When I was in Taiwan a few weeks ago, I wanted to see Taipei 101, the (current) world's tallest building. Before I went, I asked Pere to email her brother and his wife Iris to ask for suggestions on what I should try to see and do while in Taiwan. Iris is Taiwanese, so I was hoping for some inside information. What I got turned out to be a whole lot better. As it happened, they replied to Pere's email about 5 minutes later to say that they were actually in Taipei! They gave me a call at my hotel, and we made plans to meet the next day.
After an afternoon of sightseeing, we were all getting hungry and needed to find somewhere to eat. My brother in law David was in the mood for steamed buns and dumplings, so Iris suggested a place called Din Tai Fung that was "world famous" for their soup dumplings. It sounded good to me, so we grabbed a cab and headed off for the restaurant.
When we arrived at Din Tai Fung, it was a little after 5:30 pm. It was on the early side for dinner, but Iris said that the place we were going to often gets very busy, so arriving early was actually in our favor. After checking in with someone behind the counter, we were immediately taken to a 2nd floor dining room and seated. Although the restaurant was relatively calm on the outside, inside, it was bustling and hopping with lots and of waitresses carrying around a seemingly endless stream of bamboo steamers.
After looking over the menu (it was in both Mandarin and English), we all decided to just let Iris do the ordering for us. Everything on the menu looked great, so we knew we were in good hands. When our waitress returned, Iris ticked off a list of dishes for the table, and ordered some tea as well.
It wasn't more than five minutes before our first dish arrived - steamed soup dumplings (xiaolongbao or xiao long bao). What makes Xiaolongbao different from other types of steamed buns and dumplings is the filling. In addition to meat, the dumplings are also stuffed with gelatenous stock before being steamed. Once steamed, the gelatin melts and becomes the soup inside the bun. When you eat a xiaolongbao, you get a nice combination of meat, soup, and wrapper. The soup buns at Din Tai Fung were awesome. The soup was very hot, and it was easy to scald yourself if you didn't let them cool just a bit before eating. Wait too long, though, and the soup wasn't quite as good. What also makes the xiaolongbao unique at Din Tai Fung is the number of pleats in each dumpling. Apparently, the buns at Din Tai Fung have more pleats than most other places, which is a result of years of experimentation by the owner.
About two seconds (literally) after we finished the xiaolongbao, our waitress cleared the steamer basket from our table, and another waitress showed up with our shrimp dumplings. The shrimp dumplings had the familiar dumpling shape, and were also good, but not quite as exciting as the xiaolongbao.
Next up was a pot of wonton soup. The broth was very mild, yet had enough chicken favour to keep it interesting. Like all of the buns and dumplings we had tried so far, the wontons were perfectly prepared, making for a nice accompanyment to the rest of the meal.
After the wonton soup, we had more steamed buns. This time, they contained a mixture of crab and pork. They didn't quite have as much crab flavor as I had hoped for, but they were still good. Each one was expertly crimped and steamed.
Our next dish was another soup. It had pork dumplings, rice noodles, and bean curd skins in it. I really enjoyed this soup. One thing I found interesting in Taiwan is that it's quite common to have two, three, and even four types of soup in a single meal - each with a completely different flavor and character.
The tofu soup was followed by a round of steamed shrimp buns. By this point, I realized I was starting to get a bit full. however, as good as everything was, I couldn't help myself, so I just kept eating. The shrimp buns were also tasty, but I really wish we had ordered two orders of the xiaolongbao because they were simply outstanding.
After finishing off the last of the shrimp buns, we decided to take another look at the menu and pick out something for dessert. After looking everything over, we settled on two items - red bean buns, and steamed cake.
The red bean buns came out looking just like al of the other buns we ordered. However, when I went to pick one up with my chopsticks, I could tell right away the were different. The first giveaway was how sticky they were. The stuck to my chopsticks, and them to the roof of my mouth. The red bean filling was delicious. I helped myself to three of them before I had to call it quits.
I had just enough room left to try a bite of the steamed cake. We had one big piece to split between the four of us, and without a knie, it was a bit difficult to cut with chopsticks, but we managed. I was expecting a fairly light sweer dessert when I took my first bite. The cake turned out to be fairly light, but it only had a hint of sweetness. In fact, it had a flavor similar to white sandwich bread that didn't particularly do anything for me. I finished things off with a bit more tea, then sat back to let everything settle.
Once we had all rested up for a few minutes, we headed back downstairs to pay the bill. I don't know how I missed it on the way up, but there was a huge window into the dumpling and bun making room. It was like a mini-factory in there with a bunch of people mixing dough, rolling out dumplings, getting them into steamer baskets, and steaming them up. It was an incredible sight to watch.
After we paid the bill, we headed back outside to do some more sightseeing. This is when I saw the crowd that had gathered outside the restaurant to wait for a table. There was an electronic take-a-number sign hanging on a post that displayed the number of the next lucky diners to be granted admission. I later came to learn that once inside, you have 40 minutes to complete your meal before being asked to leave. No wonder our waitress and servers were so efficient!
I have to say, the Din Tai Fung turned out to be one of the best meals I had in Taiwan. Their steamed soup buns certainly live up to their reputation. If you ever find yourself in Taipei, definitely get on over to Din Tai Fung - it's an experience you won't want to miss.