Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Taipei diary. Din Tai Fong.

It isn't a trip to Taipei without a meal at Din Tai Fong. Now they are a chain, with four restaurants in Taipei and several foreign outposts, but I've only ever eaten at the one near my uncle's Taipei apartment (another frequent dining place is Du Xiao Yue, just down the street, where we go for noodles with a savory minced pork gravy in broth; the sign says that it has been there since 1895). I wait all year - sometimes a few years, depending how much time passes between trips back to Taipei - for the chance to eat xiao lung bao.

Usually there is a long wait, the sidewalk outside choked with Japanese and Hong Kong tourists, led by umbrella-wielding tour guides. But today we are late, and my aunt has already snagged a table. We order xiao lung bao (of course!), pork-and-chive wontons, shrimp-and-pork wontons in a soy sauce instead of broth, sautéed spinach, and hot-and-sour soup, as well as a cold appetizer that seems to be composed of slivers of seaweed (the thick, slippery kind), dried pressed tofu, and bean-thread noodles. It is all slippery texture, a challenge for my chopsticks, but we always order it.

If I am particularly lucky and just come here with my mom, I get away with eating more than my fair share of xiao lung bao - they come ten to a basket - but tonight there are three of us. The service is incredibly fast, and before I finish the first cup of tea the bamboo steamer tray of xiao lung bao is set before me. The dumplings are loose and baggy, the skins almost translucent. For fear of tearing the fragile skin and losing the precious soup I peel it gently off the paper lining of the steamer tray. A dip in a saucer of black vineger, meanwhile gathering a few strands of ginger, then land the dumpling safely in my spoon. Gently I bite a hole in the wrapper, letting the rich soup spill out into my spoon, burning my tongue. I always burn my tongue on the first dumpling.

They are as good as ever, fine dumpling skin, neat pleats, round ball of sweet, tender pork, steaming broth, chased with the dark bite and sharp heat of vinegar and ginger. I eat four. Our wontons arrive, fat with chunks of shrimp, lightly slicked with soy sauce. The hot-and-sour soup is neither hot (in the spicy sense) nor sour, but I don't care. I got what I came for, xiao lung bao, enough of a taste to leave me wanting more. Much more.

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