Bite vs. Bite, Hong Kong, Restaurants

Din Tai Fung aka Dumpling Heaven – Hong Kong

October 25, 2009 | 8 Comments
spicy cucumbers @ din tai fung pork & crab roe buns @ din tai fung
pork & crab roe buns @ din tai fung spinach dumplings@ din tai fung

I love xiao long bao (Shanghainese soup dumplings). It’s one of my favorite foods in the world. When I first discovered Joe’s Shanghai in Flushing, for about a year, if not longer, I would go there at least once a week for their famous soup dumplings. Once, I went four times in one week. So when planning our East Asia trip, xiao long bao was ever present in my thoughts. For a few days, I even considered making a detour to Shanghai just to eat xiao long bao directly from the source. Luckily for my bank account though, my brain overruled my stomach, and Shanghai was nixed. However, that didn’t mean xiao long bao was out of the picture. I was in Asia after all, xiao long bao were to be mine! So on our final night in Hong Kong, David and I made our way over to Din Tai Fung, or as I like to call the place, “xiao long bao heaven.”

spicy cucumbers @ din tai fung spinach dumplings@ din tai fung

The meal didn’t begin too spectacularly. We ordered Tossed Cucumber With Chili Oil and Steamed Vegetable Dumplings. The cucumbers were sliced thick, tossed up in chili oil, and then stacked. The dumplings were stuffed with vegetables (mostly spinach and black mushrooms) and steamed. It was literally what the menu described, but I had been expecting more. Something more delicious, something more complex. Perhaps the cucumbers needed some roasted garlic and fermented black beans to round out the chili oil, and perhaps the steamed vegetables needed some glass noodles or some tofu to make the dumplings taste more savory. In any case, both dishes were perfectly decent, but also perfectly one note.

pork & crab roe buns @ din tai fung

Xiao Long Bao from Din Tai Fung

The Steamed Specialty Shanghai Hairy Crab Roe, Meat, and Pork Dumplings (6 for HK $68/US $8.35), however, were like little pouches of dumpling love. The steamed crab and soup pork dumplings were smaller than the ones at Joe’s Shanghai, but they weren’t small on taste. And although there was less soup in the dumplings because they’re smaller, don’t think you can eat them without popping them first. Everyone has a different method for eating xiao long bao. Most people poke a hole in the skin with their chopsticks while the dumpling is sitting in their spoon and slurp up the soup that pours out. I like to bite a tiny hole out of the side and pour the soup into my spoon. At Din Tai Fung, however, I figured I could just eat them without letting the soup out first, and of course, when I took a bite right into the middle, hot soup shot straight up my nose. Embarrassing, but I was more mad the soup got wasted.

crabmeat dumpling innards @ joe's ginger

Xiao Long Bao from Joe’s

In addition, the skin was extremely thin and delicate, but not so fragile the dumplings broke when picking them up. In addition, the dumplings were beautifully folded. According to the restaurant, each dumpling has 18 folds. Not sure if it’s true, but they were indeed each gorgeous to behold, not homey like the ones at Joe’s Shanghai which have a thicker and more rustic looking skin. The soup inside was also a bit thinner than at Joe’s, but extremely fragrant from the crab roe. (Joe’s Shanghai xiao long bao do not have crab roe.) And the filling — made with pork, crab meat, and crab roe — was insanely delicious. I love crab, but the addition of crab roe, COMPLETE GENIUS! After I was done with one basket of dumplings, I was still hungry so I ordered another basket of the same. While we were waiting, David decided to go downstairs to scout out some Taiwanese shaved ice. When he came back, the second order was already in my stomach. They were that good. Gone in sixty seconds.

Do I prefer Din Tai Fung over Joe’s Shanghai? Definitely not, I have room in my heart, and my stomach, for both restaurants. Joe’s Shanghai is divey, the waiters surly, the dumplings never consistent, but when they’re good, they’re fabulous like a homey Thanksgiving meal with all the fixin’s. Din Tai Fung is more refined, the waiters and waitresses soft-spoken, and the xiao long bao, as good as any appetizer at a Michelin star restaurant. Pricewise the difference is negligible. Joe’s Shanghai is cheaper (8 for US $6.65), but at Din Tai Fung you get crab roe and better made soup dumplings for only a few dollars more. Both are great, it just depends what you’re in the mood for, as long as you’re in the mood for xiao long bao. And who isn’t? I know I always am.

Din Tai Fung
20 Canton Road, 3rd Floor (betw Haiphong & Peking Rd; map)
Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong, China

Joe’s Shanghai
(There are three locations in New York, but I only go to the Flushing or Chinatown branch. Midtown just doesn’t taste the same.)

Flushing, NYC
136-21 37th Avenue (betw Main St and 138th St; map)
Flushing, New York 11354

Chinatown, NYC
9 Pell Street (betw Doyers & Bowery St; map)
New York, New York 10013

Joe’s Ginger
(Joe’s Ginger is part of the Joe’s empire. When Joe’s Shanghai has too long of a wait, I go to Joe’s Ginger down the block. The food is the same with the addition of vegetable dumplings on their menu.)

25 Pell Street (betw Mott and Doyers St; map)
New York, New York 10013

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8 Comments

  • Nicholas at 4:10 pm on October 25, 2009

    I’m gonna blow your mind. In the original location in Taipei, they have 8 dumplings for 200 NT ($6 or so). So it’s all the fancy pants experience of 鼎泰豐, but at the price of Joe’s Shanghai. What’s even crazier is that it’s relatively mediocre compared to some other places :(.

  • bionicgrrrl at 7:43 pm on October 25, 2009

    @Nicholas – The Hong Kong branch is awesome. Not sure what’s up with the Taipei one.

  • someguy at 11:27 am on October 26, 2009

    I like to bite a hole on top of the dumpling and suck the soup out. Then add vinegar/ soy sauce combo on the dumpling itself. Makes me want to go to Joe’s during lunch.

  • bionicgrrrl at 2:38 pm on October 29, 2009

    @someguy – I like to do the pour method so I don’t spill any soup. People are usually impressed by how clean my plate is after I finish my soup dumplings. And Joe’s during lunch would be awesome. I wish the midtown location was as good as Chinatown.

  • someguy at 3:42 pm on October 29, 2009

    My method is actually not messy. But everyone has their own technique. Thinking about it, my method will help improve one’s kissing. Just like sucking on snails. ;)

  • Danny at 2:00 pm on November 2, 2009

    wow that really does look like heaven…

  • James at 7:35 pm on November 13, 2009

    Some day I’d like to try Din Tai Fung in Hong Kong in Taiwan. I’ve been many a time to the DTF outpost in Arcadia, where XLB are actually not the best choice on the menu… every single time I eat there, sauteed green beans blow everything else out of the water!

  • bionicgrrrl at 11:58 am on November 14, 2009

    @Danny – Mmmm, heaven…

    @James – Yeah, I looked at the American menu, and it definitely doesn’t look the same. And I love greens at Chinese restaurants. One of my favorite dishes is water spinach with bean paste at Congee Village. Chinese people know how to do vegetables.

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