The soup dumpling cult leaders arrived at Washington Square mall in mid-December—setting up shop steps away from a LensCrafters and an American Eagle Outfitters. Die-hard followers and TV cameras flocked, too, ready to devour world-famous xiao long bao, each folded with precisely 18 pleats and stacked in bamboo steamer baskets at tables crowded with chile-slicked wontons, Chinese sweet buns, and springy seaweed–bean curd salad. For a month, there was no bigger brag in Portland than “I got a table at Din Tai Fung.”
This is the first Oregon incursion for the global food-chain phenom, complete with its signature glassed-in prep booth where workers in face masks and latex gloves assemble dumplings like surgeons replacing an aortic valve. Portland, famously anti-chain (remember when somebody tried to firebomb a SE Division Street Starbucks?), has rarely been so psyched over a corporate takeover. You’d have to go back to the 1990s, when Saks Fifth Avenue opened downtown and drew lines up and down the escalator. So be warned: If you haven’t trekked to the Tigard branch, prepare for a shaming on a par with “What? You’re not watching Game of Thrones?”
But first, a primer. “The Legend of Din Tai Fung” greets you on the 21-page menu, kicking off a collection of soups, noodles, rice cakes, and desserts, mostly Taiwanese spins on pan-Asian and Shanghai cooking. Din Tai Fung’s feeding frenzy commenced in 1993, when the New York Times named the original Taiwan eatery one of the world’s Top 10 Restaurants. (It had already been steaming Shanghai-style dumplings for two decades at that point.) Expansion throughout Asia followed, drawing rabid fans from Korea to Japan. Since the 2000s, Din Tai Fung has thrived in California and around Seattle with, some might argue, increasingly Western-friendly touches: lychee mojitos and perky servers who perform major hand-holding throughout the menu. (“How ya doin’, guys?” they chirp as you sit down.)
Does Portland’s suburban outpost deliver on the hype? Not quite. Yes, the xiao long bao best any competitors in town. Turns out, hiding hot broth and seasoned pork inside a dumpling-like bun is an amazing bit of sleight of hand—like a less-than-kosher, reverse-engineered matzo ball soup. But the rest of the menu? It’s not going to change your life. Little about the experience lingers, the way one excitedly recounts pilgrimages to the great dim sum parlors of Hong Kong, or Vancouver, British Columbia’s meticulous Asian feasts. Storming through the menu on three visits, I can say only that dishes are pretty solid, occasionally more (kudos to any green beans sporting this level of buttery snap) and sometimes less (the lacy-edged pot stickers have zero flavor, a near impossibility).
Din Tai Fung’s strength lies in its ineffable friendliness, care, and consistency, with genuine Chinese food for a wide audience in an upscale-corporate setting—think Michael Jordan’s Dumpling Steakhouse. I’m not sure which country or branch first served the molten chocolate “soup dumplings” for dessert, but everyone from Taipei to Oregon seems to agree: they’re weirdly irresistible. And for a mall where one of the last big food plays was a Cheesecake Factory circa 2005, Din Tai Fung is a huge leap in the right direction.
The fun of eating here might ultimately be found in the conversations. Debates, nit-picking, and talk of cultural nuances are inevitable when one is eating the world’s most-talked-about soup dumplings. In short: I needed one more visit with the cultists. My friends Pauline and Drew are Din Tai Fung frequent fliers, having logged multiple visits to multiple branches in five countries. They’ve even timed how long it takes to bolt from the airplane to their favorite Singapore outpost: exactly 41 minutes.
“It’s all about the skin,” opines Pauline, who is from Malaysia, as we hunker down over soup dumplings on my fourth visit. I’m inhaling mine, but Pauline is more methodical, holding a chopstick-plucked bundle up to the light, looking for the tell that separates players from chumps: translucence. “Americans tend to focus on the filling. But to be thin and delicate, yet strong enough to hold liquid without tearing ... that’s something.” And that, my friends, is why we’re here. This is the secret to Din Tai Fung: taking an addictive snack, notoriously difficult to make, and perfecting it for a mass audience.
Of course, we quibble. The soup could be richer, and, more important, it’s not hot enough. Part of the joy of xiao long bao is the danger factor: how long to wait before thrusting the grenade of pork and burning liquid into your mouth. Alas, bathwater temps may be part of the Westernization process.
Still, we all agree: we’ll be back for more. Next time, Drew adds, he and Pauline plan to revert to the game plan they deploy at the Asian branches: “Three racks of pork xiao long bao, a vegetable so you don’t die a terrible death, and the check, please.” Throw in those chocolate soup dumplings, and I’m with them.