As a Westerner, how do I begin to describe a Shanghai Xiaolongbao dumpling that one does not just gulp down (or drown in chili oil and shoyu) but instead allows to dance on ones palate before it explodes into distinct flavors of pork, chicken and rich savory broth? How can I explain the difference between a run-of-the-mill Hong Kong style noodle house or dim sum palace, whether in SF’s Chinatown or along Atlanta’s Buford Highway and the holy shrine to dumplings known as Din Tai Fung? This is a place where practically every dish arrives looking simple, even coy, but then when eaten proceeds to transform into the dim sum equivalent of a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi ?
There is a matter-of-factness about the smiling servers and seating hostesses that borders on almost cavalier, right up until the actual food arrives. The moment you bite into a mound of steaming fresh garlic green beans or shrimp topped pork shu mai there is a palpable culinary awakening. I nearly dropped my chopsticks on the floor and was tempted to bow down in reverence while facing the large glass enclosed prep kitchen. Inside, a dozen identically masked and aproned chefs work deftly to cut, roll, shape and stuff the sacred XLB dumplings. Like Santa’s helpers in December they can barely keep up with consumer demand. I kid you not. The juicy pork dumplings are that good. Also good is the chicken fried rice with fresh green onion and dry fried pork chop over rice. Multiple orders of everything is the norm here rather then the exception. A Zagat rating of 26 amid literal miles of competing Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean restaurants in the celebrity-obsessed cultural wasteland known as metropolitan Los Angeles does not lie. It’s also obvious by the wait for seating that diners are more then willing to drive, fly, surf and parasail to Din Tai Fung for the privilege of eating there. I would bet it’s the same deal in their other location in Seattle and the single outpost in Sydney Australia where I am told foodies brave jellyfish and shark infested waters to eat Shanghai dumplings. Again, it is the simplicity of the dishes which belie their ineffable richness and fullness of flavor. THAT is what made me surrender to Din Tai Fung’s charm, and now, alas, I am hooked like a forlorn suitor with a serious dumpling addiction. Only the peanut oil deep fried egg rolls from Chan’s Tea House in Highland Park, Illinois (a now distant culinary memory of my childhood) comes even close. As I fly home to Atlanta I can only close my misty eyes, savor the experience, and hope we shall meet….and eat again.