The third floor food court of downtown Seattle’s Pacific Place mall hosts an outpost of the Taiwanese soup dumpling chain Din Tai Fun. The entrance to the restaurant features a wall of windows that look in on the dumpling production line. It is pretty impressive with about 20 people in chef whites and face masks continuously stuffing and folding dumplings. This location has as long a wait as any of the others, but there is a Mexican cantina styled restaurant and a brewery pub on the same floor, so you can get a drink while you are waiting for the text message saying your table is ready. Compared to some other locations, particularly in LA where you have to wait in a parking lot, this set-up works really well – you can grab a pint of local Manny’s Pale Ale while you wait for dumplings.
The Dumplings: I have long argued that Din Tai Fun’s soup dumplings are over rated, they are good but they are not the be all and end all of soup dumplings that many people claim they are. Din Tai Fun chefs do produce consistently thin and supple dumpling wrappers that stretch to contain their soup and meat filling, but almost never rupture or leak and the dumplings have a generous helping of soup. My critiques are that the dumplings are on the small side, the pork filling is a little bland and they don’t cook them to a high temperature. On this last point, part of the mystique and savior faire of eating soup dumplings is the technique of biting into them and drinking the soup without scalding your face. The lower serving temperature also means that soup changes flavor and consistency as they further cool once the steamer is opened.
On this outing we also tried the Wontons in Chili Oli and the Sticky Rice Shu Mai. The Wontons were disappointing, while the filling had an excellent balance of shrimp and pork that was more flavorful than the pork in the soup dumplings, the sauce was under spiced and over sweetened. It had the American-Chinese flavor profile that holds back on the heat and flavor and amps up the sugar sweetness. My two friends and I split one order of the wontons and weren’t inspired enough to eat all of them. The Sticky Rice Shu Mai were Shanghai style shu mai which have a thicker wheat flour wrapper and are stuffed with sticky rice prepared with minced pork. The rice filling is like a southern U.S. dirty rice and is usually quite flavorful. The Din Tai Fun version had a great chew to it but was blander than other versions I have had.
I keep trying out new Din Tai Fun locations, hoping that I experience what everyone else claims to love so much, but my verdict of “over rated” remains.
The Dipping Sauce: One element of Din Tai Fun that I do appreciate is that, rather than delivering a house prepared black vinegar dipping sauce with the soup dumplings, they just bring a small dish of slivered ginger and you can prepare your own sauce using the bottles of vinegar and soy sauce and tub to chili oil that are on each table. I don’t enjoy the intensity of the black vinegar so I like being able to mix my own sauce and control the mix of vinegar.
The Location: The Pacific Place mall is a high end shopping center in downtown Seattle near the convention center and up the hill from Pike Place Market. The top floor where Din Tai Fun is located has a selection of sit down restaurants, with a mix of international chains and outposts of local favorites.