If you thought that all restaurants awarded Michelin stars were solely white tablecloth, dip-into-your-savings-account types of places, then you will be happy to know that you’re wrong. A handful of restaurants listed in the Michelin Guide—a series of books listing the top-ranked restaurants in various cities—won’t blow your budget, and recently, I had the opportunity to dine at one.
Din Tai Fung, one of Taiwan’s most popular chain restaurants with locations in other countries including Australia, Japan, and the U.S., was awarded one Michelin star at two of its locations in Hong Kong in 2010. I know what you’re thinking: “chain restaurant” and “Michelin star” aren’t usually mentioned in the same sentence; however, Din Tai Fung started out as a small family business, and the food they’re serving isn’t typical chain-restaurant quality
The first Din Tai Fung restaurant opened in Taipei in the 1980s. Founder Yang Bingyi and his wife previously sold cooking oil, but began to make and sell xiaolongbao—Chinese, meat-filled, soup dumplings—after their oil business ran dry. Their xiaolongbao were so popular that the couple opened a restaurant, with dumplings as their specialty.
Knowing this, xiaolongbao was an absolute must-try when I ate at Din Tai Fung. The original steamed pork dumplings lived up to its Michelin star-winning reputation and were, quite honestly, some of the best I had ever eaten (and I’ve eaten my fair share of xiaolongbao in the Lower Mainland and across the Pacific). As I lifted a dumpling from the large bamboo basket (one order contains 10 dumplings), the floury skin had just enough elasticity to give the dumpling some bounce. Hidden inside the dumpling was a small pork meatball sitting in delicately seasoned, albeit boiling, broth.
Due to the popularity and versatility of dumplings, Din Tai Fung makes nine different varieties, including vegetarian, shrimp and pork, and dim sum-inspired shao mai ones that look like blooming pink and yellow tulips.
Along with xiaolongbao, the restaurant serves many different rice and noodle dishes, appetizer-size sharing plates, soups, and steamed buns. Some of the ones that I tried and would recommend are the braised beef noodle soup, which looks similar to ramen, and is served with large but break-with-your-chopsticks tender pieces of beef in dark brown broth; hot and sour soup, which is extra spicy at this restaurant; cold marinated bamboo shoots, a refreshing and crunchy appetizer dish; and steamed dessert buns filled with sweet red bean paste to finish.
Unlike many other Michelin-star restaurants, Din Tai Fung isn’t fancy. There are no tablecloths, the floors are grey tile, and the lights are almost uncomfortably bright. When you’re seated, a server will most likely bring you a foldable hamper to cram your coat and belongings in (the restaurant is nearly always crowded and its staff move quickly between tables that are packed closely together). However, the service is friendly and prompt. Dishes arrive almost immediately, your teacup is refilled without asking, and you won’t have to worry about flagging someone down for the bill—speaking of which, will cost you no more than around $30 per person.
If you can’t make it all the way to Asia anytime, Din Tai Fung has several locations in the U.S., including one in Bellevue, Washington.
Below, Michelle da Silva photos
The vegetarian dumpling is filled with Chinese green vegetables and mushrooms.
Dim sum-inspired shao mai dumplings are made with pork and shrimp.
Braised beef noodle soup.
Steamed buns filled with sweet red bean paste for dessert.
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