Saturday, February 27, 2016
This is it, my triumphant return to blogging. Like herpes, you think I'm gone, but then I come back in the form of a mega cold sore and embarrass you on your wedding day. But we're not here to talk about herpes (at least, not now) we're here to talk about soup dumplings. I recently hopped on a jetplane and returned to the motherland of Taiwan. Over the course of the slightly-less-than-two-hour flight, I did two things: I actively tried to hide my growing erection at the thought of eating real Taiwanese food again, and I built a short checklist of things that I wanted to do. One of my top priorities was to visit 7-11 to marvel at the broad selection of microwave bentos and to revel in in the glory of Hello Kitty memorabilia. Another was to go to multiple nightmarkets so I could experience the roller coaster of pleasures and regrets from my eating decisions. Yet another was to eat at the dopest beef noodle joint in the history of noodles and beef. The last was to drink 18-day Taiwan Beer, which is apparently a thing. One thing I didn't plan on was going to Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐).
There's a few reasons for that. Historically I've been a real cheap-ass when it comes to food. To put this in perspective, I've walked an extra five miles to a different location of a chain restaurant because I heard they had a cheaper combo meal. Din Tai Fung is consistently more expensive - 200 NT (about $6) for a steamer of 10 - than anywhere else by double. On top of that is the fact that there's almost always a line to get in, and it's not because they're offering a something for free or anything (sorry for the stereotyping, but I firmly believe Chinese people will line up for anything if it's free), it's because everyone and their grandmother associates DTF with soup dumplings. In a nutshell, Din Tai Fung is the antithesis of everything I believe in when it comes to Asian food - long lines, inflated prices, and hype out the asshole.
Except on this trip, there was no line (it was raining) and I did go in, and I realized that my assessment is mostly wrong. I say mostly because the majority of people are still dickweeds who put DTF on a god-tier pedestal.
I will admit, their soup dumplings are the tits. Not life-changing, not inspirational, but just plain good. The skin is borderline translucent (yes, you can see the soup wish-washing around) which is pretty impressive to me considering I can't even boil frozen dumplings without having them break. The filling is adequately rich, but without the overwhelming porkiness that you get from the corner stalls selling them 10 for $2. And of course, there's the soup aspect... I always go into the first bite underestimating their ability to fill a carbohydrate balloon with melted pork fat and I always end up with soup on my pants or on my face. Super hot. Again, there's no denying that their soup dumplings are ridiculously good, I just hate how much people hold them as an absolute benchmark.
You know what is pretty fun though? If you get the crab and pork ones, they'll make a small yellow crab and put it in the steamer so you can tell them apart. Yes, it's made of dough and yes I ate it. No, it did not taste good because it's just a piece of steamed dough with yellow food coloring. You're welcome for not having to replay this experiment. My assessment of the crab one is much the same as the pork one, although I guess I would be disappointed if I paid a premium for it, because it just doesn't taste that much like crab.
You know what DTF's not famous for, like... at all? Dan dan noodles (擔擔麵). So of course it makes sense that I would order this. The thing is, DTF is a nice restaurant of sorts, and I didn't want to be the kind of assclown who goes and takes up a table and orders two orders of 5x soup dumplings. Logically I should have gotten fried rice because - fun fact! - that's what they were famous (along with selling cooking oil) for before some guy decided to make soup dumplings. I'm not logical though, so I got the thing that no one ever orders.
You mix that shit up good and you get this. Which was actually ridiculously good. It's spicy, but not in the traditional Szechuan style of numbing your mouth, it's more of a building heat, which along with the sweetness of the sauce was a solid combo. Not to say that soup dumplings are bland, but this would equate to a good chaser, one that overrides the heavy oil sensation from pork soup.
So where am I on the topic of soup dumplings? I've reassessed my stance on DTF in saying that they're overpriced and overrated. In Taipei, they're priced just fine (which is to say, still lower than every single place I've been to in the US including Joe's Shanghai, Joe's Ginger, Nan Xiang, Shanghai Cafe, etc.), and at that price point, they're hella solid. But it's still not something I feel like I need to do when I go to Taiwan every time. Plus, what fun is it to eat at a place you know you won't get sick in? I live for the thrill of the hunt (for toilets), and DTF just doesn't offer me that.