What started as a cooking oil retailer is now one the most celebrated Asian restaurant chains on the planet. Din Tai Fung, the Taiwanese eatery known today to occupy sleek spaces in American malls and Asian metropolises, began rather modestly.
Faced with a surge of competition in the 1970s, the small family shop opted to start making xiao long bao (Chinese steamed buns) on the side. The traditional fare was so good that soon the family gave up the oil business altogether to focus solely on grub.
The restaurant’s greatest moment to date came in 1993, when the New York Times lauded the flagship Taiwan joint as one of the ten best eateries in the world. Din Tai Fung went international with a Tokyo establishment in 1996. By 2000, the delectable meat-and-dough morsels had landed on the American West Coast. Today, there are thirteen locations spanning California, Washington, and Oregon, with scores more throughout Asia.
Din Tai Fung is an extremely well-oiled machine.
The place is famous for its family of steamed buns and soup dumplings, ranging from mild and vegetable-based to meatier options, with a flavor profile that is full and spicy. The dumplings have a special voyeuristic appeal, as patrons can watch them being made firsthand at most locations, behind a large glass window. It feels a little weird ogling such a thing in between a LensCrafters and an American Eagle Outfitters — as is the case with the lone Oregon location — but it is entertaining. And with food porn firmly normalized these days, maybe it shouldn’t feel so strange.
Din Tai Fung is an extremely well-oiled machine, without a shadow of a doubt. It touts clean decor, giddy service, and dumplings so precisely assembled you’d think they were the work of some highly programmed bot. As many food writers have suggested, part of its appeal is the quality in relation to the overall scale. The eatery continues to draw long lines but the hand-crimped dumplings keep coming out fresh and tasty, set in an orderly fashion in their signature wooden circular trays.
The veggies are perhaps the most underrated items on the menu. The sautéed bok choy, Taiwanese cabbage, and mustard greens with shredded ginger are most satisfying. The green beans are crisp and flavorful while the cucumber salad packs plenty of refreshing crunch. While a sit-down joint, the place still offers a counter-service feel as diners fill out their menus with logo-embossed pen in hand. It’s easy to tire of the incessant “have you dined with us before?” questioning, but overall, the experience is fun and flavorful. And it’s an obvious reminder that so much of our Asian cuisine — chains especially — has been watered down and Americanized.
For a chain, the drinks menu is also pretty inviting, even collaborative in spots. The wine list is decent, with offerings from all of the states it has franchises in. The Oregon location features mostly local beers and a collaboration lager made with Bellingham’s Chuckanut Brewery. And there are plenty of cocktail options, from classics like a Negroni and French 75 to “DTF inspired” options like the Lychee Mojito or the Taiwan Sunset (Prosecco, elderflower liqueur, grapefruit juice, and cherry).
Aware of its popularity, Din Tai Fung offers takeout in most of their spots. It’s the best way to access the dumplings during peak hours and, better still, the company seems aware of its environmental footprint, stressing recyclable paper containers and minimal excess.
The company occupies a crafty corner within the larger retail market. By providing quality ethnic food in and around shopping centers all over the West Coast, they’re appealing on many, many levels. Shoppers get hungry. Eaters are more educated and adventurous today. The dishes are built for Instagram. The place has a following and built-in audience earned from decades in the business. Oh, and the food is good.
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