5.110 (Chicken?) Xialongbao

-Cycle 5, Item 110-
25 (Fri) April 2014

(Chicken?) Xialongbao


at Din Tai Fung



The Taipei Diet, Day 1.


In Taipei to grab a bite.  Many bites.  Along the lines of my food odyssey to Singapore last year (see most recently 4.267 Chicken Rice), the plan is to try as many items as I can find, from as many venues as I can hit, improvising for the most part, no scheduled meals, just stuffing my face throughout the day and into the night, whenever I'm no longer feeling stuffed from before.  Arriving a little past noon this morning, I'll be here for about 54 hours through Sunday evening.

Having chosen Taipei International Hotel primarily for economic reasons--around USD 315 for 2 nights, relatively cheap for the city--and the rather utilitarian facade seeming to confirm at first glance that I'd be getting what I'd paid for...

...I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that the room was clean, modern, spacious, high ceilings, very comfortable bed with luxurious down duvet and pillows, strong wifi signal.

For some reason, they even upgraded me to a junior suite--in fact, the staff was very friendly, spoke excellent English, and extremely efficient: they'd prepared my room key and paperwork in advance of my arrival, facilitating a 2-minute check-in process (see for comparison 4.291 A Palatial Feast for One); the room was so comfortable that I ended up spending a lot of time there, resting between meals, researching where I should go next.

Also 1 of 2 rooms in the entire joint to offer a balcony, which overlooked Linsen Park directly across the street...

...and the shopping district surrounding Zhongshan Metro Station, about 2 long city blocks down the road to the east, leisurely 10-minute walk; the other reason for choosing the hotel was its central location and proximity to the red metro line, which connects to many city landmarks.

Venue 1: Din Tai Fung (Xinyi branch)

Din Tai Fung, arguably the city's most recognized restaurant, for foreigners at least, one of the most highly reputed throughout Asia.  With several branches throughout the city, this Xinyi branch is the original.  Located located a block east of Dongmen Metro Station (red line).  Although I've visited a branch in Seoul, where I was sadly underwhelmed by the experience (see generally 3.202 Steamed Shrimp & Pork Shaomai), I had to experience the food at the source to see what all the fuss is really about.  On TripAdvisor's rankings for Taipei restaurants, 5 branches make the Top 20: Taipei 101 at #4 and Xinyi at #6 of 8,864 restaurants (as of this writing).

The only "planning" that went into the Taipei Diet was the decision, made in the hotel room, to wait around a bit and then hit Din Tai Fung at 2:30 in the afternoon, right in between lunch and dinner, to avoid the notoriously long lines at other times, especially on weekends; the decision paid off, because I was seated right away...

...but by the time I left, around 3:30, the crowd was already building.

The first floor contains nothing but a row of cashiers...

...and the kitchen, where these guys stand hunched over all day, presumably, doing nothing but making dumplings.* 

Recently renovated perhaps, the interior was surprisingly non-descript, absent of any character, certainly not what I was expecting from Asia's reputedly best restaurant.

*I just realized that dumpling-making must be regarded as a male activity in Chinese culture.  At the Din Tai Fung in Seoul, as well as the Crystal Jade Xiao Long Bao in Seoul (see generally 3.248 La Mian in Scallion Oil), both of which have open kitchens, only men, probably imported for their expertise, can be seen making the dumplings.  By contrast, in a Korean context, dumplings are almost exclusively within the purview of old women.  Doesn't matter either way, just wondering why it has to be so gender specific.

The menu items are written in Chinese and English, but the descriptions are in Korean, which would suggest that Koreans make up a significant portion of the clientele and that they're the only ones who demand explanation.

The food was disappointing.  For starters, the signature xiaolongbao, the skins were somewhat dried out overall, with the tips being a bit crusty, like they'd been sitting out in the open air for awhile.  The fillings were blah, both the meat and the soup, not much flavor.  Granted, I may have been inadvertently served the chicken* rather than the pork, which would explain the bland to some extent, but not enough.  Upon my first bite, I actually frowned, like "wait....what?!?!"  Pretty much the same with the rest of the meal, just like in Seoul.  If this is indeed Asia's best restaurant, then Asia is in big trouble.

Taiwan Beer, light lager with a touch of hop.

Item 1: (Chicken?) Xiaolongbao (2.25)--in my excitement to dig in, I didn't pay any attention to the little wax chick on the tray; I disregarded it as a cute garnish that didn't signify anything--like the other day at Almon Marina, the sandwich initially had come with an Italian flag, but I asked them to find an Australian one instead (see generally 5.098 Sydney Special); not until I was looking back through the menu to order something else did I realize that a chicken version was even available, which probably means that a batch of pork xiaolongbao, which is what I thought that I'd ordered, would've featured a little piggy; I didn't bother to ask, so I can't be sure; whatever. 

Item 2: Spinach with Garlic (2.5)

Item 3: Braised Beef Noodle Soup (2.0)--featured prominently on the menu and highly recommended by the server; consisted of beef and tendon, with flour noodles, in a soy sauce based broth, reddish but not overly spicy; despite so many bold ingredients, the overall effect was kinda blah; I wasn't impressed.  

Item 4: Shrimp & Pork Wontons (3.0)--in a last ditch attempt to salvage the visit, I ordered another dumpling dish, if only to confirm that everything at Din Tai Fung was consistently lousy; fortunately, it turned out to be the one bright spot of the meal; the skins were appropriately moist and chewy, the shrimp and pork filling were well-balanced and well-seasoned.  

I've always tried to maintain objectivity when rating any given dish featured on the blog, keeping it about the food per se, not factoring in cost/service/ambiance/context/reputation.  Here, I'm wondering if I would've had a more positive response had I encountered these xaiolongbao elsewhere, no prior expectations to cloud my judgment.  But in this case, the hype surrounding this restaurant and this dish is so over-the-top that I can't divorce myself from it.  And maybe I shouldn't even try.   

National Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, located 1 metro stop or a 10-minute walk from Din Tai Fung; not that I'm really into seeing the sights, but I needed something to do before my next meal.

Reminded me of the Lincoln Memorial.

Along with the National Theatre (left) and National Concert Hall (Right), also reminded me of Lincoln Center.

The term "xiaochi" literally means "small eats."  Doesn't refer to a particular food per se but rather to any simple dish prepared quickly and served in small portion, often in the context of street food, at Taiwan's famous night markets, for example.   

At the 7-11 in Zhongshan Metro Station...

...the first thing offered to shoppers is fresh fruit and salads--and right next door, a sushi-to-go joint; what an amazing contrast to the food choices confronted by shoppers in Manila, mostly deep-fried junk and processed crap.

I was there for the beer.

Indeed, where food is concerned, Taipei is famous for its night markets.  Found in various parts of the city.  The brick-and-mortar stores are usually open throughout the day, selling clothing, accessories, and other durable goods, as well as food items.  But starting late in the afternoon, the food carts arrive to set up shop within the alleyways, each specializing in various types of xiaochi.  And that's when the real action begins.  Most vendors stay open well after midnight, especially on weekends.  Night markets are to Taiwan, though much more vibrant and dynamic, what hawker centres are to Singapore.

Shihlin Night Market is one such market.  Opened in 1899, now one of the oldest in the country.  Located in the northern part of Taipei, a 10-minute walk north from Jiantan Metro Station (red line).  Aside from the food carts above ground, the market is notable for a separate underground food court.

I arrived at Shihlin around 8:00 PM.  

Try as I might, I can't imagine the purpose of this garment.

Baked goods? Popsicles?  I didn't get close enough to confirm.  Just who is the target customer base for something like this?  Candy cigarettes are banned in most countries these days because of concerns that such products may encourage children to smoke actual cigarettes by "normalizing" the experience.

WHAM.  Immediately, I was slammed by a relentless onslaught of sensory stimuli, the sights, the smells, the sounds.  Overloaded, I found it impossible to imagine how the food would actually taste and feel.  Whereas guidebooks/blogs/articles and even television segments all simply suggest ordering via pointing, and most items/ingredients are indeed laid out for display, the problem is that the nature of those items/ingredients remains a mystery, so it'd be just one step above pointing at random words on a menu.  Most of the experience was beyond my comprehension, both in terms of quality and quantity, too unfamiliar, too much.  Dizzy.  

My omelet being prepared.

Venue 2: [?]

After wandering in a daze for an hour--serves me right for failing to plan, but I couldn't have anticipated this--I just ducked into a place with a pictured/English menu that offered a few things that I'd been looking for.  

Oyster omelet is a Taiwanese egg dish.  Classic xiaochi, the one that everyone claims to be a "must-try" for first-time visitors to Taiwan.  An order consists of two eggs, mixed into a batter with some thickening agent (e.g., corn starch), scrambled on a griddle in oil, along with a few oysters, often some aromatics (e.g., scallions) or greens (e.g., cabbage), and served in a thick sweetish gravy.  

Item 5: Oyster Omelet (1.0)

Item 6: Crispy Baby Crab (3.5)--this was quite good, the one truly enjoyable dish of the entire day, the deep-fried shells of the baby squid pleasantly crunchy, just a bit harder than soft-shell crab, lightly tossed with aromatics, seasoned with salt and pepper; something like this was probably the inspiration for that so-called "Taiwanese" crab dish that I recently encountered in Seoul (see generally 5.106 Spicy Taiwanese Crab Stir-Fry).

For the second time in as many meals, I was disappointed, at least by the omelet.  My first experience with the dish, I had no frame of reference.  Regardless, I didn't like the texture of the omelet, goopy from the starch, sticky/syrupy from the gravy, all drowning in oil--uggh.  In any case, I'm not a big fan of oysters.  Oh well.

Only later did I discover the food court.  Underground.  Brightly lit, with stalls arranged in neat lines, a more controlled environment than the pandemonium in darkness above.  But just as overwhelming.  And by that point, I was full and weary.  

Stinky tofu is Chinese fermented tofu.  Takes many forms, from mushy/soft to firm/dried.  As with most things fermented, it smells "stinky," to varying degrees depending on regional style.  Dishes also vary widely.  In Taiwan, the tofu is most commonly firm, which is cut into large cubes, deep-fried, doused in a sweet soy-based sauce, and topped with pickled cabbage.  Another classic xiaochi, this one regarded as "must-try-if-you-dare." 

Stall #80 chosen for the pictured/English menu.

Venue 3: Stall #80

To complete the trifecta, I was disappointed by the stinky tofu.  Actually, no, I knew that I wouldn't like it, so it met expectation.  The point is, however, that I didn't enjoy the food.  Not all that stinky, just a mild sulfuric undertone, as if it'd been seasoned with a dash of dried dung powder.  Whatever.  

Let's hope that tomorrow turns out better.

Item 7: Stinky Tofu (1.0)


  1. I was underwhelmed at the din tai fung in Seoul too. There's a branch in Altadena or somewhere in the San Gabriel Valley which was a smaller joint but they now built an entire building adjacent to it to accommodate the crazy lines. Then opened a new very fancy location at the Americana in Glendale (like the Grove, but in Glendale). At the Americana location recently I tried the pork chops which was excellent. Not that you're going back to din tai fung anyway but if you did, maybe look for that on the menu.

  2. u mentioned something like this under the post on the seoul branch. funny, though, the level of detail that u go into it, here too, makes it look like u have some agenda or vested interest.

  3. The one in Sydney is underwhelming as well.

  4. OK, so, from 3 different sources, on 3 different continents, including mine from the original restaurant, we have an emerging theme of underwhelming. What gives??? Why do the NY Times and Time Magazine and Michelin Guide all sing praises??? Just dopey white folk who don't know a good dumpling from a bad one???!!!

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