Months before the white hot Din Tai Fung opened its newest U.S. outpost at Santa Clara’s Westfield Valley Fair shopping center, everyone predicted – and expected – long lines and dumpling mania to ensue.
And right on cue, when the long-awaited restaurant serving up xiao long bao (those delightful Chinese soup dumplings) opened in May, hours-long lines were so epic that the restaurant chain instituted for the very first time a reservations system for the Santa Clara location. (All other locations, including those in Taiwan where Din Tai Fung is based, have a no-reservations policy.)
This is the power of Bay Area foodies, whose obsession with soup dumplings is probably only rivaled by their obsession over ramen. (Don’t get me started.)
There’s no denying the Din Tai Fung love. The Taiwan chain has gotten the formula right by producing perfectly wrapped soup dumplings and serving them in a slightly upscale environment, always creating hype by showcasing workers wrapping the popular xiao long bao through a window case at the entrance of each restaurant.
I’m a fan of Din Tai Fung, having first tried it in Hong Kong and then at its two locations in Arcadia in Southern California (its other U.S. locations are in L.A., Orange County and one in Bellevue, Wash.). And I’ve been among those hoping that an outlet would open in the Bay Area.
But I waited for some of the opening craziness to die down before finally checking it out. So I booked a reservations a month in advance for a weekday lunch (I thought it’d be easier to get a table than on the weekends) and asked my friend Denise, who lives in San Jose, to join me. She brought along one of her daughters, Kaia, who is quite the Din Tai Fung expert as well having eaten at the Bellevue location.
Despite taking reservations, there’s still a bit of frenzy at the host stand as people come up asking about tables or hoping for a walk-in seat (walk-ins can be seated at the large bar in the front). After checking in, we still had to wait a few minutes until we were taken to our table. Still, this is more manageable that the long lines that greeted people when it first opened.
The first thing that struck me about this new Din Tai Fung is that it’s smaller than the ones I’ve visited. It technically seats 200 people, but it seems smaller because of the large bar in the front (I don’t recall a bar at other Din Tai Fungs). Even the window where the workers can be seen wrapping xiao long bao was like a small cubicle, giving it an almost fish tank feel.
We were also taken to the very back room, which was cavernous, dark and not fully decorated like the rest of the restaurant. It felt like a make-shift room, or a room intended for private parties. With no draping and the high ceiling, I had to almost yell at Denise to talk to her across the table.
Dumplings and more
The menu is similar to other Din Tai Fungs (although I felt this location seemed to have a larger boba tea drinks section), so we ended up ordering pretty much the same things I’ve eaten in the past. That actually makes it a good base for comparison to my previous eating experiences.
We started with my favorite of cucumber salad ($5.50), which is slightly pickled and slightly spicy. This is always a refreshing way to start.
Then came the parade of food, which included regular pork xiao long bao ($8 for six) and the pork and crab xiao long bao ($11). They looked the same and while sometimes you could get a bit more crab flavor in the pork-crab combo, it seemed very subtle in difference. (For the servers to know which one had crab, they put a tiny carved carrot shaped as a crab in the steamer with the dumplings.)
Like other Din Tai Fungs, the dumplings can sometimes be ethereal and sometimes just ok. I don’t know if it was because I felt rushed or we had so much food, but nothing struck me as amazing about this batch of xiao long bao.
Kaia ordered her favorite, spicy shrimp and pork won tons ($10.50), which I’ve never had before and they were actually a revelation. The plump dumplings where tasty but the star was the hot chili sauce that’s used to coat the won tons. It was oddly familiar but oddly different at the same time, almost an earthy flavor like cumin in the sauce that made it so unique. I would order these again.
Another one of my favorites is the pickled mustards and pork noodle soup ($9.50), but unfortunately the bowl we had was lackluster, with bland broth, not very much pickled mustards, and noodles that were maybe a second overcooked.
Our lunch was rounded off by a plate of sauteed string beans ($11, good), a matcha smoothie for me ($5, grainy in texture) and black sesame buns ($2.80 each, good).
The last bite
As I drove home in San Jose traffic, I really debated if it was worth sitting in my car for 90 minutes (that’s how long it took to get home in the afternoon) for the lunch I had? The answer was no (although it was great to see my friends!). Of the three Din Tai Fungs I’ve eaten at, this was the most disappointing with a poor layout and a kitchen that seems to be churning out food without consistency. I hope that it improves as it settles into its new location because for now, it’s the only DTF we have.
The rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Din Tai Fung, 2855 Stevens Creek Blvd. (inside the Westfield Valley Fair mall), Santa Clara, Calif. PH: 408.248.1688. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Reservations, major credit cards accepted . Check website for more details.
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