Din Tai Fung & The Dumpling Factory – Din Tai Fung, Arcadia
In a land far far away (far, if you’re from the SF Valley and Orange County), there exists a place that beckons people from all over Southern California to experience its culinary treasures – the Valley of San Gabriel. It’s a long and arduous 45-minute journey through wicked, poisonous smog, reckless face visor-wielding and glove-wearing drivers speeding at a whopping 25 mph and seas of red lights. The Valley of San Gabriel is heaven for the hungry and sees tens of thousands of travelers every week. Here, fragrant orchids smell of Vietnamese egg rolls. Lush forests are abundant with dim-sum berries. Grassy hills made of Crispy Beef Chow Mein and Beef Chow Fun. Flowing rivers filled with the wonderful Vietnamese pho broth. (Ok, this is getting gross. But just play along.) And there is one place that produces a highly coveted treasure: the Xiao Long Bao (shao loong bao – which literally means ‘little basket buns’.). A treasure so powerful and delicious that it causes midgets, centaurs, leprechauns and unicorns to do the riverdance to, in unison. A place many consider as the Chinese version of Pink’s, Tito’s, Philippe’s and the like. It’s called the Din Tai Fung factory and its known for its skill in making delectable Xiao Long Bao. Xiao Long Bao comes in the form of a juicy, steamed pork dumpling. So juicy that if one were to eat hot off the plate, could cause serious burns/blisters in your mouth. One must not be so greedy when encountering this treasure.
Although XLB’s come from the Southern provinces of China, including Shanghai, DTF is a Taiwanese establishment. Din Tai Fung originated from Taiwan in 1969 and has graciously offered its treasures to people all over, including locations in Canada, Japan, Singapore, Korea and Indonesia. Fortunately, my trip to the DTF factory is under 20 minutes, not a 16-hour flight. The original founder of DTF was a man named Yang Bing Yi. He ran an oil business at a shop called Heng Tai Fung, but was soon forced to find other means of making money b/c of the introduction of pre-canned oil. And dumplings would soon be his key to success. He opened up DTF in respect to the man who gave him the job at Heng Tai Fung and helped keep his family afloat.
My friend SK and I finally decided to make the journey up to the DTF factory and experience world-class dumplings. When we got there, we found ourselves in a crowd of about 50 people, as well as the midgets, centaurs, leprechauns and unicorns doing the riverdance. They were annoying. I walked up to the hostess and put my name down for two.
Me: “Hi, table for two, please.”
DTF: “45 minute wait. Is okay?”
DTF: “Take this menu and make order!”
I walked out and joined the disgruntled crowd. They provide seats and parasols so people don’t pass out. I came here during the summer and it was punishing. Anyway, we made our order and held on to it. ( They provide english translations too.) 45 minutes later, we were called on the loud, muffled Aiwa-microphone.
As soon as we walked into the DTF factory, our eyes widened with amazement. For those that haven’t seen the inside, you’re in for a killer treat. I was able to sneak in my camera.
Wow, XLB’s are really harvested in trees and plants. I always thought they were made by humans with ground pork, ginger, green onions and freshly-made wrappers and then steamed in metal/bamboo baskets. Guess I was wrong. Amazing!
A close-up of a greedy customer. Proof that XLB’s can be addicting and turn you into a wild beast. She thought you could chew XLB like gum and quickly snagged it off another group’s table. Little biatch!
This brat was throwing XLB’s all over the place. The XLB’s exploded against the walls like water balloons. Din Tai Fung was furious and immediately had the boy caned. If I’m ever in a food fight, I’m running straight for XLB’s aka Chinese Pork Juice Grenades.
Because the sun shines more brightly in the Valley of San Gabriel, it is advised that you equip yourself with one of these face visors. Only $5.99. Warning: wearing these will result in bad driving, a rather notorious characteristic of the SGV.
I was able to sneak into one of the rooms where they prepare the harvested XLB’s. Here, they seem to be singing a song as they work, but it’s in Taiwanese. So I’m helping you sing along by providing a karaoke version with the bouncing ball. Oh joy.
Another look at the meticulous preparation. DTF is pricier than most Chinese restaurants but they have to pay the 15+ servers and 25+ kitchen workers. We finally found a grassy area to sit and an Oompa Loompa came out with our order right away. That’s the good thing about submitting an order early. You wait long to get in, but eat right away. Works both ways.
DTF’s Xiao Long Baos are average in size. The ones pictured here are the standard pork dumplings. 10 pieces for $6.50. Most Chinese places are 10 for $4.50. The crab version at DTF is 10 pieces for $8.00 but I never order those. Something about the crab meat that soaks up all of the juices.
The Crater Technique
This is common of first-time XLB eaters. They’ll take a bite of the XLB, like a crater-sized bite, learn that it’s hot and drop all the juice over the plate. Lost cause.
The Double Meal Technique
Carefully select your XLB with chopsticks, only grabbing by the ‘head’ of the dumpling. Since it is twisted there, the skin is sturdier. Take a little bite on the side and pour the juice into the spoon. If you can get 20-50% of the spoon filled with pork juice, you’ve got a good XLB. I’ve been to places where it was completely dry – so disappointing! Next, you drink the soup and dip the XLB in the vinegar/ginger provided and devour it. See, 2 meals in 1.
The Commando Technique
This is the way I eat it. In order to do this, you have to let the XLB’s cool down in the steamer. After like 3 minutes, you’re good to go. I add vinegar and ginger slices on the spoon, carefully place the XLB in the spoon and eat it all once. Boom! Pork Grenade!
This next dish is what I think separates DTF from other Chinese restaurants. They offer this special dish only on the weekends. It’s the same concept of XLB’s, only they give you 20 mini versions of it. In addition, a beautiful bowl of chicken broth with shredded egg and green onions. You’re supposed to put the XLB in the spoon, dip the spoon into the bowl for soup and take one bite. An even bigger pork grenade. I love it. $10 I believe.
The total damage with 2 baskets of XLB’s (regular and crab) + 2 side dishes came out to like $23 without tip. Still not bad. I like DTF but it’s not the best XLB I’ve ever eaten. There are a few places on Valley Blvd. that serve decent XLB’s for much less. Green Village and Mei Long Village in San Gabriel aren’t bad. One of my favorite XLB places is in New York, at a place called Joe’s Shanghai in Chinatown. And they serve you XLB’s on steroids. Each one of these dumplings can fill 1.5-2 spoonfuls of pork juice. They are simply massive and require small tongs to pick them up. I think they sell 6 pieces for $6. Thanks for reading.
Din Tai Fung
1108 South Baldwin Ave.
Arcadia, California 91007