Prepare to Wait in Line: Din Tai Fung Ends Reservations
The sign above says it all. Dumpling-maker extraordinaire Din Tai Fung, which had to institute the first reservations system ever when its first Northern California location opened in May 2016 at Santa Clara’s Westfield Valley Fair mall, will no longer be accepting reservations starting today.
With waits of up to five hours when it first opened its doors last year, what can one expect now? The hostess said at dinner time on a weeknight, it shouldn’t be more than an hour and a half wait. On weekends, expect it to be longer. Yikes! But during the off-hours, you might be able to just walk right in.
I just squeaked in last week with one of the last reservations available. Of course, I did have to eat “dinner” at 4:15 p.m. — the latest reservation of the day that was open. But my friend and I (we paid our tab) didn’t mind at all. We were just glad to get in easily.
This was my first time to the Santa Clara location, though, I’ve dined at the original Southern California ones in Arcadia many times before. There were two, located just one block from one another. What made that ideal was that if there was a line at one, you could just walk to the other and usually get in without a hitch. But no more. The second Arcadia location has moved to the Westfield Santa Anita. That seems to be the new trend with the Taiwanese chain — opening its new locations in upscale malls.
That means more chic surroundings — though the Arcadia ones were always nice looking to begin with — and higher prices. Case in point, the famed xialongbao or soup dumplings. I remember just a few years ago paying $7.50 for 10 of them in Aracadia. Here, though, they are $8 for six of them.
No matter, you must order them. They are the hallmark of Din Tai Fung. And that’s why you are here in the first place.
You can even watch them and other dumplings being made right when you step inside the restaurant, as a glassed-in kitchen affords a view of a small army of workers rolling and pinching dough.
What makes these soup dumplings so superlative? Their gossamer skins, so fragile that you have to exercise care when picking them up with your chopsticks or else they may tear. And that’s the last thing you want because the delicious broth inside will leak out. Pick one up with your chopsticks, dip into a little vinegar, then carefully plant it in your soup spoon. Take a tiny bite toward the top, then suck out the broth before eating the rest.
These didn’t arrive to the table as hot as they should. Normally, they’re so steamy that you can’t eat them for a few minutes until they cool a little. Even if they were merely warm, they still were juicy and seasoned well.
The menu here is a little more concise than the original Arcadia ones. I noticed a few types of dumplings missing here, including a favorite one made with a filling of winter melon.
There’s still plenty to choose from, though, including soy noodle salad ($5.50), in which tofu mimics noodle strands in a cold appetizer dressed with plenty of sesame oil for a light, refreshing bite.
The restaurant cooks greens quite well. I’ve had most of them before, including string beans with garlic ($11). The beans are tender yet still nicely crisp, just the way they should be.
Shrimp and pork pot stickers ($9.50) come five to an order here. They arrive in a distinctive way, too — connected together in a neat rectangle with a golden brown extra layer of crepe-like batter adhering to them. It gives them an extra layer of crispness.
Wheat noodles tossed with pickled mustard greens and shredded pork ($9.50) has a mild, homey taste. It’s the kind of comfort dish you long for after eating too much rich food.
My husband and I would usually make Din Tai Fung our last stop in Los Angeles before driving back home to the Bay Area, not only because we needed to get a last fix in of our favorite dumplings, but because it has some of the cleanest bathrooms you’ll ever find. I remember spotting a work schedule on the wall of the women’s restroom in Arcadia, which indicated it was cleaned every hour.
Well, now that Din Tai Fung has gone more upscale, the bathrooms have, too. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the rolls of toilet paper. Yes, they have bows tied to them.
And unlike the entrance to the restaurant, I’ve never had to wait to get into its restroom. At least that’s some consolation.