You carefully place the plump, ridged pouch in your mouth. You’re distinctly aware that others are watching, so you close your eyes. With equal parts anticipation and trepidation, you bite through the thin skin, and the hot, juicy bundle of meat inside explodes. You don’t want to tell anyone else, but you’re enjoying it, savoring every second. But you also feel slightly guilty. All the primeval, primitive recesses of your brain fire their neurons, and for a moment, you really can’t think about anything else. All you can think about is the succulent meat slowly melting into the salty, rich, and slightly gelatinous pork broth. A little dribble of juice drips out of your mouth. And you’re hooked. There is no substitute. You have to keep coming back, and you’re even a little angry that your friends hadn’t told you about the place sooner. What kind of friends are they, to be holding out on you like this? Somewhere, in the back of your mind, the rational part that won’t shut up, you can’t help thinking about how much salt, fat, and cholesterol must be in this one bite, but that’s not why you're here. Heck, live a little. You might not wake up tomorrow.
Snap back to reality. You’re at Din Tai Fung Dumpling House, and you're surrounded by people, for goodness' sake. You’re in the clean, well lit space that was once a former bank. One of your friends (you did bring friends, right?) is droning on about the proper, respectful way to eat soup dumplings: Tear a small hole in the top, suck out all the broth, carefully place a few drops of rice vinegar and chili oil inside, and a piece of ginger on top. He pauses briefly to note that you have something around your mouth. You don’t care. All you want is to pop another one of these babies in your craw.
There is more to life besides dumplings, of course. The “Shanghai-style” rice cakes, a stateside invention, are round, chewy little things stir-fried with pork (and yes, some vegetables) that are almost as addictive as the dumplings, and the handmade noodles are also quite good. But the real reason that nobody comes here alone is because there are just so many different types of dumplings to try — pork, pork and crab, shrimp and pork, fish, chicken, and even red bean dessert dumplings. And it’s ten dumplings to an order.
The crowd is a good mix of first-timers and the experienced, and the open, airy space is welcoming. Upon walking in, customers are presented with a view of all the action — the dumplings are made to order in full view of the public. Quality assurance seems to border on fanatical; it’s claimed that any dumpling that doesn’t have exactly eighteen pleats is thrown out. Service is better than at most other joints in the area, and the operation feels like a well-oiled, finely-tuned machine. Every experience is consistent, and good, if you can get past the wait. If it's insufferable, there’s another location just on the other side of the parking lot belonging to the same owner. Have a friend pick up a number there too, and race by phone to see who gets a table first.
Din Tai Fung Dumpling House certainly has its detractors. Connoisseurs will argue that there are cheaper places in the area with better dumplings, and purists may balk at the idea of a centralized production kitchen thousands of miles away producing a few of the menu items. It is technically a chain, with its original shop in Taipei, and locations throughout Asia. But then again, hey, if it’s your first time, wouldn’t you want it to be in a safe, welcoming environment?