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Dumpling Frenzy

September 24, 2000|S. IRENE VIRBILA

"ARE THESE SHANGHAI STYLE?" THE THOROUGHLY American young woman asks, her chopsticks poised over a metal steamer filled with plump pleated dumplings.

"Mmm," her grandmother responds, busy slurping soup from her juicy pork and crab dumpling. The granddaughter watches closely and gently coaxes the swirl of pleated dough into her porcelain soup spoon, neatly nibbles a hole in the dumpling skin and gingerly sucks out the rich broth inside. Only then does she pick the morsel up with her chopsticks and dip it into a shallow bowl of soy sauce laced with slivered ginger. She takes a bite and smiles blissfully.

I match her bite for bite, enjoying the finely textured crab-and-pork filling, the surprise of the mingled juices tucked into the steamed dumpling, which comes 10 to an order.

"But are they as good as the ones you had in Taipei?" the granddaughter continues. I listen for the answer, guessing, correctly, what she'd say. Her grandmother gently shakes her head no, adding, "But these are very good. The restaurant in Taipei is different, too--much busier."

The original Din Tai Fung Dumpling House (four other locations are in Japan) must be a busy place indeed, for this 6-month-old restaurant, housed in an Arcadia mini-mall, would seem to define dumpling frenzy. On a day so hot the asphalt outside seems about to melt, a line snakes out the door. The restaurant's decor is merely functional. That certainly isn't the appeal.

This is fast food, Chinese-style. The menu is small enough to fit on a card propped up on the table, which lists items from 1 to 79, though, for some reason, numbers 22 to 50 are skipped.

Start with number 78, "Appetizer." Everybody does. It's a small plate piled high with julienned bean curd skin, bean sprouts and seaweed in a dressing lightly perfumed with sesame oil. Another great starter is the house beef or chicken soup served in a cylindrical porcelain cup. This seductive, full-flavored broth, with pieces of bones and chicken wings, would do a Jewish grandmother proud. The chicken, especially, is three-star stuff.

The paper wrapper on your chopsticks reads: "CAUTION: Dumplings are hot!" They arrive straight from the steamer to your table at a trot. The waitresses are brusque, but they make up for it in speed. Those Shanghai-style "juicy" dumplings, sometimes known as soup dumplings and available with either a pork-and-crab filling or just plain, sweet pork meat, are the best. After that, I like the pork and shrimp shiu mai and the pork and vegetable dumplings. These latter are shaped like half moons and stuffed to bursting with a finely hatched forcemeat of peppery greens and only a little pork. The greens give it a taste of spinach gnocchi. For a lighter dish, that broth shows up again in the wonton soup, each dumpling trailing a tail of silky noodle dough.

The most sought-after dish on Din Tai Fung's menu is "small dumplings with soup," number 56. The first time I tried to order them, I hadn't noticed that the menu noted "weekend only." The second time, when I arrived about noon and finally got in the door after a 20-minute wait, the dumplings were already sold out. The manager explained that because they're so time-consuming to make, they prepare only 40 orders each Saturday and Sunday. Another customer told me you had to get there before the dumpling house opened to ensure you get a table while the dish is available. I'm still trying.

One note: The food is generally better at lunch than at night. I don't know why.

With your dumplings, be sure to ask for a platter of the steamed spinach with garlic. Steaming seems to bring out the green's earthy flavors. It disappears fast. Aside from the dumplings, I'd recommend the pork fried rice. Everything is absolutely fresh, and it's one of the fluffiest I've ever been served. One other dish is a must: Shanghai rice cakes. These are chewy poker-chip-size rice cakes, sort of like mochi (pounded Japanese rice cakes), sauteed with strips of pork and greens in a clear brown sauce.

For dessert, stroll across the parking lot to J.J. Bakery, if only to admire the perfect-looking cakes and confections in the pastry cases or to pick up some of the individual packaged pastries. Those include an odd napoleon of soft bread filled with pastry cream, a miniature coconut cake and buns stuffed with red bean paste.

Din Tai Fung Dumpling House

1108 S. Baldwin Ave.,

Arcadia,

(626) 574-7068

Cuisine: Chinese

Rating: *

*

AMBIENCE: No-nonsense dumpling house with lines going out the door. SERVICE: Extremely

fast and efficient, though sometimes abrupt.

BEST DISHES: "Appetizer," juicy pork dumplings, house chicken soup, sauteed spinach, Shanghai rice cakes, vegetable and pork dumplings. Dishes, $3 to $8. DRINK CHOICES: Coke, Sprite, tea; no alcohol. FACTS: Open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Lot parking.

*

Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.

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