Pacific Rim Treasures
Din Tai Fung: The Hunt For The Elusive Soup
Dumpling

May 26, 2002 at 01:50:15

I awoke with a great hunger this morning, and since the Mrs. and
daughter were still depositing some of our fortune in the great
state of Nevada, I figured it would be a perfect time for a ‘houndly
hunt for soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung Dumpling House. So
after laying out appropriate provisions for Binky, I headed west in
Herman, making my way to Arcadia.

Din Tai Fung is in a mini-strip mall on Baldwin Avenue. When
Herman and I approached the address I could already see cars
lined up in the parking lot, their drivers trolling for parking places,
and a gaggle of people standing outside the restaurant. These
were good signs. So once oncoming traffic cleared, and other
cars inched forward in the lot, Herman and I turned in to the lot
and crouched, Herman’s motor purring as we waited for a stall to
open.  Fortune must have been shining down on Herman and I
today, because only after about 60 seconds some folks obligingly
got in their car and pulled out of the stall almost directly in front of
Herman and I, so we pounced.

As I inferred, people were sitting on park benches provided by the
management or standing around under some market umbrellas
outside the restaurant . As I had never been to Din Tai Fung
before, nor to any Chinese dumpling house, I was not sure of the
protocol. I figured out these people were not in a line, per se, so I
made my way through the crowd in to a small reception area and
was greeted by a hostess at the podium. At Din Tai Fung when
you check in at the podium you are asked how many in your party
and given a number.  Your number and the number in your party
are written on a paper menu that is handed to you on a small clip
board together with a pen. You then take your time perusing the
menu while waiting for your table, and check off your choices. You
are also handed a ticket with your number on it. You can hang on
to all of this until you are called, or turn in your annotated menu to
the hostess when you have finished filling it out, retaining your
ticket.

I was told the wait would be about 30 minutes. I took a seat on a
bench near the podium, which is right in front of a window in to
the kitchen. So I was able to see the cooking staff stretching
rolled dough and pinching off pieces of dough that would be
molded into pouches for food.  I was also able to see stacks of
stainless steel steamer containers being moved on and off a
steam source. The dough pinchers were very busy. The reception
area was also very busy, with groups of people clumping every
few minutes as they arrived and checked in.  Some of the
veterans, I realized, knew enough to stop at a Chinese bakery on
the way over to Din Tai Fung, so while they waited outside they
enjoyed a little snack.  This was good strategy, because the 30
minutes I was quoted stretched out to about 50 minutes. It was,
however, worth the wait.

When you are seated at your table a pot of hot tea is waiting, as is
a small ramekin of julienne ginger, and a condiment tray with
ground pepper (it appeared), soy sauce and a dark vinegar. So I
poured some tea for myself and proceeded to mix some of the
vinegar and a bit of soy with the ginger, thus constructing my
dipping sauce.

I had made as my menu selections one order of the juicy pork
dumplings and one order of the shrimp soup dumplings. These
are what this place is famous for. I had arrived at the podium and
checked in at approximately 11:30 this morning, at about 11:40,
right after I had checked off my menu choices, I and all of my
fellow dumpling aficionados that were gathered, were informed,
sadly, by the host via the loudspeaker system, that they had
already SOLD OUT ALL OF THE SOUP DUMPLINGS. According
to the L.A. Times, Din Tai Fung only prepares 40 orders of the
very labor intensive soup dumplings a day, and only on
weekends. So it became very apparent to this ‘hound, that if one
craves the succulence of soup dumplings, he or she had better
get up pretty early in the morning. So, regrettably I scratched the
shrimp soup dumplings off my menu form, and checked regular
shrimp dumplings.

Almost immediately after being seated this wondrous stainless
dumpling steamer arrived at my table, and when the waitress
removed the stainless cover, a cloud of steam expanded up and
out, revealing ten beautiful, perfectly constructed “onion” shaped
pouches of dough encasing juicy pork. This was as impressive a
dramatic presentation as any high end joint I have been to.

In addition to the condiments, at each table setting is a small
soup cup, Asian style soup spoon, and a plate the size of a bread
plate, and one package of disposable chop sticks. One side of
the chopstick wrapper had the restaurant name, address and
logo, but the other side was very interesting. It had printed in red
ink:

“CAUTION: Dumplings are hot!”

Then beneath the warning message, in black ink:

“TIPS FOR EATING DUMPLINGS:
1. Gently lift the dumpling and place it on your spoon.
2. Take a nibble on the dumpling skin and sip the juice.
3. Now it is safe to enjoy your dumpling.”

As I contemplated the disturbing/intriguing message on the chop
stick wrapper, two thoughts came to mind: First of all, since I don't
believe the dumplings are made from tobacco products, the
warning can’t be coming from the Surgeon General, therefore the
dumplings must be damn hot, so hot that the restaurant’s
attorney, or its insurance carrier, or both deemed it necessary to
print a disclaimer. Secondly, no real ‘hound, worth his daily ration
of Milk Bones is going to first “nibble and sip”. That is not the
‘houndly way to achieve the ultimate in gustatory satisfaction. So
as I approached the first dumpling with my quivering chopsticks,
glancing at the distinctly un-houndly Asian women at the next
table over, nibbling and sipping from their spoons, I boldly picked-
up a dumpling with my chopsticks and popped it in to my mouth
and bit down.

Yes, the dumpling and its inner juices were hot, but not
unbearably so, the real, significant sensation was one of
wonderful flavor bursting out of the little pouch of goodness, of a
little ball of ground pork swimming in a tiny sea of broth encased
in that ingenious pouch. I quickly snatched up another, and then
another. Amazingly, I, Chino Wayne, one of the most chopstick
inept examples of all humankind, actually, in this haze of
dumpling deliciousness, almost never once faltered with my
chop-sticking. I view this as an omen, as an indication from
everything and every being on high, that this interlude in the
dumpling house was meant to be for this natural born ‘hound.
The fact that out of eventually 30 dumplings consumed this
morning, only one dumpling became damaged with a breach to
its watertight integrity by clumsy chopstick handling gives
credence to my theory that this day, which was indeed a special
day of convergence for Chino Wayne and Chinese dumplings
was preordained, by some super chow being, eons and eons
ago in the deep, dark past, at the very beginnings of the Universe.

Between cycles of cramming juicy pork dumplings in to my mouth
I developed my gripping and dipping technique. The little
pouches of goodness, as I mentioned before, are shaped like an
onion, with the bulbous part of dumpling walls very, very thin,
almost translucent, with a ball of meat jiggling within the hot
broth, and the top end of the dumpling crimped together very
neatly with many folds of dough. So the proper technique, as
developed by I, Chino Wayne, while on the hunt for deliciousness
this day, was to grip the bulbous part of the dumpling with the
ends of the chopsticks, being careful not to breach the integrity of
the dumpling “hull”, then convey the dumpling to the dipping dish,
and turn it on its head, so that the crimped folds of dough could
pick up threads of ginger and the soy and vinegar, then re-invert
the dumpling and convey it to the mouth, in one swift motion.

As I polished off the final juicy pork dumplings I realized that I
would never eat sausage and eggs for breakfast again, not after I
had discovered that the perfect application of pork for the morning
meal is as a juicy pork dumpling. It was at about this time that I
flagged down the waitress and asked her to bring me a second
order of the juicy pork dumplings.

Then the shrimp dumplings came. I love shrimp, so this was a
no brainer for me to order. A very nice amalgam of dumpling, this
time crescent shaped, and shrimp, but not as much liquid as the
juicy pork dumplings. Nonetheless, I polished off all ten of the
shrimp dumplings with dispatch, because mid-way through them
the second order of juicy pork dumplings arrived. After polishing
off the second batch of juicy pork dumplings I made final
observations and withdrew from the field.

Observations were that the dumplings, once the steam is
released from the stainless steamers, begin to rapidly cool. As
they cool they being to adhere to the parchment like paper lining
the bottom of the steamer. So it is important for two reasons that
one must dispatch a batch of dumplings as rapidly as possible.
First because for maximum taste sensation, the dumplings have
to be steaming hot when you put them in your mouth and bite in
to them. Second, because as the dumplings cool they begin to
stick to the paper lining, and the chopsticks as gripping and lifting
tools become less capable of actually picking up the dumplings,
and no self respecting, Gringo, ‘hound, would want to be reduced
to having to scoop up dumplings with his soup spoon.

Another observation was the very intriguing looking soup at the
next table over, which was clear and held some crescent shaped
dumplings that were absolutely translucent and luscious looking.
Also on the list for the next visit will be the shiao mai shrimp
dumplings and the juicy crab and pork dumplings, in addition, if
the moon, planets and stars are in perfect alignment, SOUP
DUMPLINGS.

There were very few non Asian patrons in this establishment. As I
sat waiting to be called for my table, those very few Gringos that
finished their meals and were walking out all seemed to be
giving me the eye as they walked out. I imagined they were
thinking, “Oh no, another white guy has found this place, pretty
soon my gem of a find, where the real Chinese food is served will
be out of the bag and I’ll never be able to get in.” So fellow
‘hounds, while I recommend you do visit this establishment, and
maybe even one day am able to enjoy your company while I am
enjoying some dumplings, please, keep this find in the “dog
pack”, just between us ‘hounds, OK?

Total tab for two Juicy Pork Dumplings (10 ea), one Shrimp
Dumplings (10) and one Pot of tea came to $20.00


Din Tai Fung Dumpling House
1108 South Baldwin Avenue
Arcadia, CA 91006
(626) 574-7068
Ocean Star Tonight

May 30, 2002 at 01:27:11

The bad part about hosting business colleagues when one is a
Chowhound is having to miss out on some of the available
delicacies because you are accommodating their unhoundly
pedestrian tastes. The good part about hosting business
colleagues is that regardless of their unhoundly shortcomings, I
still get to pick the restaurant and put it all on the expense
account.

So tonight I brought my subordinates, some of our colleagues
and my manager (that is always a good strategy, inviting your
boss to dinner, it puts him in a better frame of mind to approve
your expense claim later) to Ocean Star Seafood Restaurant in
Monterey Park.

I did try to “stage manage” our order. Initially only two menus were
brought to the table, my boss grabbed on and I grabbed one, I
then asserted my superior Chowexperience and started picking
out dishes, and my boss, the good manager that he is, wisely
deferred to (he usually defers to my “suggestions” because he
knows they are ultimately good for him and the continuation of his
career) my recommendations. Then one of my subordinates, in a
misguided attempt of dining anarchy told the waiter to bring more
menus. Now this person is someone who I greatly admire and
respect, and he does a wonderful job for me, but for every upside,
there is a downside, and the downside here is that this person is
definitely not a natural born ‘hound, so certain accommodations
had to be made in terms of the dishes we subsequently ordered.
(This guy’s idea of a good meal is steak and potatoes, and the
steak has to be carbonized material.)

Here is what we had:

Tsing Tao’s – It was that or Budweiser, I went with the Tsing Tao
only because I wanted the right ambiance, I would have been
better off with a Bud.

Hot & Sour Soup – A little thicker than I prefer, a very low level bite,
I had to wake it up with some chili paste.

Chicken & Corn Soup – To accommodate the boss, not bad, kind
of reminded me of something your mother would serve you when
you were a little kid.

Assorted Appetizer Plate – This was a substitution, I had ordered
the Barbequed Suckling Pig, but after ordering I was informed the
house was out of it. (This was only at about 6:40 this evening, the
waiter informed me that they had some large parties that already
took it all. Something told me that had I remembered to bring my
Chowhound Passport with me this evening, and had I displayed
it, it just might have been recognized that I really was worthy of
some succulent suckling pig.) The Assorted Appetizers consisted
of some barbequed pork, some other sliced meat, roasted duck
and jelly fish. Now I can take or leave jelly fish, it just tastes like
some pickled vegetable with no flavor to me. But it made me
proud when the non-hounds actually ate it all.

Shrimp – We ordered two of the shrimp selections, one where
the shrimp were butter-flied and prepared with a red sauce that
was slightly sweet and had a very tiny touch of chili, everyone
liked this, I could have scarfed the entire platter by myself. The
second shrimp dish was very simple stir fried shrimp with a
slightly thickened neutral sauce with some scallions and
mushrooms and julienne ginger. Fairly bland, but the ginger
really helped this dish a lot. The shrimp in both dishes were
impeccably fresh tasting and wonderful.

Sizzling Chicken Satay – Sliced white meat chicken, served on a
sizzle platter. The satay sauce, while overall tasty but not very
assertive, did have a little kick of chili that “tickled” my throat a
couple of times, so for a fairly pedestrian dish this was very tasty.

Sizzling Beef Satay – The chicken had it all over this stuff. This
was the only dish in which we left anything on the platter.

Chicken With Lemon Sauce – I have had lemon chicken in
numerous, run of the mill, cater to the gringos, Chinese
restaurants, and all it ever was, was fried chicken with lemon
lurking. I only ate one piece of this version, but it was miles away
from any lemon chicken I have had in any other Chinese
restaurant, very tasty (but not what I was here for). Fortunately I
had the foresight to order an entire chicken and not the half order,
because the non-hounds loved this stuff.

Abalone With Mushrooms – The abalone was OK, nothing that
got me exited. The mushrooms I believe were dried whole
mushrooms that have been reconstituted. These really don’t
appeal to me, it seems so much like biting in to rubber to me.
But, the abalone and mushrooms were nestled atop a bed of
baby bok choy, and THAT was wonderful. For the most part the
non-hounds did not understand that they could eat this green
stuff, or appreciate what it was, because I copped almost all of it.

Scallops In A Black Bean Sauce – OK scallops, definitely fresh, I
enjoyed them together with the chunks of onion and green
pepper. The sauce was too pedestrian for me.

Steam Whole Rockfish – This was by far the best dish of the
evening. When the waiter brought out the first live fish flopping
around in a bucket I told him to bring a bigger one. Glad I did.
(Thank God the Mrs. was not there, at the sight of the live fish she
would have immediately got up and walked out.)  Everyone who
tried it seemed to enjoy the fish. The flesh was perfectly steamed
and had a consistency of a custard, it just melted in your mouth.
The shredded scallions and flat leaf parsley were very fresh and
added a slightly astringent taste that complimented the fish,
along with the broth from the platter. I kept swinging the lazy
Susan around so that I could get at that fish and pick its bones
clean. Also the non-hounds were not wise to the fish cheeks, so I
copped those.

All in all a very nice meal, and now it is time for a refrigerator raid
and a nice slice of the Killer Cheesecake.

Ocean Star Seafood Restaurant
145 North Atlantic Boulevard
(Between Garvey & Emerson)
Monterey Park
(626) 308-2128
Lunch: Ocean Star

December 12, 2002 at 17:43:37

Four refugees from the Aramark food service in the company
cafeteria descended upon Ocean Star at 12:30 today. 21 dim
sum dishes, three sets of chopsticks, one plastic fork and two
pots of tea and 120 minutes later, three totally sated and happy
'hound wanna be's and one almost sated, happy 'hound trundled
back to the office, after debating whether or not to just hop on the
freeway and jog up to SLO for some of Moe's BBQ.

21 dishes $47.00.

Ocean Star
145 N Atlantic Blvd
Monterey Park, CA 91754-1581
Phone:(626)308-2128
Ono Grill:  Hawaiian Plate Lunch In Monterey
Park

November 13, 2003 at 19:15:59

While it is just down the street from my office, the last time I had
been to Ono Grill it was called Teriyaki Fantasy. It has been about
four years. My extended absence was not because there was
anything wrong with the place, I just haven’t been in the office that
much. My consultant was going over there to pick up some lunch
the other day and he offered to pick something up for me, so of
course I had to place an order. The consultant duly fetched my
order and delivered it to my desk, post haste. (See, consultants
really are worth the bucks, it only cost the company about $100.00
to get my lunch delivered, and it was still hot.)

Ono Grill is a little hole-in-the-wall, adjacent to a fire extinguisher
company, just across the street from a cemetery, down the street
from the Monterey Park branch of El Tepeyec, which is near a
brand new assisted living facility, which is also directly across the
street from the cemetery.  I love the dynamics of all of this.
Someone who is not careful, could OD on Hollenbeck burritos at
El Tepeyec on a regular basis, for years on end, and despite the
readily available extinguishers, end up with chronic heartburn,
thus becoming debilitated and prematurely aged and need to
check in to an assisted living apartment and spend their
remaining days contemplating their future home, just across the
street, outside their picture window, while having the meals they
should have been eating all along brought in from Ono Grill.

When I last visited Ono Grill in its incarnation as Teriyaki Fantasy,
the establishment consisted of about four tables with
mismatched chairs, a cold case full of canned soda on the side,
and a 30 inch high order counter with the open kitchen
immediately behind it (nothing is hidden from the customers in
this place). Mama-san and Papa-san did the cooking and order
fulfillment, sometimes with the help of a member of the younger
generation. This was a “getaway” destination for myself and a
couple of colleagues, when we all worked for the Wicked Witch Of
The West.  We could walk in, place an order with the nice people
behind the counter, pick up a few sodas, grab a table and enjoy
the Glenn Miller sound on the radio while waiting for our orders. It
was almost as if we had gone through a time travel portal to
Honolulu and 1940.

Apparently Mama-san and Papa-san have turned over the
establishment to the younger generation, because my consultant
tells me they were no where to be seen. That might explain the
name change, and fortunately, not any change to the essence of
the establishment.

So I had my consultant bring me back a double chicken teriyaki
bowl and Udon soup with chicken. Apparently I had really missed
eating this stuff, because two days later I opted for another order
of the chicken teriyaki and a side of tempura.

Everything I enjoyed was simply prepared. The chicken is breast
meat grilled with a slight char on the edges, then cut in chopstick
friendly chunks. The chicken chunks come reclining on a bed of
rice and with a coverlet of teriyaki sauce on top. The chicken
tastes like chicken, it is not adulterated with anything else. Just a
fresh, clean, grilled chicken taste. The teriyaki sauce is sort of a
butterscotch color, thick, not too sweet, and flecked with sesame
seeds. The rice had a nice, not too glutinous texture. The grains
adhered to each other quite easily, which made it very easy on
those of us who are chopstick impaired, but the grains were not
too gluey. Of course it was nice to be able to swirl some of the
teriyaki sauce in amongst the rice grains and slurp it all off of the
chopsticks. The chicken and rice filled one foam container and
cost $5.75 (for the double size, the regular order is $3.75).

Another quart sized, round, foam container held the soup. The
soup was very, very hot, which is exactly how I like my soup. The
broth was very mild tasting, and my unsophisticated palate could
not detect what that base flavorings were. It was the color of a cup
of strong Lipton tea and had a few, very few, greens floating in it,
which appeared to be possibly green onion or leek. There were
also chunks of the same grilled chicken as was served in the
teriyaki bowl. So unlike many other a soup with chicken in it, this
soup’s chicken was not boiled to death, it was fresh off the grill,
and had some body and texture to it. Of course there were big,
round udon noodles in the soup which I dutifully slurped up. This
would be a great soup to warm a body on a cold day. The basic
soup was $3.50, adding chicken brought the price to $4.25
(vegetables could have been added for $0.50 more).

The side of tempura was as good as I remembered it. It also
came in a foam container, which meant that some of it got a bit
limp on the trip, but not all of it, and limp or not, it was good. There
were about four slices of zucchini, two or three broccoli florets,
two slices of yam, about four green beans, a big slice of
something that could have been egg plant, but was quite firm, a
slice or two of onion and two shrimp. The shrimp were shrimp-ier
in size than my recollection from the last time. The tempura batter
was wonderful, thin, crunchy (not all of it got steamy on the way to
my desk), and came accompanied by a dipping sauce. This is
the civilized way to eat fried food, with an almost translucent
batter, that en robes fresh, barely cooked vegetables, snagged on
the end of a couple of chopsticks. The side of tempura came in at
$3.95, truly a good deal.

All things considered, I think this is a good place for lunch or a
snack, with tasty food at good value. It does get crowded at lunch
time, so if a visit is planned, it might best to time it for just before
or just after the 12:00-1:30 window.

There is more besides teriyaki and tempura to be explored in this
place. Here is a rundown on the entire menu:

Salads ($1.25-$4.95)

Chinese Chicken Salad
Potato Macaroni Salad
Crispy Chicken Salad
Green Salad

Plates ($5.50-$6.95, include rice, potato salad and green salad)

Teriyaki Chicken
Sesame Chicken
Chicken Katsu (pounded thin, breaded, fried, w/Katsu sauce)
Chicken Katsu Curry Combo
Curry Rice
Karaage (marinated, fried chicken)
Spicy Karaage
Shrimp Tempura
Vegetable Tempura
Portuguese Sausage & Eggs
Teriyaki Beef Steak
Kalbi Ribs (Korean style marinated, grilled, short ribs)
Tonkatsu (breaded pork w/Katsu sauce)
Tonkatsu Curry Combo
Kalua Pork (smoked, shredded pork)
Grilled Salmon
Salmon Katsu (breaded and fried, w/Katsu sauce)
Gyoza Plate
Spam Katsu
Spam & Eggs

Combo Plates ($6.50-$8.95)

Big Island-teriyaki chicken, teriyaki steak, tempura
Teriyaki Chicken & Spam Musibi
Teriyaki Chicken & Beef
Teriyaki Chicken & Tempura
Ono Combo-any two items
Teriyaki Beef & Spam Musibi
Teriyaki Beef & Curry
Teriyaki Chicken & Salmon

Bowls ($3.25-$5.50)

Teriyaki Chicken
Double Teriyaki Chicken
Teriyaki Beef
1/2 Beef & Chicken
Karaage (regular or spicy)
Mini Chicken
Sesame Chicken
Chicken Katsu
Vegetable Curry
Chicken Curry
Vegetables
Spam Katsu
Kalua Pork
Oyako Don (chicken w/egg)
Tempura Don (tempura w/egg)
Chicken Katsu Don
Katsu Don (pork cutlet w/egg)

Loco Mocos ($5.50)

Loco Moco-grilled hamburger topped with two eggs and gravy
over steamed rice
Spam Loco Moco

Soups ($3.50-$5.50)

Udon
Chicken Udon
Beef Udon
Tempura Udon
Gomoku Udon (chicken, tempura, vegetables)
Gyoza
Saimin (Hawaiian style noodles with green onion & char siu)
Ramen

Pasta ($4.95-$5.25)

Teriyaki Chicken Noodle
Maui Chicken Chow Mein
Yakiudon
Yakisoba
Garlic Udon Pasta with chicken
Fried Saimin

Fried Rice ($3.95-$4.50)

Chicken
Char Siu
Bacon
Portuguese Sausage
Shrimp
Spam
Curry

Sides ($1.00-$3.95)

Spam Musubi
Spam Katsu Musubi
Tempura
Chicken Katsu
Pork Katsu
Teri Chicken
Sesame Chicken or Karaage
Gyoza
Seu Mai Katsu
Egg Rolls
Potato Macaroni Salad
Miso Soup
Steamed Rice

Beverages ($1.00-$1.60)

Hawaiian Soda
Bottled Soda
Canned Soda
Snapple
Bottled Water
Oolong Tea
Kona Coffee
Hot Tea

Ono Grill
1975 Potrero Grande Drive
Monterey Park 91755
626.573.3803
Mon-Fri 10:30 A.M. – 8:00 P.M.
Sat 11:00 A.M. – 8:00 P.M.
Din Tai Fung Restaurnt Inc
(626) 574-7068
1108 S Baldwin Ave
Arcadia, CA 91007

Ocean Star Restaurant
(626) 308-2128
145 N Atlantic Blvd
Monterey Park, CA 91754

Ono Grill
(626) 573-3803
1975 Potrero Grande Dr
Monterey Park, CA 91755
1.8 mi SE- Directions