It was 7:30 on a Saturday night. I was in a line of people that stretched from Sears to the Carousel Court–spanning an entire wing of South Coast Plaza. From one end to the other, it would be a two-and-a-half-hour wait. But this was only half of it. At 4:30 p.m., I was in another line to put my name and cell number on a list so that someone could text me for the privilege of standing in this line. If it sounds as bad as the DMV, you're wrong–at least you can sit while waiting at the DMV.
This is Din Tai Fung, the first OC outpost of the Taiwanese-based chain famous for xiaolongbaos (a.k.a. juicy pork dumplings). And if you aren't in line trying to get some, you're wondering what the fuss is about.
"Is this line all for that restaurant?" a woman asked one of the security guards the mall hired to control the mobs.
"Are they giving out free food or something?" another wondered aloud as she passed.
I had to shrug when a man on his way to Starbucks asked me, "Is this place really worth it?"
Three hours earlier, as a Din Tai Fung devotee, I would have uttered an unequivocal yes. Now that my initial amusement at the ridiculousness of the queue had turned to exasperation and hunger, I wasn't so sure. I realized at the two-and-a-half-hour mark that in the time I'd been standing, I could've driven to either of Din Tai Fung's Arcadia branches–as I do every other month–eaten and driven back.
Though I anticipated it would be popular, I wasn't prepared for this. But it's exactly the kind of reception that South Coast Plaza's management had hoped for. They knew that enticing Din Tai Fung to open here would attract its huge fan base, some of whom belong to a growing class of affluent Chinese spenders. Fact: In the new Riviera, the rich don't eat caviar; they eat dumplings–these dumplings. And what's a better waiting area for those Din Tai Fung-loving whales than a mall with thousand-dollar purses and Jimmy Choo shoes for sale? Din Tai Fung isn't even an expensive restaurant by South Coast Plaza standards–AnQi is much more high-brow. But in the Asian world, Din Tai Fung has as sterling a reputation as Louis Vuitton.
Shanghainese in origin, but perfected in Taiwan by Din Tai Fung's Chinese founders, xiaolongbaos are bite-sized, soup-filled purses of pork. And just as at every Din Tai Fung, the South Coast Plaza branch has its workers behind a glass partition making the dumplings by hand, one-by-one. You see them flattening the dinner-mint-sized pellets of dough into thin discs; smearing them with the ground pork and aspic filling; then knitting the tops into spiraling folds that crimps them shut. The dumplings are grouped 10 to a basket and steamed. As the pork cooks, the aspic melts into soup–the xiaolongbaos are born.
When my party and I were finally seated at nearly 8:15 p.m., our order came out scarcely minutes after we handed the waitress our scribbled-in order sheet. We ate them as we usually do: picking each one up tenderly with chopsticks so as to not puncture their sagging, broth-filled bellies. After a quick soak in vinegar, we perched them on our spoons with a few shreds of ginger. On the first few, we bit off the tops and sipped the soup–they were too scalding otherwise. As they cooled slightly, we ate them whole, the sacks bursting their sweet porkiness in our mouths.
The good news is the dumplings are just as good here as they are at the Arcadia locations–the skin thinner, more delicate and elastic than those at Mei Long Village and Mama Lu's, two of the most venerable SGV xiaolongbao purveyors. And because Din Tai Fung is known for its consistency as much as its lines, the oil-blanched green beans are still crisp-tender and the pickled cucumbers garlicky and brisk. The pork chop fried rice is especially perfect, a treatise on the clean, simple flavors that are hallmarks of Taiwanese cooking. But there are a few notable differences between this restaurant and the Arcadia branches. Tea is not free, but a full bar is available. And as at the Glendale store, the ultra-costly black truffle xiaolongbaos are offered; one of the managers told us they should be eaten with no vinegar and a cleansed palate.
Unless you intend to eat by yourself at the first-come-first-serve bar stools, is it worth the wait? Probably not right now. The next day, a friend who was stuck in line texted a picture. Din Tai Fung had apparently put up a sign that read, "The wait time from this point is around 7 hours."
Din Tai Fung, 3333 Bristol St., Ste. 2071, Costa Mesa, (714) 549-3388; dintaifungusa.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Meal for two, $40-$80, food only. Full bar.
Edwin Goei was born on the island of Java, grew up in La Habra, studied in Irvine, and eats everywhere. Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, he went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.