That maybe we could stop in the San Gabriel Valley for soup dumplings on our way back from Camp Blogaway on Sunday.
“Din Tai Fung,” she said.
And in a second, I was sold – my hopes dangling on that “maybe” like it was referring to something far more important than merely satisfying the whims of my stomach.
My brother – who, incidentally, doesn’t even live in LA – had told me about Din Tai Fung last year. He’d fallen in love with the soup dumplings during business trips to China, where the original Din Tai Fung was established before the operation migrated across the globe to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, and in the United States, Bellevue, Washington, and Arcadia, California.
While more expensive and obviously more “corporate” than many of the mom and pop shops that sell dumplings in the San Gabriel Valley, Din Tai Fung is widely popular – patrons will wait well over an hour to score a table at the two locations that are adjacent from each other on South Baldwin Avenue.
I couldn’t wait to be one of them.
Even though I’d been thinking about the dumplings all weekend, I feigned indifference when I reminded Sarah about her suggestion on Sunday morning.
“Do you still want to stop at Din Tai Fung on the way back?” I asked, as though her answer didn’t have the power to either crush or uplift my spirit.
“Sure! If you want to…” She responded, her voice equally nonchalant.
The brief exchange was only the beginning of our coy verbal dance of, “I will if you will,” “I’ll go if you want to go,” and the worst offender of all, “I’m fine either way.”
Politeness can be excruciating.
Especially when you aren’t really fine either way, but want to pretend to be in case the other person isn’t fine either way either, but in the opposite way that you wouldn’t be…
But as we reached the stretch of the 10 freeway that borders the Valley that is famous for housing the best Chinese food in Los Angeles – possibly in the country – we both finally, thankfully reached the same decision I’d been anticipating for two days.
We were stopping for dumplings.
We were assigned number 76 at the first Din Tai Fung location – the original, across the street from J.J. Bakery – and were dismayed to learn that they were currently on number 42. It would be a long wait, we thought, until the hostess suggested we check at the larger, more stylized location around the corner.
Within 15 minutes we were seated at a table for two upstairs – the small size of our party a boon on this particular afternoon, as many of the people in front of us were larger groups.
Sarah immediately took charge with the menu, checking off boxes with the dexterity and confidence of a seasoned Din Tai Fung diner. One order of the Juicy Pork ($7.25 for 10), one order of the Chicken Dumplings ($7.25 for 10), 1 order of the Pork Wontons with Spicy Sauce ($7.00).
“The best,” She said with a wink. “Do you want anything else?”
“I’m kind of curious about the Green Melon and Shrimp Xiao Long Bao ($8.00 for 10)…” I said.
“Get it!” She declared with finality. Then she promptly ex-nayed the sole vegetable that was to be included in our ambitious queue of requests – the sautéed bok choy ($7.50).
“We don’t need vegetables.” She explained.
I gulped, thinking to myself, “We don’t?”
But she was, as usual, right.
The dumplings came out in a steady stream mere moments after we’d ordered them. I was glad that I’d recently watched ABC 7’s “Eye on LA” special on ethnic cuisine, in which they’d described how to eat Din Tai Fung's dumplings – placing one in a soup spoon with a splash of vinegar and few strands of fresh ginger. On the show, the reporter had expressed girlish concern about putting the whole dumpling in her mouth at once.
I was not going to make the same rookie mistake
I plopped the entire ginger-topped, vinegar-spritzed juicy pork dumpling in my mouth as though I’d been eating them forever. It immediately burst open, a hot stream of porky broth oozing out of the delicate dumpling skin.
In a second, I was sold. I had no interest in consuming anything green.
The dumplings are impossibly light making it far too easy to go through 10, 15… 20 in a single sitting. We easily polished off all the juicy pork dumplings, as well as the pork wontons in spicy sauce – which, incidentally, were, as Sarah had promised, “the best.”
The chicken dumplings were a nice interlude to all the pork, and the subtle flavor of the shrimp and melon purses were also a pleasant addition to our order, but our soup spoons were most delighted with the pork-filled varieties. They are the ones that will linger in my mind, tempting and teasing me until I’m able to convince someone else that it is a brilliant idea to drive out to Arcadia to wait an hour for dumplings in the hot sun.
But only, you know, “If they want to.”
Because, “I’m really fine either way.”
“I’m completely ambivalent about the whole thing.”
Except, now that I’ve tasted the dumplings, I couldn’t possibly pretend to be ambivalent about going to Din Tai Fung ever again.
Din Tai Fung
1088 S Baldwin Ave
Arcadia, CA 91007