A few weeks ago, after reading Jonathan Gold’s massive restaurant guide in which he listed 100 of the best eateries in the Los Angeles area, I wrote that it wasn’t very helpful to me because I had no intention of driving to Arcadia (wherever that is) for Chinese dumplings, and probably would never go there.
A few days later my friend Sammy Hoi, the president of Otis College of Art and Design, called to say “Merv, I’m going out to Arcadia tomorrow morning for dumplings, will you and Bonnie come with me?”
I could hardly turn down that invitation, so on a clear, beautiful California Sunday morning off we went to the east with Sammy driving. Our destination — the famous Din Tai Fung Dumpling House. We passed a lot of towns, most of which seemed to end in an “a” and drove for about an hour, ending up in a non-descript shopping center. The most conspicuous element in the center was a long line of people standing in front of an open doorway. Sammy said, “We’re too late.”
Sammy dropped us off and talked to the hostess. She predicted a 40 to 50 minute wait. “They have an even larger annex around the corner, let’s check that out,” Sammy said.
So we walked around the corner to a restaurant with the exact same name, the only difference — an even longer line. This turned out to be an hour or more wait, so back we went to the first place, carefully holding onto our precious number which, luckily, we had not discarded.
While waiting in line I struck up a few conversations with others. One gentleman was in the horse racing business, and had just flown in from New York for a big race in Del Mar. “Whenever I get to the Los Angeles area I always stop here for some dumplings,” he said. A beautiful young Chinese girl with a group of friends from USC told me they go there every weekend. Some local people said that the restaurant was almost always busy, even on weekdays.
“What’s the secret?” I asked. “It’s the dumplings,” all replied.
Almost an hour later we were seated. Sammy ordered three kinds of dumplings and a couple of other dishes. Tea and ice water came quickly. Almost as quickly, the food arrived; all four dishes at the same time. The two dumpling orders were served in metal-covered containers. The waiter tried to take away the covers, but my nimble wife stopped him and kept them to keep the food warm. The waiter then brought several little sauces to dribble onto the dumplings.
One container had about 10 small dumplings shaped like a Hershey’s chocolate kiss, but a bit bigger. These were the famous juicy pork dumplings almost everyone orders. Sammy explained that the skin is made from a secret family recipe, which no one else seems to be able to duplicate. The family owns restaurants featuring these dumplings around the world, and the two side-by-side Arcadia restaurants are so busy that they are opening up another site in Glendale soon.
A second container contained about six larger dumplings with a slightly different skin. These were specials of the day, with shrimp and melon inside. There was a dish of vegetables with something delicious I can’t identify, and some chicken noodle soup. Another dish contained glass noodles. At the end we had the third set of dumplings with sweet red bean paste inside.
Was it worth the trip? Well, spending some time with Sammy is always worth it. And yes, the pork dumplings were better than the dim sum on the Westside of Los Angeles, especially because of the smaller size, although my friend Jay Weston suggests that the dumplings at ROC (2049 Sawtelle Blvd., two blocks south of Olympic Boulevard) are competitive. The chicken soup was good, but no better than at Fromin’s in Santa Monica. One negative is that the press of customers is so great that the food is all served at the same time, and some gets cold before it can be finished. It’s not “fine dining.”
For me, the most interesting feature of this restaurant is not the food, but it’s the restaurant’s phenomenal success. I guess if you can make a better dumpling, the world will indeed beat a path to your door.
If you go
Din Tai Fung Dumpling House
1108 & 1088 S. Baldwin Ave.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.