First, you spot the crowds on the sidewalk. Then you spot the xiao long bao cartoon character. This is Din Tai Fung. Last week, as part of a 9-day trip eating my way through Taiwan, I visited the original Taipei location of what can only be called a xiao long bao empire. The place is fabled among locals, tourists and food lovers around the world, it seems. For background on Din Tai Fung and a sense of the adoration this place inspires, read this. (Also, loosely related, but highly entertaining, is this October 2010 NYT Magazine article touching on food-crazed people and XLB).
In any case, our party of eight arrived at Din Tai Fung for a weeknight dinner, and we were mildly alarmed by the number of people already spilling out of the restaurant (Din Tai Fung takes no bookings – ugh). Luckily, this place isn’t written up in every guidebook and travel article for nothing. These people have a system! The ladies in headsets hand you a number, a menu and an order form so that while you’re waiting for a table, you can tick the boxes comprising your order. When your number’s called, you hand in your order form, and seemingly by the time you’ve reached your table (the place is surprisingly large, though maze-like), dishes have started arriving. We were in and out in less than an hour. Don’t even think about lingering.
While waiting for our table, I peeked into the kitchen, which is towards the front of the restaurant. The room was oddly silent except for the hissing of steamers cooking what must be hundreds of thousands of xiao long bao a day. There must be a high incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome among the cooks when you consider the number of delicate pleats that go into each xiao long bao.
Onto the star attraction. Deflated. Seriously. The skin is perfect, almost-translucent but strong. The visual appearance isn’t bad (but it’s not great). But here’s the failure: the bottoms aren’t sagging with soup. We ordered four baskets of different xiao long bao, and none of them were especially soupy. I like my xiao long bao to be so full of soup that when you lever them gently into your soup spoon, you feel like a kid playing a type of carnival game (“don’t break the skin/leak the soup”). These guys were so lacking in soup that you could pretty much throw them around like softballs without worrying about leakage.
We tried a lot of other dishes at Din Tai Fung, and unsurprisingly, most of them were comprised of the same ingredients that go into XLB. The shu mai, for example, even looked like XLB, but were topped with prawns. Efficiency at work. But it’s not shu mai. Get the chicken soup, though. It’s amazingly rich and flavorful.
While the Din Tai Fung XLB disappointed because of their lack of soupiness, they were still tastier than anything I’ve found in London. (Leong’s XLB used to be better when they first opened, but lately it just barely satisfies a craving). And at 190 NT ($6 or £4) for a basket of ten “regular” pork-only xiao long bao, Din Tai Fung won’t break the bank. I’d say make the pilgrimage the next time you’re in Taipei, but in my opinion, the better XLB experience is to be had at nearby Kao Chi, which we visited the next day mostly because we were doing some shopping in the area (the housewares department at Sogo Fuxing branch is unbeatable if you’re looking for high-quality, attractive rice bowls).
Credit to A Hungry Girl’s Guide to Taipei, which was handily organized by MRT station so that once I knew we were headed to Sogo, I could quickly scan for nearby dining options. (Something I should consider doing on my own blog except for the admin hassle of re-doing the archived posts).
Kao Chi was not only calmer and more upscale looking than Din Tai Fung, but also its XLB were, happily, soupier and better seasoned (i.e., I didn’t need to rely on soy sauce and vinegar). The skins weren’t quite as translucent as those at DTF, but they were still thin and delicate, and I’ll trade a slightly thicker skin for more seasoned soup broth any day.
So go to Din Tai Fung to say you’ve been there, but don’t forget to drop by Kao Chi for a better dining experience, both in terms of food and atmosphere.
Din Tai Fung, 194, Xin Yi Road Sec. 2 (cross street: Yong Kang Street), 10651 Taipei, Taiwan; +886 (0)2 2321 8928; closest MRT station: Daan Station (brown line).
Kao Chi, 152, FùXìng South Road Sec. 1, Taipei, Taiwan; +886 (0)2-2341-9984; closest MRT station: ZhongXiao FuXing (blue and brown lines)