At Din Tai Fung, the Waiting is the Hardest Part
Photo by Dustin Ames But oh, that magic feeling...
It was 7:30 on a Saturday night. I was in a line of people that stretched from Sears to the Carousel Court--spanning an entire wing of South Coast Plaza. From one end to the other, it would be a two-and-a-half-hour wait. But this was only half of it. At 4:30 p.m., I was in another line to put my name and cell number on a list so that someone could text me for the privilege of standing in this line. If it sounds as bad as the DMV, you're wrong--at least you can sit while waiting at the DMV.
This is Din Tai Fung, the first OC outpost of the Taiwanese-based chain famous for xiaolongbaos (a.k.a. juicy pork dumplings). And if you aren't in line trying to get some, you're wondering what the fuss is about.
"Is this line all for that restaurant?" a woman asked one of the security guards the mall hired to control the mobs.
"Are they giving out free food or something?" another wondered aloud as she passed.
I had to shrug when a man on his way to Starbucks asked me, "Is this place really worth it?"
Three hours earlier, as a Din Tai Fung devotee, I would have uttered an unequivocal yes. Now that my initial amusement at the ridiculousness of the queue had turned to exasperation and hunger, I wasn't so sure. I realized at the two-and-a-half-hour mark that in the time I'd been standing, I could've driven to either of Din Tai Fung's Arcadia branches--as I do every other month--eaten and driven back.
Though I anticipated it would be popular, I wasn't prepared for this. But it's exactly the kind of reception that South Coast Plaza's management had hoped for. They knew that enticing Din Tai Fung to open here would attract its huge fan base, some of whom belong to a growing class of affluent Chinese spenders. Fact: In the new Riviera, the rich don't eat caviar; they eat dumplings--these dumplings. And what's a better waiting area for those Din Tai Fung-loving whales than a mall with thousand-dollar purses and Jimmy Choo shoes for sale? Din Tai Fung isn't even an expensive restaurant by South Coast Plaza standards--AnQi is much more high-brow. But in the Asian world, Din Tai Fung has as sterling a reputation as Louis Vuitton.
Shanghainese in origin, but perfected in Taiwan by Din Tai Fung's Chinese founders, xiaolongbaos are bite-sized, soup-filled purses of pork. And just as at every Din Tai Fung, the South Coast Plaza branch has its workers behind a glass partition making the dumplings by hand, one-by-one. You see them flattening the dinner-mint-sized pellets of dough into thin discs; smearing them with the ground pork and aspic filling; then knitting the tops into spiraling folds that crimps them shut. The dumplings are grouped 10 to a basket and steamed. As the pork cooks, the aspic melts into soup--the xiaolongbaos are born.