchen window, the popcorn chicken was salty, crispy and free of grease. The seasoning was a mite mild, but hot sauce is just a request away. And the pudding bubble tea with tapioca is terrific - the perfect thing to console a frustrated xiao long bao seeker.