Monday, April 6, 2009
Din Tai Fung Around the World - Los Angeles
There's not an awful lot that I like about LA. The feeling starts when you get off the plane in the Californian sun and step into LAX. I think the best way to describe LAX is to think of an old white plastic appliance - you know the Braun Juicer from 1991 that you used only once to make a tepid blend of carrots, beet root and celery and which afterwards sat for the next two decades yellowing in color? Yeah, that's pretty much what LAX is - a yellowish white, yet functioning, juicer that serves a purpose but is a bit of a pain every time you use it as there is no way to get the microscopic pulp from out of the juicing blades. I think LAX really preps you up nicely for LA though, because in my opinion LA itself is also a hassle.
I'm not actually sure that anyone really plans on going to LA. You just seem to end up there. So if you do end up there, make the most of it. Other than the happiest place on earth, there is the warm Californian sun, brilliant carne asada, and Hollywood Boulevard where borderline personalities make a living impersonating movie characters and celebrities. (Taking your shirt off, getting drunk and painting yourself green is all it takes to have a sweet Hulk costume)
Seriously though, after you've eaten enough great Mexican food from sketchy taco stands, there is only one other place that you must go. Din Tai Fung. The restaurant chain that creates what is arguably the best Xiao Long Bao in the world has only one outlet in the United States, and that one is in Arcadia, Los Angeles. (it pleases me to think that the only Din Tai Fung in America is in a place that means paradise)
Xiao Long Bao, Siu Long Bao or Juicy Pork Dumpling. There are many ways of saying it, but what you should be getting is a delicate thin-skinned dumpling, plump with broth surrounding a pork and chive centre.
Okay, the key to eating Xiao Long Bao is to get the dumpling and its contents into your mouth. Sounds simple. Sometimes isn’t. Basically, the soup wants to get out of that dumpling and will find any means to do so. Basic laws of physics have been broken just to get the soup in there in the first place, so if you’re not really, really careful you’re either going to pierce the skin with an ill-aimed chopstick, squeeze it to hard when picking it up, or use to much of direct upward lifting motion rather than an angular rolling lift and the skin that is slightly stuck to the bamboo basket will tear and you will lose the broth and you will cry. So seriously, be careful. Delicately remove the dumpling from the basket, dip it in your soy sauce and vinegar with fresh shredded ginger, (I like a ratio of 3:2 vinegar to soy sauce) put it on your soup spoon, place a piece of shredded ginger on the spoon, add a touch of chili sauce if you like and either carefully pierce the dumpling so that the soup fills the spoon or if you’re brave and like burning the inside of your mouth stick the whole thing in and let it burst.
Like most great dishes in the world, the dumplings don't sound that complicated, and you’d expect that there would be plenty of Chinese restaurants that have mastered the art of Xiao Long Bao. Not the case. in fact, there are very few places in the world that do them right. Despite being a Shanghainese dish, the majority of ones I had in Shanghai were slightly doughy with not enough soup and grisly pork. In fact, the best Xiao Long Bao I had I Shanghai was at a Din Tai Fung, which is Taiwanese. So the best Shanghainese dumpling that I had in Shanghai was in a Taiwanese restaurant. There is something seriously wrong about that, but its true. Chalk one up for Nationalists I guess. Just for reference, the pinnacle, in my opinion which is really the only one that counts, for Xiao Long Bao is at the original Din Tai Fung in Taipei, closely followed by Joe Shanghai in New York and then Dinesty in Richmond, BC. (This list will probably change as I venture further in my life of complete and utter Xiao Long Bao whoredom. Yes, that’s right I am a Xiao Long Bao whore. I will do unspeakable things for a tasty dumpling. Get over it.)
Anyway, the American counterpart to the world’s greatest Xiao Long Bao didn’t do too shabby. The skins were very thin and the broth was excellent. My only slight criticism was that a few of them were slightly less plump or filled to capacity as I like them. Din Tai Fung LA was definitely a winner in the dumpling department, but the overall experience was tempered by the disappointment in the vegetable selection. This may sound a touch weird/fussy/princessy, but this is very, very important. They didn't have any proper Chinese vegetables: no morning glory stems (aka Kong Hsing Tsai/Ong Choy) or pea shoots (aka dou miao/dau miu). All they had was spinach, broccoli, or buk choy. None of which excite me in the least. I mean spinach – seriously! But I didn't go there for the vegetables, they are the perfect accompaniment, but you can get them elsewhere, whereas Xiao Long Bao of this quality you can't.