Din Tai Fung, Shop 130 & Restaurant C. 3rd Floor Silvercord, 30 Canton Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong
The Hong Kong Tourism Board insists that Hong Kong has over 11,000 restaurants. I’d venture that a large number of these eateries serve excellent fare. Competition breeds good restaurants. Finding good food in Hong Kong seems as easy as locating a book in a library.
Still, with what seems like an average of 6 restaurants per city block, one develops certain “standards” to pick an eating-place off of the street. In Hong Kong, like many cities, we look for the telltale queue of people waiting out front. With numerous half filled restaurants nearby, there must be a reason for the long queue in front of one particular place. If the line stands in front of an otherwise sketchy looking eatery the food has to be good and cheap, doesn’t it? Its even better if the busy eating-place is in a location that few would frequent by accident. Word of mouth and repeat customers must be driving the business.
There are negative signs, also. An empty restaurant in an area where all the other eateries are packed is never a good sign. And if a restaurant is an outlet of a larger chain our interest wanes. Further, if the restaurant’s location is prime, like being a high traffic wing of a busy shopping mall, we’ll assume that the food need not excel to bring in hungry customers.
We do pretty well by these restaurant search standards. But there are also times when these “rules” break down altogether. Din Tai Fung in Kowloon does not fit our typical search criteria; it is located in a busy shopping mall, it wasn’t full when we arrived, and it’s part of a growing international restaurant chain. But, despite all of the wrong signs, Din Tai Fung serves excellent Shanghainese style food. In fact, it might just be the Hong Kong eatery that we’d most want to have nearby. And that is a high standard in a city with so much good food.
The truth is we would never have tried Din Tai Fung if we had found the restaurant on our own. It seemed to be a particularly odd recommendation in the Michelin Red Guide but that was only clear after we arrived at Din Tai Fung’s doorstep. The Michelin standard in Hong Kong and Macau is very different than it is elsewhere. But, nevertheless, the guides starred recommendations for are excellent starting points. The Red Book anointed a branch of the Din Tai Fung chain that is walking distance from our hotel (Butterfly on Prat with one Michelin star. Even the exceptionally critical Hong Kong foodie websites agreed that this is a good restaurant. (On Open Rice, a HK food rating site, Din Tai Fung received a top scoring award winner with a score of only 3.7 out of 5!)
As usual, we did not know what we were getting into. When we reached Din Tai Fung’s address we found a large urban shopping mall. Malls are hard to avoid in Hong Kong, but it was still a surprise that this is where we would need to look for a one star restaurant. Since the mall had no obvious maps, we started searching the floors for Din Tai Fung.
We checked the obvious food court first. There was no luck finding Din Tai Fung there, but could we have this food court back home? The food looked good and we narrowly avoided being diverted from our mission by the gauntlet of culinary options.
Eventually we found Din Tai Fung in an open and brightly lit area of the third floor. It was about 5:30 and the clean and shiny restaurant was not particularly full. How could this restaurant possibly be good? At our tables we carefully examined the bound catalog-like laminated menu complete pictures and marked our order on a paper sheet.
Soon after the server collected our order sheet, the food started to arrive at the table. The food at Din Tai Fung is small plates, the Shanghainese variation of dim sum. It is spicier than Cantonese dim sum.
The specialty of the house is xiao long bao or soup dumplings. Behind the glass at the back of the restaurant, a squad of workers hand assembles the filled dough balls. It is a good bet that the dumplings you receive at your table were assembled only a short time before. The handcrafted filled pockets of dough arrive six at a time in bamboo steamers.
Certainly you’ve had Chinese dumplings before, so you have an idea of how they taste. What distinguish the xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung are the freshness and the perfection. The dough has the ideal combination of texture and softness; it is all about the dough, after all. And, of course, the fillings are full of flavor. Perhaps you can find better Chinese dumplings elsewhere, but you will have to look long and hard. Maybe there is an advantage of being in a busy shopping mall in the middle of one of the World’s most congested cities after all. The service volume necessitates freshness.
We had intentionally ordered a little too much food in order to try more things. In the end, though, we couldn’t keep from eating everything that we were served. Though the $60 US bill for a dinner for two including the 3 beers seems exorbitant on the Hong Kong scale, it would be a bargain back home. The long queue in front of the restaurant as we left did not seem concerned about the price.
It turns out that we might not have to wait too long to try the xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung again. Newer Din Tai Fung outlets are making it to the States, starting with Los Angeles and Seattle. Perhaps excellent Michelin one star worthy dumplings will soon be coming to a shopping mall near us. We can only hope.