How can I begin to describe an authentic Shanghai steamed dumpling that one does not (God forbid) gulp down or drown in store bought chili oil but instead allows to dance on one’s tongue until it decides on it’s own to release it’s ample flavors of pork, chicken and savory broth? How can I explain the difference between a run-of-the-mill Hong Kong style noodle house or standard Dim Sum palace whether in SF’s Chinatown or Atlanta’s budding Buford Highway and a bona fide heaven-on-earth eatery like Din Tai Fung in Arcadia California?
Even for a jaded foodie and pseudo Pirate Psychologist such as myself, Din Tai Fung delivers on it’s promise. Practically every dish arrives looking simple, even coy and unpretentious, but then when eaten proceeds to perform perfect pirouettes of taste on one’s pirate loving palate like a Bolshoi ballerina on pointe. Similarly, there is a matter-of-factness about the servers and seating hostesses that borders on cavalier right up until the steaming food is brought to the table. However, now look very closely at your server. She/he is suddenly smiling ever so slightly because she/he knows what’s in store. The moment you bite into a mound of fresh garlicky green beans or shrimp topped pork shu mai there is a palpable culinary awakening afoot. After my first swallow I nearly dropped my chopsticks on the floor in a clatter and bowed in reverence while facing the glass enclosed prep kitchen. Inside, a dozen identically aproned chefs work deftly to cut, roll, shape and stuff the sacred Shanghai dumplings. Like Santa’s helpers in late December they could barely keep up with consumer demand. Also excellent is the chicken fried rice with green onion and dry fried pork chop over steamed rice. Multiple orders of everything is the norm here rather then the exception. A Zagat rating of 26 amid so many competing Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean restaurants and other plentiful food establishments in metro Los Angeles is no small feat. It was also obvious by the long line at the door that diners are willing to fly, drive, surf, parasail and carjack their way to Din Tai Fung for the privilege. I’m not kidding. I think I saw Crips and Bloods seated together at an adjoining table flashing gang colors and making hand signs I interpreted to mean “This is fricking awesome, man”. I would bet it’s the same at Din Tai Fung’s other locations including an outpost in Sydney Australia surrounded by Great White sharks and poisonous jellyfish. Such obstacles will not and do not deter determined Shanghai dumpling devotees. Real food fanatics, much like star crossed lovers are more than willing to persevere and take unusual risks for love… or in this case, lunch.
To me, it’s quite often the simplicity and compactness of a dish (or even a person) and some initial hint of their special qualities (true essence) that first casts it’s magic spell. I only know that in my world, the domain of clinical psychology, we call that special attribute “total coherence”, a seemingly divine aspect which when nurtured properly and given enough love, attention, and devotion leads to not only greater happiness but total satisfaction. That in a nut shell is what made me surrender my ego and swear an oath of allegiance to Din Tai Fung. Alas, now I am hooked like some forlorn suitor and Don Quijote-like food junkie who not only dreamt his “impossible dumpling dream” but ended up falling in love and strung out like a culinary crack addict wanting more. Yes I said love. Love starts in the heart but germinates, grows and finally produces it’s best fruit (or flavorful chao fan fried rice) in a consciously cultivated garden of delight. If my one-of-a-kind brother Neal is correct and life is a “bountiful feast” meant to be fully enjoyed with Zorba-the-Greek like Epicurean gusto, then Din Tai Fung has certainly earned it’s place at the communal dining table. If that sounds a bit exaggerated, exotic, erotic or esoteric then so be it. Din Tai Fung is all of those things and more. As I fly back to Atlanta I can only close my teary eyes and savor the memories while hoping upon hope that some day soon I, CaptCliff, will sally forth in full pirate Captain garb and plastic swashbuckling sword to once again eat authentic Shanghai dumplings ….at Din Tai Fung.