Din Tai Fung
3333 Bristol Street #2071
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Okay, get ready to judge me. This was the first time I had ever visited Din Tai Fung. On Yelp it is the eighth most reviewed restaurant in Orange County. Wait times have been documented of three hours or more, and almost everyone that eats here really enjoys it. It's one of those restaurants that has just languished on my restaurant wishlist forever because let's be real here, it's not the most convenient of restaurants to eat at. There's way too much waiting involved, especially when we ate here a week before Christmas.
Well, the time was finally at hand that I would be trying the famous Din Tai Fung, thanks to an assist from my aunt and uncle. My aunt works at South Coast Plaza and it's a tradition that my uncle and cousin visit her at work every year during the holidays. I had mentioned numerous times that I had wanted to eat at this world famous dumpling and noodle restaurant, so as they got to this busy mall, they put our name on the two-hour waitlist as I finished off my work day and drove up to Costa Mesa to have a much-needed catch up with my extended family, and finally try what so many people rave about.
Din Tai Fung is a Taiwanese restaurant that has won a legion of fans for their Shanghai style dumplings and noodles. Originally started as a cooking oil company in 1958, they rebranded in 1972 as a restaurant and the rest is history. They now run outposts in many Asian countries, Australia, and at 13 spots dotting the Western US. This Costa Mesa location is their only OC establishment.
High praise for Din Tai Fung is well documented. In 1993 the New York Times rated them as one of the top ten gourmet restaurants to visit in the world. They rose to further prominence when their Hong Kong branch received a Michelin star in 2010, the highest honor a restaurant can receive. Our own OC Register restaurant reviewer, Brad Johnson has had Din Tai Fung on his annual top 75 restaurant list multiple times since they opened for business in OC in 2014. The pedigree was definitely there, and I had a sense I was going to be in for quite the treat on this evening.
The timing of Katie and I arriving at South Coast Plaza on this evening could not have been more perfect, thanks to my aunt and uncle. Because they had put us on the list two hours earlier, we got here just as we were being seated. The restaurant was packed, with plenty of hungry guests milling around the hostess stand, the waiting area, and in front of the restaurants. It was organized chaos though. There definitely seemed to be an order to this madness.
As we were walking through the dining room to our table, every employee we passed by welcomed us and seemed genuinely happy that we were there. Thanks to a recent expansion, Din Tai Fung now can host 250 guests in their sleek looking dining room, and they seem to do so with ease. The dining area also features a glassed-in area of their kitchen where the masked kitchen staff is filling, folding, and weighing dumplings with incredible accuracy and speed.
The menu features appetizers, soups, noodles, fried rice, a few veggie dishes, and of course steamed dumplings and buns. I was taken a little by surprise that the prices here were pretty reasonable, or at least more reasonable than I was expecting. Most items listed hover right around the $10 to $15 mark, with only the truffle and pork dumpling listed at $23 for five of them. I let my aunt lead us as to what we should try, and this is what she came up with for this long-awaited dinner.
First up, was this beautifully presented Cucumber Salad ($5.25). This is the first thing listed on their menu, and as not the biggest cucumber fan out there, I actually enjoyed this. Not really what I'd consider a salad, but sliced cucumbers are dressed in sesame oil and rice vinegar. Each cucumber slice was nice and crunchy and the sauce provided a flavor boost from the drabness that usually comes with cucumbers. Refreshing and it went well with the other items we had coming our way.
The first of our entrees to hit the table were these Shanghai Rice Cakes with Chicken ($11). For novices of Taiwanese cuisine, like me, this was a great easy introduction to the food, which was not that far from the Chinese food I grew up with. The rice cakes tasted like gnocchi to me, with a pleasingly chewy texture to them. This dish was not as heavy as the Americanized Chinese food that I grew up with. They used a light-flavored sauce instead of the heavy, sugary sauces that I was used to. The chicken could have been more prominent if it was in bigger chunks, but this allowed the rice cakes to be the star of the show.
The plates started coming out rather quickly now. This Noodles with Kurobuta Pork Sauce ($10) kind of got pushed to the side by our party of seven, but I found myself always coming back for it. The noodles were some of the freshest I have ever had, and minced pork is never a bad thing. A little more sauce on this might have made this one of my favorite dishes of the evening.
Pork Chop Fried Rice ($13) was not exactly what I was expecting when we ordered it. I always just assume that the rice and pork would have been incorporated with each other, but the way it was plated it was more like a main course and a side. The fried rice was nice and light, without the greasiness I expected. The pork chop was nicely breaded with a touch of garlic and very tender on the inside. A really comforting dish.
I'm definitely no fan of green beans, but it's easy to see why these Sauteed String Beans with Garlic ($10.75) get so much love online. Each bean had a nice crunch to it and the garlic and salt boosted the flavor of the usually humdrum string bean. Way better than the awful green beans out of the can that we had when I was growing up.
The menu states that these Sweet and Sour Sticky Baby Back Ribs ($8.25) are a new menu item. Originally tested in the Seattle branch, they have now made the menu at this location. Not surprising, since they were pretty solid. I'd describe these as small but mighty. They were definitely on the smaller side but had plenty of meat on them based on their size. The sauce covering these was more on the sweet side, but with hints of sour poking through in short bursts.
Now for the main event, the item that brings most people through the door, the famous Din Tai Fung dumplings. We tried both the Kurobata Pork Dumplings ($11.50) and the Chicken Dumplings ($11.25). I had a fear that these were going to be real rubbery, but the skin was lighter than I was expecting. It took a while before I got the hang of eating them, you have to dress them the way that you like, place them on your spoon, puncture the dumpling, slurp the soup out first, and then eat them. They were good but did not blow me away with how awesome they were.
One last thing before we'd throw in the towel for the evening. These Chicken Fried Noodles ($11) would be our last hurrah at Din Tai Fung. I liked this dish but it was a little too similar to the rice cakes and chicken that we had earlier. The noodles were fresh with a good chew to them, but there was not enough chicken on this for me.
I'm very happy to have eaten at Din Tai Fung finally. I'm by no means a Taiwanese food expert, (this is my first Taiwanese spot), and I'm sure there are better dumpling and noodle places out there, but I can definitely see why there is a hype surrounding this restaurant. It's not churned out Chinese food that I grew up with. This is fresh and lighter than that, and you get the sense that they take great care in picking their ingredients and preparing them in an exact way so that all of their restaurants have the same consistency. Now that I've got the lay of the land here, I'd for sure like to explore more Taiwanese restaurants and more of the menu here at Din Tai Fung. The service on this evening was polished and very professional. I was pretty impressed with how in control the restaurant was for it being as busy as it always seems to be. A great nod to all of the employees and management at this branch of this famous restaurant. Now if they could just add another location in OC to help alleviate the wait for a table here.
Out of five garbage trucks, (because I recently learned that garbage trucks in Taiwan play music to let people know it's time to bring their trash to the truck), five being best to zero being worst, Din Tai Fung gets 3.5 garbage trucks.
For more information about Din Tai Fung, head to their well-designed website here: https://dintaifungusa.com/