The inimitable Din Tai Fung. Foodies have been gobbling about it for 40 years. The New York Times included it on their 1993 top 10 list of best restaurants in the world. It's a Michelin awarded Taiwanese global chain restaurant and you should check out its storied history ...but I'm not going to get into that.
Since their first restaurant in 1972, Din Tai Fung has expanded to nearly 70 international locations—most in Asia but several in California and one in Seattle. Their newest locations are a mix of classic and modern, but casual. It's not offensively expensive, the food's not plated with pomegranate droplets or potato smears, and you can get away with wearing Old Navy flip-flops. Not that I would know. As much as those other highfalutin restaurants claim to be all about the food, they sure concern themselves with a lot of distractions. But Din Tai Fung's concern is the dumplings.
I'm pleased to report there are plenty of vegetarian options. Each veggie dish is conveniently marked by a leaf symbol, but that doesn't limit vegetarians to only those items. One can ask his server which other dishes can be made vegetarian. For example, our first dish, Noodles with Spicy Sauce (below) does not have a leaf symbol but it can be made without chicken broth.
And it will blow your flip-flops off. How often in a chain restaurant do you get noodles with a perfect cook? They've managed to make a simple looking dish taste complex, with a sauce that's spicy enough to be fun but not overpowering of the other dishes. It leans toward sweet, but balanced with enough salt that you don't tire of any singular flavor note. (Well, la-di-da, look who just said "flavor note".)
The Vegetarian Shanghai Rice Cakes (below) quickly followed. Stir fried rice cakes are chewy by design. They are kind of a blank canvas that take on the character of their seasonings and definitely bring a new texture to the table.
The rice cakes were stir fried with cabbage, spinach and soy sauce. Fairly tasty, yet somewhat unremarkable until...
There, that's the stuff. A small pot of house chili oil sits on every table and this is why. A small dab on each rice cake and suddenly they're candy. But if you're a heat fanatic, do yourself a favor and refrain from slathering the signature sauce on every single dish. The chef has already done the work for you- just relax spicy man.
Din Tai Fung exists because of their XiaoLongBao, or "soup dumplings". Excellent soup dumplings are a lucky find for my omnivore friends, but a vegetarian version is extremely elusive (and I'd be content to settle for even a mediocre batch). Since Din Tai Fung doesn't offer veggie xiaolongbao, we tried their steamed Vegetarian Dumplings:
So, the dumplings look rather green inside. And they taste green. The filling is a mince of glass noodles, mushrooms, tofu, and green stuff. They aren't bad by any means, but they were unfairly judged against the other dishes that were just so damn special.
Frankly, the dumplings needed more fat. Chinese dumplings typically have plenty of fat from meat, so a vegetarian version must be bolstered by some sort of oil. That's not to say these were necessarily dry or lacked flavor. When being seated at Din Tai Fung, diners are given a small dish of fresh ginger. Add the dark table vinegar to the ginger to create a dumpling dipping sauce. Voila, juicy dumplings.
The last savory dish to be served was actually the appetizer- no big deal since all the dishes were served in quick succession. Wood Ear Mushrooms in Vinegar Dressing brought an entirely different texture to the table: thinly rubbery in the best possible way. The fungus (to be precise) was dressed with dark tangy Chinese vinegar and plenty of ginger. They're sprinkled with a few goji berries, have a touch of sweetness, and brought a fresh cooling bite to the warm comfort-food spread.
Between two of us, we licked the plates clean with room for splitting a taro dessert bun (all for about $40, which included a drink and excludes tip). The bun filling tasted earthy and lightly sweet. Kudos to Din Tai Fung for not turning it into a sugary nightmare. However, they lose marks for the dough that was a bit too dense. A dessert bao needs to be careful that it stays light and not too floury. Below is a short clip of us cutting it open.
Next time, I'd try the Sweet Taro XiaoLongBao instead.
Don't be put off by the hype, the haters (there's a legion, naturally, and I was almost one of them**), or the fact that Din Tai Fung is a chain. In fact, it's all the more reason to visit—to see how genuine and quality-conscious a chain can and should be. Regardless of Din Tai Fung's choice of location (We visited their Americana mall location in Glendale, CA), it's still authentic Chinese food that hasn't been Americana-ized.
Oh, and be sure to say goodbye to the bao boy on your way out :)
**We first visited Din Tai Fung years ago and had a lackluster experience. Thought we'd never return, but glad we gave them a second chance. Read about the owner's concern for consistency in this Forbes article, "The World's Greatest Dumplings".