Din Tai Fung, part of a Taiwanese-based chain, is a big, busy restaurant with a loyal following.
News of Din Tai Fung’s arrival seeped like broth from a chopstick-pierced xiao long bao many months before its November opening in Bellevue’s Lincoln Square. The Taiwanese-based chain’s second coming to America (the first is near L.A.) set local dumpling devotees a Twitter.
Why should another chain staking a claim to downtown Bellevue be news?
Franchised widely in Asia since its birth in 1958, Din Tai Fung and its steamed bundles of joy, especially the juicy xiao long bao, have acquired an international cult following. The Hong Kong branch recently earned a Michelin star.
Hence the wait for a table here, which can stretch to a couple of hours on Saturday night, even though the restaurant can seat 220 and turns tables quickly. Go off-peak and you’ll likely be seated within 10 minutes, as I was on each visit.
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At the door, young women dressed in black manage customers with chirpy poise and communicate with colleagues through earpieces like junior Secret Service agents. It’s a fast-paced atmosphere, but waiters, runners and supervisors alike are patient, attentive and deferential as they cater to a wide-ranging demographic: as many customers push strollers or wield canes as carry shopping bags or tote laptop cases.
Casual sophistication reins in the high-ceilinged, second-floor space. There’s a small bar up front, then a long room with granite-like tabletops arranged in tidy rows. Each place setting includes a small square plate, a soup spoon and chopsticks tucked into a cloth napkin; a bowl of shredded ginger awaits your addition of vinegar and soy sauce for dipping (3:1 is the recommended ratio). A pot of chili sauce sits nearby.
This is fast food from the customer’s perspective, but the prep is painstaking. In the dumpling room, showcased at the restaurant’s entrance, nearly two dozen white- jacketed, ball-capped dough boys press, fill, pinch, pleat and weigh their wares. They represent roughly half the kitchen staff. (I consider it a good omen that there are more Asian faces eating dumplings than making them.)
Pictures help you navigate the laminated menu; prices appear on a separate order form where you (or your server) checkmark boxes to indicate which items you want. They’ll usually arrive swiftly, in no particular order.
The dumplings are dainty parcels variously shaped and filled. They come 10 apiece in bamboo steamers. The fragile, swirl-capped xiao long bao, though occasionally tepid, are very good, especially the pork and crab version, as well as a recent special filled with shrimp and finely diced green melon.
Dubbed soup dumplings because they contain broth as well as solids, xiao long bao are tricky to eat. Lift them with chopsticks onto your spoon, pierce them to release some heat, add ginger and sauce if you like. You can down them in one bite.
Equally impressive are pot-sticker-shaped dumplings filled with a mix of pork and vegetables (minced greens with a sharp bite); also pork-stuffed shao mai with a small, sweet shrimp plugging the gathered top of each tiny purse.
Wonderful wontons served in a bowl of spicy chili sauce are plump with shrimp and pork, too. They’re listed under noodles, along with a disappointing braised beef noodle soup: tough meat, lackluster broth, but outstanding long, thin noodles.
Do try the wok-fried noodles. A gentle brown sauce clings to thick, squared strands, deliciously dense yet supple. I chose chicken, liberally laced with cabbage and spinach, but there are pork, shrimp and all-veggie versions as well.
Not everything involves dough. Tofu, black fungus, egg and morsels of pork pack a satisfying hot and sour soup. “Pork chop fried rice” was surprisingly light, with strips of peppery sautéed cutlet over fluffy rice loaded with egg and scallion.
Assorted sautéed vegetable plates include gorgeous ginger-spiked mustard cabbage greens. Crisp cucumber splashed with sesame and chili oil makes a refreshing salad.
Desserts are all in the rice-or-dough mode, among them pillow-soft steamed buns with sweet, warm fillings of taro, red bean or (my favorite) nutty sesame. Though, honestly, I’m more inclined to another round of dumplings before I call it quits here.
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