Dining on a budget:
I’ve come to the realization that dining on a budget and local Chinese cuisine are often at odds with each other.
Take Din Tai Fung Dumpling House in Arcadia, which recently opened a second location on the same block of Baldwin Avenue because its popularity among its mostly Chinese patrons had created long lunchtime lines.
In the two years I spent teaching English to college students in Northeast China, it didn’t take long for it to become apparent that dumplings were the budget food of choice for anyone wanting to celebrate.
Several varieties of dumplings are staples served during most holidays, but particularly at Chinese New Year, Lantern Festival and Dragon Boat Festival.
Students explained that dumplings are the food of choice because they’re considered lucky, in part, because they resemble coins used in ancient China.
It didn’t hurt, either, that the price was right in China: One could buy a plateful of about two dozen dumplings for less than 50 cents.
So, when I made my first trip to the popular Din Tai Fung restaurant, I was a bit dismayed at the hit my wallet would take.
Ten juicy steamed pork dumplings (xiao long bao): $7.25.
Two pork buns (bao zi – another form of dumplings): $3.60.
So much for filling the tummy and getting in below this column’s $10 price limit.
But the 30 people waiting in the lobby for my table by the time I left suggested that I was in the minority.
Then again, in 1993 the New York Times rated the chain’s founding restaurant in Taiwan as one of the top 10 restaurants in the world.
Once I got over the price, I was quite pleased. The atmosphere, though crowded, was jovial, and the food was excellent.
Mind you, when Americans picture dumplings, I’ve discovered that they tend to picture sweet apple pastries or hearty Southern “chicken ‘n dumplins.”
Chinese dumplings are different. They are usually made of minced meat or vegetables wrapped in a thin dough-like shell. Some are boiled, some steamed and others are fried.
Din Tai Fung specializes in the steamed variety.
The dumpling’s wrappings were slightly thicker than construction paper, but dense enough to hold marble-sized nuggets of juicy minced pork.
The steamed buns were even better and more filling, each packed with an almost golf ball-sized chunk of minced pork.
Both were excellent when dipped in a blend of soy sauce and pepper, available along with vinegar and slices of ginger at each table.
In addition to a variety of dumplings, the restaurant also serves noodles, soup and several appetizers.
On a budget? Maybe not. But when I want to share an authentic staple of Chinese cuisine when the wallet’s a little fuller? Definitely.
Din Tai Fung Dumpling House is located at 1108 and 1088 S. Baldwin Ave. in Arcadia. For more information, call (626) 574-7068 or (626) 446-8588 or visit www.dintaifungusa.com .
Written by Kevin Felt