I wanted a little adventure. Short on time and money I looked for something simple I’ve been meaning to eat. That’s how I wind up in Arcadia at Din Tai Fung Dumpling House. One other time I ventured to San Gabriel for dumplings. It was accidental. I went to pick up my final paycheck from a club I bartended at in Downtown LA. After a gangland murder in the entrance way, the spot that was always a dicey gamble was now circling the drain. I jumped ship. My old bar manager handed me the check and said, “Let’s grab lunch”. I did not realize he had a 30 minute drive planned. Always in a rush, I was frustrated by this surprise hijacking. You form such oddly intimate while disjointed relationships working beside someone in a nightclub. David was a good man, good boss, and our out of the way lunch turned out to be a real boon and much appreciated farewell. That day he introduced me to “soup dumplings” for which I must always be grateful. That was a long time ago; what the heck took me so long to get back here?
The San Gabriel Valley is located just East of Los Angeles proper. Specifically, this trip takes us to Arcadia. Arcadia is pressed up against San Gabriel Mountain range in the northwestern part of the valley. It’s the host to the LA Arboretum, The Santa Anna Racetrack and like much of San Gabriel, an exploding Asian American population. Quoting the Pasadena Star News, “The San Gabriel Valley is home to more Asian-Americans than Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago — and the Asian-American populations in 42 states”. So yeah, it’s the perfect dumpling pilgrimage destination.
Din Tai Fung Dumpling House scores the top spot on “best dumplings in Los Angeles” lists. It’s been franchised, but Arcadia is the home to the original restaurant. Strike that, the original in Los Angeles. The first Din Tai Fung is in Taiwan. It’s located in an unassuming strip mall. There are about 8 stores, mostly closed this Sunday night, but the parking lot is jam packed. The exterior is nothing to see, but it’s hard to miss all the people standing out front. It’s a 30 minute wait when I put my name in for a table.
Inside is no frills. Cafeteria style tables and chairs. The restaurant is rectangular in shape, maybe 15 to 20 tables. One wall is all windows. Across from it runs a long black and white photo from the original store in Taiwan. It looks modest and urban, like a photo of a Greek dinner in New York from the 1970’s. To my eyes, there’s a lot of staff for such a small joint. They are all dressed in black and wear headsets. It seems so modern and high tech compared to the decor. Everyone is extremely friendly and everything happens at top speed. Joy is once again my companion for exploring. After a rundown of how things work, we get to work ordering a whole lot of dumplings: vegetable, fish, snow crab & pork Xiao Long Bao and shrimp and pork Shao Mai. No wine to be had or any alcohol at Din Tai Fung, so I take the suggestion and try house specialty milk tea.
The dumplings arrive in rounds with the string beans in garlic we ordered. They have a fresh ginger, vinegar and soy sauce mix they instruct you to make in a small saucer for optional dumpling dipping. The flavors are surprisingly mild, delicate and exquisite. The vegetable fresh and clean, the fish light and pleasant, the pork and crab savory and warm and the pork and shrimp salty and rich. The skin, or dough of the dumpling is soft, slightly chewy and expertly cooked. The “soup” is literally a tablespoon or more of broth held inside the dumpling. Our servers instructions are to poke a hole in the dumpling while holding it on your spoon before enjoying. But I much prefer my own method of popping the entire dumpling in my mouth, then biting down and feeling the burst of magic broth spill out of the dumpling and into my mouth. “You really enjoy that, huh?” comments Joy as I grin like a kid.
We are seated right beside another two top. My first adjacent companion-but-not is a large Asian gentleman wearing a Dodgers cap. He gives me a knowing nod when overhears us tell the server it’s our first time here and that we’re excited for dumplings. Later on he’s lamenting to his date the price of Lakers season tickets, (earlier this day they announced the LeBron James signing). I give him a knowing nod in return. Basically, we’re boys. My next adjacent companion-but-not is a twenty something blonde with an unmistakable valley girl sound. When she announces, “I’m not sure I’m down with this lesbian thing, but she’s like so hot and when I found out she likes girls, I was like, okay, like I’m doing this”, I covertly begin taking notes in my phone. “Are you writing that down?” Joy mouths, “Absolutely” I mouth back to Joy’s delight. There’s plenty more discussion to be had about her butterflies for the impending sexual experimentation. But I’m happy to return to dumplings.
We finish with sticky rice and red bean paste. Again, it’s so subtle, I’m more accustomed to aggressive in your face flavors. Here you have to concentrate, almost reach for them. It doesn’t stop us from finishing it all. Sitting there after, I find it hangs in mouth, like a taste fog. It’s quite pleasant. The service ends as it begins, with warmth and speed. Excursion dumpling a swimming success we wander outside into the fresh California summer night air. The sun is going down. Joy and I say goodbye. I drive off, back toward the highway which means driving straight at the San Gabriel Mountain range and making a left at the last minute onto the interstate home. Windows down, I play Sinatra on the radio. I think about how I’d like to explore this area more. And others.