Xiaolongbao, like pizza, is one of those divisive foods that's almost too annoying to talk about. Everyone has an OPINION, and everyone is RIGHT, and everyone ELSE is a degenerate hayseed with the palate of a sucking chest wound. See, because Sally-Sue had them in New York and those are the real ones, but Jammy-Josh went to this place in L.A. and those are the best ones, and Marky-Mark is disgusted that anyone would ever eat xiaolongbao outside of Vancouver because, um, he cares about authenticityyyyy?, and fuck you all because Frankie-Fronk flies all the way to Shanghai every day on his lunch break but go ahead and eat rancid baby socks stuffed with pork-flavored clay if that's what you're into.
It's just a dumpling. A tasty dumpling, yes, and an ingenious dumpling, but still—A DUMPLING, YOU GUYS. If you've been fortunate enough to avoid the current xiaolongbao internet frenzy, first of all, congratulations! And second of all, allow me to catch you up. Xiaolongbao, otherwise known as soup dumplings, are steamy little Hershey's Kisses–shaped pouches that come from eastern China. Generally (confidential to nitpickers: I say "generally" to indicate that I am generalizing), they have a pork filling in the bottom surmounted by a jelled meat aspic, all bundled up in neat pinwheel-topped packages. When steamed, the aspic melts into broth inside the dumpling, producing a small wonder: a tiny bag of soup! First you must pierce the skin and let the interior steam (but not the soup!) escape, so as to not boil your mouth. Then a quick dip in soy/vinegar (or not) and a few ginger slivers on top. Then down the hatch! It's a hot, salty, meaty, smooth, surprising treat. Xiaolongbao are delicious. You will enjoy eating them. Then, when you are done eating them, PLEASE CALM DOWN.
Din Tai Fung is a Taiwan-based restaurant chain whose xiaolongbao are the stuff of international legend. It has a Michelin star. The New York Times called Din Tai Fung one of the top 10 restaurants in the world. It has locations in Sydney, Seoul, Singapore, Kyoto, Los Angeles—and now Bellevue's Lincoln Square. People are freaking out.
The interior of Din Tai Fung, with its institutional chocolate brown and buff wood walls, unforgiving lighting, and ever-present droning din, resembles a vaguely upscale cafeteria. Near the entrance, a picture window frames a stark white laboratory in which teams of men in white lab coats fill and fold endless trays of dumplings. (One wonders if, in the restaurant's off-hours, they rent the room out for alien autopsies.) Diners stood outside the window like children at a zoo and snapped photos of the dumpling folders. The dumpling folders folded on.
On a Saturday afternoon around 2:00 p.m., the wait for a table was two hours. Alternatively, we were told, we could stand near the bar—or, as I would come to call it, the Humanimal Shitshow Goodtime Corral—and wait for a couple of seats to open up. We chose the second option and joined the throng of lurkers staring predatorily at the 12 or so diner-filled bar stools. It is a fact of nature: Standing in a hungry crowd waiting for a first-come, first-served bar stool in an overhyped restaurant turns ordinarily civilized humans into mercenary bionic lions at the last watering hole on Planet Thirsty. It was brutal. Eventually, after 45 minutes of bobbing, weaving, treachery, silent seething, and confrontation ("Um, ma'am, we were next, actually"), we secured two seats. Soon we would secure xiaolongbao. It had better be fucking worth it.
Well, it wasn't.
The xiaolongbao ($1 per dumpling, 10 to an order) were fine. They tasted good. They sat in their little bamboo house and they were cute. And when you picked them up, they sagged with soup. They were not, however, particularly hot—the skin-piercing steam-valve technique was unnecessary—and, consequently, had achieved a congealed gumminess around the extremities. The rest of the food (all in tiny portions) was abysmally ordinary: pale, elderly green beans; rice cakes that defied chewing; shrimp and pork wontons whose thick skins evoked store-bought ravioli.
Maybe they're still working out the kinks in the new operation, maybe they were hit hard by the crowds that day, maybe everything will be better in a month, but who cares? I will never return to Din Tai Fung in Bellevue. Not when I can go to the International District and for half the money get three times more food that's 10 times better. Maybe I won't find xiaolongbao on the menu, but oh well. It's just a dumpling.