Din Tai Fung has been around since 1958; they used to sell cooking oil until the industry crashed in 1972, and the owners decided to start making 小籠包 [xiaolongbao]. My mom tells me that my grandpa always loved the 赤豆鬆糕 [ci dou song gao], or red bean sponge cake, made there. Since Din Tai Fung is–and always has been–expensive, he couldn’t afford to eat it most of the time. So my mom would save up her money from an after-school job in high school to surprise him with 赤豆鬆糕 for special occasions. Grandpa had good taste: even now, 42 years since they first started, their red bean sponge cake is still one of their most popular dishes. It’s one of my favorites.
When Din Tai Fung first opened their doors in my Californian neighborhood–the only Din Tai Fung in the US at the time–no one in my family ate there was absolutely no vegetarian food served! The restaurant was already famous in the Chinese (mostly Taiwanese) community by then, but we just never went. That all changed after 2007 when one of my mom’s friends in Taiwan treated her to a meal there and she discovered a remixed menu that included a few veggie options. And they were delicious. So during the summer of 2008, she took me there for my first time. It was then that a lifelong adoration for Din Tai Fung began.
They’ve expanded their menu a lot more since then, as the vegetarian population in Taiwan continues to grow each year. And even though I haven’t been able to experience the divine and otherworldly xialongbao (yet), I’m okay with that. Almost never have I been to a restaurant where every. single. dish. tastes amazing. And for the 6 years that I’ve been a Din Tai Fung aficionado, the quality of their service and food has never for a second wavered.
If you could eat only at one restaurant in all of Taiwan, make it Din Tai Fung. The flagship store on XinYi/Yongkang Rd. Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, the wait time is 1-2 hours long. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, you still should go. The quality control there is so refined that you will not find a single dumpling that does not have exactly 18 folds. I’ve counted. The skin is toothsome, cooked al dente, and thin enough that it’s nearly translucent. I’ve never seen a dumpling fall apart; when you sink your teeth into the skin, you feel that chewy “pull” as it gives way and the filing comes tumbling out.
So what does a vegetarian eat at Din Tai Fung? Start with their appetizers, 開胃菜[kai wei cai]. Top notch. We love to get the 烤麩 [kao fu], which is braised wheat gluten with fresh bamboo, black woodear, shiitake mushrooms, day lilies, and edamame. 辣味黃瓜[la wei huang gua], or pickled cucumbers in chili oil, are also delicious.
If there’s one appetizer to order, it’s the 小菜[xiao cai], which consists of mung bean noodles, shredded seaweed and bean curd, bean sprouts, and thin slices of hot red peppers. It’s perfectly savory, with a slight kick of tang and heat. But an equally good substitute is the fresh bamboo salad with mayonnaise [竹筍沙拉 zhu sun sha la]. It’s a seasonal dish, which I’ve always had in summer. You pay a hefty USD$10 for a small serving, but good god it’s glorious. The bamboo shoots are so crispy and juicy; it’s almost like eating a gala apple. The creamy mayo gels so well with it, too.
Their famous egg fried rice [蛋炒飯 dan cao fan], for one thing. Every grain glistens under the light, delightfully QQ. Tender scrambled eggs and bright green scallions tossed in. Simple and simply unbeatable.
Then there’s their dandan noodles [擔擔麵 dan dan mian]: sesame and peanut sauce massaged into fine and delicate flour noodles.
You could also get delicious vegetable dishes anywhere else for less, but the stir-fried water spinach [空心菜 kong xin cai, which literally means “empty heart vegetable” because of its hollow steams] at Din Tai Fung is flawless. The verdant veggies glisten like they’ve been gently airbrushed with oil–not greasy in the least–, and crunch like fresh, fall leaves when you bite into them.
Lastly, you have the desserts, all of which are ridiculously tasty. 八寶飯 [ba bao fan] is typically a Chinese New Year’s dish, meaning “eight treasures”. It’s sweet sticky rice with dates, lotus seeds, red bean paste…etc. The ingredients differ per recipe. I happen to love the one at Din Tai Fung.
The dessert I never fail to order (other than the 赤豆鬆糕) are the 豆沙小籠包 [dou sha, or red bean, xialongbao] and 芋泥小籠包 [yu ni, or taro, xialongbao]. SO GOOD. Get it. You can ask for 半籠 [ban long, or "half-basket"] with 5 of each. Zero regrets, even if you don’t like taro.
My mom’s been to various Din Tai Fung around the world, and we both agree that the flagship store is, without a hair of doubt, the best Din Tai Fung. She’s been to the Michelin-awarded Hong Kong one, but there’s something about the history of the flagship that somehow makes it more alluring. You can find Din Tai Fung at:
No.194 Second Section, Xinyi Road, Taipei City (Yongkang St & MRT Dongmen Station Exit 5)
TEL: 02-2321-8928 FAX: 02-2321-5958