The founder of Din Tai Fung, a gentleman called Yang Bingyi, fled mainland China in 1948 during the civil war, and got a job working at a cooking oil retailer in Taipei called Heng Tai Fun. When he was made redundant, he and his wife set up their own cooking oil retailer in 1958, calling it Din Tai Fung. When this line of business became difficult around 1970, he had the inspired idea of switching to a restaurant that would specialise in xiao long bao, the Chinese pork dumpling with a liquid centre. He initially devoted half his store to this idea and hired a chef from Shanghai to do the cooking, and the dumplings sold so well that by 1972 he dropped the cooking oil business entirely and has never looked back. Now Din Tai Fung is a veritable restaurant empire, with seventeen branches in Taipei alone at the time of writing. There are further branches in over a dozen countries, including Singapore, Australia, the USA and UAE. Its Hong Kong branch was awarded a Michelin star in 2010, though rather inconsistently Michelin didn’t award a star to any of the chain in Taipei itself when they brought out a guide to the city in 2018.
This branch in Xinyi is the original one. These days the menu has expanded well beyond buns, branching out into other dishes of Huaiyang cuisine, which encompasses the cooking of the area around Shanghai. This itself is a branch of Jiangsu cuisine, which is one of the eight generally recognised traditional culinary styles of China, along with Cantonese, Sichuan, Hunan, Fujian, Zhejiang, Anhui and Shandong. On the menu there are other dumplings, fried dishes, soups and desserts. It is worth saying that the menu here is much longer than I recall from the branches in, for example, Sydney.
There are no reservations, they take cash only, and the place is very popular. On the day I went, by 11:15 a.m. the queuing time to get in was already 35 minutes; at least the well-drilled staff on the door point this out clearly. The restaurant is set out over three floors, with a kitchen visible on the right as you enter where you can see a large brigade of chefs preparing dishes. You are presented with an illustrated menu and order by ticking off boxes on a little order slip. The waitress takes this away and dishes are delivered to your table in the normal way, though at the end you take your bill downstairs to the exit to pay.
The xiao long bao dumplings are made by rolling dough around a cube of gelatinised stock made from pork, soy, onions and a little rice wine. The bun is pleated at least eighteen times here, which is their trademark way of doing it. It requires some skill to get this many pleats in a single small dumpling, which is then twisted at the top to seal it. When the sealed bun is steamed, the jelly melts and liquifies, so when you bite into it (all in one go of course) the hot liquid filling pours out into your mouth, filling it with pleasing pork flavour. The buns are conveniently small, so you will not have any difficulty cramming them into your mouth. The overall effect is a little taste explosion when you bite through the outer layer of dumpling. You dip the buns just before you eat them in ginger vinegar dressing that you prepare at the table from a dish of shredded ginger and bottles of soy sauce and vinegar. The sourness of the vinegar is just what is needed to complement the pork. I have had xiao long bao in numerous places, but these are very good indeed (comfortably 14/20). The other dish that I particularly liked was spicy shrimp and pork steamed wontons, resting in a sauce of red chilli oil and scallions. These had good texture and the lively spicy sauce lifted the flavour of the dumpling (14/20). Fried amaranth leaves were pleasant enough, cooked properly but a touch watery to my taste (12/20). Steamed shrimp and pork dumplings were enjoyable, the prawns cooked nicely within their protective dumpling case (13/20).
Service was surprisingly slick and was very friendly, my waitress speaking good English and explaining the tradition of making the ginger vinegar dressing at the table. Despite the crowds of people, at no point did I feel rushed, though dishes certainly arrive promptly. The bill, with just a soft drink (beer is available) came to TWD 638 (£16) for plenty of food and a couple of cans of Coke. This seems to me a bargain. It may be verging on fast food, but it is extremely well made fast food. The xiao long bao and the wontons in particular are better here than at plenty of far grander restaurants, and yet that dish of five excellent liquid dumplings cost just £2.80. It is no wonder that Din Tai Fung has become so successful. If only all restaurant chains could deliver food of such quality.