Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Dim Sum on Two Continents

Leslie and I became friends on the very first day of law school orientation when we both brought our parents to the "family BBQ" and our mothers decided we should meet.  Our mothers are definitely cooler than us.  After that, Leslie and I bonded over a shared love of all things Italian (she was a nanny in Florence after college!) and luxurious.  Leslie recently joined me in L.A. (at least for a year), so you might recognize her from this trip to the Getty!  This spring, Leslie traveled to Hong Kong with a friend and came home raving about the amazing dumplings at this one dim sum restaurant.  Turns out the restaurant has a branch right here in L.A.!  So here's Leslie talking about Hong Kong and how dumplings are always delicious.

This spring I took my very first trip to Asia.  Hong Kong to be exact.  My friend, Erika, wanted to visit another friend who is living in Hong Kong on business and when she asked if I'd come with, I jumped on that chance quicker than you can say "red eye to Asia."  Erika and I have traveled together before and the two of us can sniff out good food and a good time on any continent.  And Hong Kong wasn't any different.

We left most of the food planning up to our friend who lives in the city and another friend who had spent a lot of time there with family.  By the time we arrived in Hong Kong we had a "food to-do" list that was nearly as long as our "sightseeing to-do" list.  There were a couple of places that stood out, but I was particularly intrigued by the one that our friend described as "omg, best soup dumplings EVER, we must go!!!!!!!!!!"  I mean, what's not to like about that?  I'm certainly not going to stand in the way of the best soup dumplings ever.  Fortunately, Erika felt the same way.

Our second night in Hong Kong we were still jet lagged.  Erika and I were fading pretty quickly after a day of sightseeing.  Our local friend had anticipated this and fortunately we'd planned on dinner at the soup dumpling place as incentive to keep us up past 5pm.

 {Malls!  So many malls.}

Before I get to the food, it's important to set the scene.  Hong Kong has a few different branches of the Din Tai Fung chain, and we went to the one on the Kowloon side of the harbor.  As a plus, this meant we got to take the Star Ferry there.  The Star Ferry was hands down my favorite non-food part of the trip.  5 cents for a ride across Victoria Harbor in mildly rickety boats.  It just might be my favorite form of public transportation ever.

This particular Din Tai Fung, like most things in Hong Kong is in a mall.  The malls in Hong Kong are so extensive that you can walk on elevated walkways between malls without ever actually having to step foot outside.  It's insane.  So we're in what would in America be a food court.  Except that it's not actually like eating in a food court because it's a full-blown restaurant and it's normal that you're having your Saturday night dinner in a mall.

 {Artsy cellphone pic of us waiting at the mall}

Then, there are the people.  I don't even know how far back we were in line, or really how long we waited, because at this point I was so tired and so focused on my soon-to-be meal that I pretty much lost all sense of time.  But I do know that there were lots of people.  And I mean LOTS.  There's this complicated system where you give the hostess the number of people in your party and you take a number.  There are three different sets of numbers based on the size of your party and you wait for your number to appear on the tv screen indicating that it's your turn to eat.

While you're waiting they give you a menu (with pictures!) so you can pick out what you want.  Obviously we knew we'd be getting soup dumplings and we relied on our friend to help us pick out the most delicious items.  Our number finally appeared on the screen and we were whisked to our table.  And I actually mean whisked.  These people operate with an efficiency that I never knew to be possible.  Everything was so swift and smooth from the moment we sat down.  There were like five different people who took our order, brought us tea, refilled tea, brought us platters of food, took away platters of food, brought us more food, refilled our tea, you get the point.  It turns out that masterful efficiency is how you feed throngs of people each day.  But the best part is that I never felt like we were being rushed.  The whole thing probably took about forty minutes from the moment we sat down, but it still felt like a luxurious meal. 

And so, the food.  What you're all waiting for.  First off, the soup dumplings really were delicious.  Soup dumplings, or xiaolongbao, are the dumplings that have the thin wrapping and "juice" on the inside.  So if you just bite into them they will squirt everywhere.  The trick is to poke a tiny hole with your chopsticks while they are resting in the spoon and then just slide the whole thing in.  So good.  I don't even know what it was that makes these so noteworthy.  I think it's the quality of the pork deliciousness on the inside and the fine wrapping that make the entire thing a little bundle of joy.

But we didn't stop there.  Obviously not.  There were green beans with fried pork.  I don't know what it is about green beans at Chinese restaurants, but they better than any other green beans in the world.  They are thicker than the ones you usually eat, and cooked at a really high temperature so they're mildly crispy on the outside and then still kind of chewy on the inside.  And of course the fried pork doesn't hurt.  Plus there were the steamed pork buns, the baked pork buns (something that I had for the first time in Hong Kong, they are kind of crispy on the outside and the pork is oh so fingerlicking sweet), and the red bean paste buns for dessert.

We left with bellies full of pork and rolled ourselves back home via the Star Ferry.  It was a good good night.

 {Hong Kong harbor as seen from the Star Ferry.}

Now, perhaps the best part of this story is that while we were eating dinner I happened to notice that the list of franchise locations includes Los Angeles!!  Hooooray!!  Even more hooray because the L.A. location is one of only two in North America (the other one is in Seattle).  I think I emailed Ashley that night from the hotel that we had to put this place on the LA to-eat list.  (She didn't object.)

Fast forward five months and I had just moved to LA and started my new job.  Imagine my delight when my new co-workers were raving about a dim-sum place we just HAD to go to for lunch and it turned out to be Din Tai Fung!!!  I wouldn't even have to wait barely a week in my new city to savor the delicious dumplings again!  That first week we took a lunchtime adventure (thank goodness for co-workers who like lunchtime adventures) to Arcadia, which is actually east of the eastern part of L.A. 

While parts of the experience were different--it was a mid-week lunch and so the throngs of people were missing--most of it was the exact same.  Our servers operated with an efficiency that leaves me in awe, the menu was mostly identical, and the food was just as delicious.

We didn't get the baked pork buns this time (and I couldn't even tell if they were on the menu since I wasn't in charge of the ordering) nor did we get the red bean paste buns for dessert.  But we still got the soup dumplings and the green beans.  Plus chicken dumplings and a beef noodle stew that tasted like a slightly Chinese version of chicken noodle soup.

It was delicious.  I ate too much.   And let's just say, no one got much work done that afternoon.  Hurry back from Turkey, Ash so we can get ourselves to Arcadia for dim sum. 


Lisa P. said...

Yay for guest posting!! Ash, what a fantastic idea! And THANK YOU Leslie for adding a tick on my Seattle to-eat list -- LA and Seattle?!?! It's meant to be :) Nice post!

Celia said...

Mmmm dim sum! <3

Leslie said...

Oh yes, Lisa, you MUST go!!

Ashley said...

Reyoon with Lisa in Seattle + dim sum = I'M THERE! Thank you Les!