Monday, July 6, 2009

Dumpling Hunt Part 1

The Fourth rolls around and I’m wondering how best to celebrate the birth of my country? Well the fourth is more than about fireworks and barbeque, it’s about home and for me home meant a good stir fry and steamed rice. So this year I decided to spend the weekend searching out the food of my ancestors. I decided to go on a hunt for Chinese dumplings. Growing up in the Midwest my family’s options were pretty limited to when it came to Chinese restaurants. So imagine my delight when I moved to LA and found nearly the entire continent of Asia represented. But with so many places where do you start looking for dumplings?

I decided this was a good time to fill in one of the major blanks on my LA Foodie resume. I’d been here for years and still hadn’t been to the ONE place everyone says you have to go for dumplings, Din Tai Fung and their famous soup filled dumplings.

Arcadia isn’t around the block from where I am in Van Nuys. Still, it’s a lot closer than if I lived in say, Santa Monica. So I hoped on the 134 and took the 210 to the Baldwin exit. At first I wondered if my Mapquest directions were correct. The first thing you see when you get off the freeway is the entrance to the Santa Anita racetrack. Driving by that and the next door shopping plaza is more like driving through Pasadena than the SG Valley. But less than a block past the mall and the distinct Asian flavor of the San Gabriel reasserts itself. You see bus stops with posters written entirely in Chinese, Bank of the East branches, and finally you hit the small, unassuming strip mall that houses Din Tai Fung.

Just down the street from Santa Anita Racetrack
Din Tai Fung

I heard you had to come early and I arrived at just past 10 AM. The place was already starting to fill up. Inside it looks like the typical restaurant space. The first difference you find is on your chopsticks. In case you have any questions, the instructions on how to eat their soup dumplings are on the chopsticks wrapper.

Instructions right on the chopsticks
Din Tai Fung Chopstick Instructions

At the table is a small saucer of fresh ginger shreds and bottles of soy sauce and Chinese black vinegar. I get right down to business and order the 20 piece dumplings with soup only served on weekends.

First I get the egg soup. Basically it’s chicken broth, shreds of omelet and a tiny bit of scallion. There really isn’t much in the taste department, but it does clean the palette nicely.

Egg Soup
Egg Soup

Then came the dumplings. They had light delicate skins. Inside was rich broth surrounding a nugget of pork filling. I followed my wrapper instructions and dipped my dumpling first in a little black vinegar then placed it inside my soup spoon with a few shreds of ginger. You’re supposed to take a small nibble so hot soup pours out of the dumpling mixing with the vinegar and ginger. That way you can slurp it up along with the dumpling. If you pop in the dumplings when they first come out, the hot liquid will scald your mouth.

The Soup Dumplings
Din Tai Fung Soup Dumplings

The dumplings are everything they are reputed to be. The skins are light and delicate, not as thin as wonton but just thick enough to hold everything together. There’s nothing worse than getting a dumpling that’s all noodle and no filling. The real star is the broth inside. It’s rich and hearty and acts like a sauce for the meat nugget inside. The vinegar and ginger make a nice combination. For those who don't know, black vinegar is like the "balsamic" vinegar you get in the supermarket. It's got some sweetness to counteract the acid.

Dumpling dipped in black vinegar
Soup Dumpling in Black Vinegar

Halfway through the meal however I break with tradition and start dipping mine in some soy sauce as well. There are very few foods that don’t taste better with soy. The dumplings also cool off slightly and I’m able to pop them in my mouth and bite into them. They’re like a savory version of those Gushers candies. The warm but no longer scalding broth squirts into your mouth.

The 10:45 AM rush!
Din Tai Fung at 10:45 AM

I finish up pretty quickly and get ready to resume my dumpling hunt. A good thing too because they needed the table. The place was packed by 10:45. So do come early on the weekends! Din Tai Fung lives up to its mighty reputation. If you have a Chinese foodie who’s visiting LA this is one stop you have to take them to.

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