On the morning of our last full day in Taiwan, we hopped on the MRT once again and headed for Taipei City Hall Station. It was a strange day weather wise. Sunny and rainy simultaneously, one of those Amsterdam days where the sun is shining but rain is somehow still finding a way to dampen your spirits. When we exited the subway, the sun was shining and we opted to walk the ten blocks or so to the Taipei 101 Building instead of finding the free shuttle bus. We made it about three blocks before the rain set in again to mock us for our optimism.
While our destination was the Taipei 101, our real goal was a restaurant called Din Tai Fung that is nestled in a corner of the tall building’s massive basement mall. Din Tai Fung is a dumpling restaurant that boasts a number of locations in Taipei and around the world. By going to the branch at the Taipei 101, we were just killing two birds with one stone. Initially started as a cooking oil retailer, Din Tai Fung shifted towards the soup dumpling business when the oil market began to slump in the 70s. Luckily for them, they just happened to make some of the best dumplings in the world and the restaurant took off. According to the pamphlets at the restaurant, the New York Times rated it as one of the top ten restaurants in the world in 1993; the branch in Hong Kong has received one Michelin star for the last four years in a row; and a prominent US-based food website declared it to be the best restaurant in Asia in 2013. Pretty impressive accomplishments for a dumplings restaurant, indeed.
The popularity of the restaurant was clear immediately. When we arrived at noon on Thursday there was a huge crowd gathered in the lobby outside the restaurant. A number of employees were wandering through the crowd, trying to maintain control of the chaos. We were directed to take a number and then get our order together so the kitchen could have things prepared in advance. Our wait was about 45 minutes, during which we placed our requests and wandered around the mall. When we were eventually seated in the dining hall, things moved quickly, so quickly that much of our food actually arrived before the drinks.
For sides, we chose cabbage stir-fry and shrimp fried rice. Both were tasty but not mind-blowing. I love cabbage, but like all cabbage, the flavor has to come from somewhere else. In this case, there were no extra spices, just cabbage. That’s fine, but give me kimchi any day. The shrimp fried rice was great, but like the cabbage, nothing I hadn’t had before.
The main attractions were the dumplings that made Din Tai Fung famous: Xiao Long Bao. These soup dumplings are meticulously constructed by hand every day. Each one has the exact same number of folds and the same amazing flavor. Inside the doughy exterior lies a mixture of pork and a solid soup that melts during the steaming process into a (read the next word in your best Gordon Ramsey voice) stunning broth. We all agreed that we should have ordered more of the Xiao Long Bao and less of everything else. Eating these delectable dumplings is a multi step process, which is easily learned from the multi-language direction cards placed at every table. First you dip the dumplings into a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, and ginger slices. After placing it into your spoon, you have to bite a small hole in the dumpling to give the steaming broth a chance to cool down and to prevent it from burning your mouth. Finally, place a few thin slices of ginger on top and enjoy. The result is a taste that is inconceivably complex while seeming to be the simplest thing imaginable. While I loved the baseball game, the Xiao Long Bao might have been the most amazing thing I experienced in Taipei.
In addition to the soup dumplings, we also tried both shrimp and pork shaomai. These are basically the soup dumplings without the soup. They were delicious, but after the Xiao Long Bao, a bit disappointing. We all wished we had just ordered more of the soup dumplings. Din Tai Fung is famous for one reason, Xiao Long Bao. So if you go, leave as much room for these as you possibly can. And maybe a bit for beer.
The entire meal cost about 1400 NT (~$40) between the three of us. All in all, that is a ridiculously cheap price for such a prestigious restaurant, making Din Tai Fung a must try when in Taiwan. After the meal we went to check out the Taipei 101. Being one of the most popular attractions in Taipei, the line to go to the top of the building was extremely long, even on such a gloomy day. We were already wary of the long wait, but we decided definitively against the ascent after the woman at the ticket counter told us that the view at the top was nothing but clouds and that we wouldn’t be able to go to the outside deck due to high winds. Tall buildings are cool, but we decided we had seen the important bit (the building) and would be better off pocketing the 500 NT ($18) it would have cost to go up the elevator (albeit the fastest elevator in the world). If architecture and heights are your thing, by all means go to the top. If not, just snap some pictures from the ground and then get yourself some dumplings.
From Taipei Main Station take the MRT to Taipei City Hall. There is a free shuttle to the Taipei 101 outside the station. If you’d like to walk (about 15-20 minutes), the way is well signed and the building is impossible to miss. The shuttle will also take you back to the station from the Taipei 101 and leaves frequently. Din Tai Fung is located in the basement mall of the building (B1, store location #45). Look for a big crowd of hungry people milling about.