Before Frank Yang left Taipei for Los Angeles 15 years ago, he promised his father and older brother that he would not open a new branch of the family's internationally renowned Din Tai Fung Dumpling House.
"My family opposed it. You work very hard, very late hours," Yang recalls. "They said, 'Just get a regular job where you don't have to work on the weekends.'"
Yang followed his father's advice, and for 13 years he worked Monday through Friday as a garment inspector. Meanwhile he watched two restaurants--which had used the Din Tai Fung name (pronounced deen tie fung) without his family's permission--go bankrupt.
Eventually Yang recognized that he had to preserve Din Tai Fung's reputation and his family's honor. He reluctantly accepted his destiny and opened Din Tai Fung in Arcadia two years ago, the only one outside Asia. In addition to the Taipei headquarters, there are four of the dumpling houses in Japan and one in Shanghai; another is set to open in Hong Kong later this year.
Dumpling houses are ubiquitous throughout Asia and typically serve a simple menu of dumplings and noodles. Din Tai Fung, which is building quite a name for itself, offers a traditional Shanghainese menu composed primarily of handmade noodles, aromatic soups, rice cakes, steamed buns and, of course, dumplings. With the sole exception of the vegetable dumplings served in Arcadia, all Din Tai Fung restaurants offer the same menu with three different dumplings: onion-shaped juicy dumplings, shiao mai and delicate soup dumplings, which are available only on weekends in very limited quantities.
The juicy dumplings are Din Tai Fung's signature dish. They are made from a long coil of dough that is pinched into small pieces and rolled into paper-thin disks. A spoonful of filling--pork with shrimp, vegetables or crab--is added to the center, and the dough is pulled and crimped into a series of tiny swirling folds that are pinched closed at the top.
When cooked, the result is an artfully pleated pouch holding a filling that has been steamed in its own succulent juice. It is salty and faintly sweet and mingles the flavors of ginger, soy, vinegar and savory steamed pork. These dumplings are eaten in one bite to avoid losing any of the precious juice.
The shiao mai (pronounced she-ow my) filling of pork with shrimp or sweet rice is nearly identical to the juicy dumpling, except that the dough is formed into an hourglass-shaped cup that is gently packed with filling. With their open tops, these savory dumplings are more meaty than juicy and resemble the shiao mai in Cantonese dim sum.
Din Tai Fung's soup dumplings, which provide an even more intense burst of flavor, are so delicate and complicated to make that Yang's staff only prepares 30 to 40 steamers of them on weekends.
Bringing Din Tai Fung to Southern California without compromising the restaurant's reputation and high standards has been challenging for Yang. Din Tai Fung stands out from other dumpling houses in Taipei because of the Yang family's exacting commitment to providing excellent food and service.
"You can see inside the [Taipei] kitchen, and the quality is better and the taste is better [than the Taiwanese competition]," says Sandy Liu, a Taiwanese immigrant who lives in Arcadia. "I was very surprised when I ate there--the waiter carried a disabled customer [on his back] up three stories because there was no elevator."
Yang's opinion of what makes Din Tai Fung different is simpler. "It's the juice," he says, kissing the fingers of his right hand. But juice is only part of the Din Tai Fung success story.
Yang and his family have replicated its popularity throughout China and Japan. With a commitment to preserving Chinese culinary traditions, the Yangs have turned their Taipei culinary landmark into a kind of McDonald's of Shanghainese cuisine, where every dumpling in every restaurant around the world is intended to taste the same as the original. Each dumpling is made by hand, however.
Din Tai Fung began 30 years ago with Yang's mother and father, Li Pam Mae and Pin Ying Yang, and their Din Tai Fung cooking oil business. As the oil processing and delivery enterprise lost business to self-service grocery stores in Taiwan, the Yangs purchased a four-table restaurant from one of their former customers.
Using the same brand name as their cooking oil, which translates roughly to "abundant ancient cookware," the Yangs opened the dumpling house with two cooks and, in the early days, relied on their six children to work in the restaurant. As Din Tai Fung's dumplings grew in popularity, the dumpling house doubled in size, then doubled again and again, eventually seating 300 in a narrow four-story building on Hsin Yi Road in Taipei.
Even with this rapid growth, the seating capacity could not keep pace with the thousands of customers lining up each day for Din Tai Fung's dumplings.