Can you believe that I have never been to any of the Din Tai Fung branches in Sydney? Not the restaurant in World Square, nor even the food court versions in Westfield Pitt Street Mall or The Star. I’ve heard people raving about it, of course, and that is exactly the reason why I’ve never made much of an effort to go. I tend to avoid restaurants people rave about because I find that when there’s so much hype about it, you do work yourself up in anticipation and when you finally do experience it, it can be a bit of a let down.
But being in Taiwan, I realised that I was in the birthplace of Din Tai Fung. Din Tai Fung actually started as a small store in Taipei selling those now very well known Shanghai xiao long bao in 1974 and have since then opened stores in Japan, Singapore, China, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, the US, Hong Kong, more stores across Taiwan, and of course, Australia.
In the afternoon of my first week in Taipei, dad said he’ll take me to Din Tai Fung for lunch but when we got to the famed first-ever Din Tai Fung store, we thought that maybe we should take a raincheck.
Anyway, a couple of days later we made our way to another of the Din Tai Fung branches, located in the Zhongxiao Fuxing locality. If you’re catching a bus, the stop is called the Apollo Building. A little way down a small street from the main street and you have arrived.
We arrived before 12 noon and were relieved to see that there was no line whatsoever, and were greeted formally at the beginning of the laneway by a waitress dressed in black vest and skirt, with a white shirt and invited to continue down the laneway. Errr…don’t mind if we do. A second waitress (or the maitre d’, I should say) greeted us at the entrance from her podium, where she took the number of people we had before handing us over to yet another waitress to take us to our table. They all had radios and earpieces – it was just a little intimidating. Every waitress speaks not only Mandarin and Taiwanese dialect, but also English and Japanese, due to the large amount of tourists and tourist groups that come to visit. How insane!
The inside of the restaurant is bright and well-lit, with wooden tables and chairs, a high ceiling, clean tiled floor and of course, the trademark open kitchen view where you could watch the chefs weaving their magic.
We were handed the menus and each given a hot cup of Oolong tea (complimentary), before we began to look through them. I never knew Din Tai Fung had a Michelin star – fancy that!
The waitress also brought around a selection of side dishes on the tray. Nothing particularly bounced out at me, although I did select this one. Those who have an Asian background will understand what I mean when I say it was fried gluten, but for those that aren’t, fried gluten is a little spongy and sweet, a little like dried tofu that has been soaked in a sweet syrup. It came with some broad beans, dried dates and some bamboo pieces.
Our pork xiao long bao were the first to arrive, with the steamer lid unveiled with a flourish and introduction by the waitress. We were advised that the recommended ratio for the dipping sauce was three parts black vinegar to one part soy sauce – a combination that really was quite perfect. The dipping dishes are filled with finely chopped strands of ginger, but I tend to find ginger a little too overpowering and gave it all to dad.
After dunking the dumpling, we gingerly nibbled at its tender, delicate skin and let the hot broth flow out before devouring it. Absolutely delicious. Although I’ve tried various xiao long bao street stalls around Taipei, I’m yet to find a place that makes their xiao long bao with such a gorgeous broth. The meat was tender, soft, and perfectly cooked.
Our second batch of dumplings arrived, the pork and crab roe xiao long bao. The crab roe was distinctively yellow and other than the lack of broth in the dumpling, there wasn’t an obvious difference in the texture of the xiao long bao as a result of the crab roe’s addition, the taste was markedly different – a lot more seafood-ey. But still just as delicious.
We also ordered the shrimp shao mai dumplings -I found these a little dry I’m afraid. The only shrimp was a shrimp on top while the bottom of the dumpling just encased the usual pork mince filling. I found it just a little bland and a tad overcooked.
The fish dumplings came out arranged in a funny star shape. Looking into the kitchen, I noticed on the wall that there was a picture of how to present the dumplings in the steamer for the different numbers – quite amusing that they were so serious on uniformity. The fish dumplings had slightly thicker skins than the xiao long bao and were filled with a light and delicate fish paste.
We also had the crab dumplings. All I can say is – I dug into them so quickly I forgot to take a photo of all five of them first. Mah bad.
And when I had been looking through the entire menu, I flicked through the dessert section and immediately noticed their taro dumplings. Being a massive fan of taro desserts (so hard to find in Australia), I just had to try them. And I was not disappointed.
They arrived at the table looking very firm and beautifully wrapped. The reason for this is that the taro paste inside is a lot firmer and so helps the dumpling hold its shape, unlike the pork ones where you’ve got so much broth and the pork mixture would have shrunk upon cooking, lending the dumpling that endearing saggy-look.
All I can say is: Oh My Goodness. Creamy, and just pure, sweet, un-tainted taro flavour. I’ve truly never had anything like this before. While there are a lot of things about Asia and Taiwan that does get to me, I will say that I’m sad that I’ve left Taipei because I will miss these. A lot.
What a lunch! I was full in the most epic way and excused myself to use the restroom while the bill was being settled. They actually have bidet toilets in the restrooms, which are cleaned by a stand-by cleaner after each person, and the cleaner says ‘thank you’, when you’re done – quite funny.
We left the restaurant at half past one and laughed at the ridiculously long line outside. Make sure you come early, folks.
Ciao for now xx