A bamboo steam tray of Din Tai Fung's famous xiao long bao (soup dumplings).
Two years ago, we were driving through a dark evening storm, heading into the Westfield UTC with seats reserved for a new Star Wars movie at the Arclight Cinema. Entrance to the mall parking lot was backed up, but we joined a parade of braking drivers puttering through kaleidoscope of fat red raindrops falling on zero available parking spaces. We mostly willed ourselves toward the cinema parking lot, convinced we could still might make the start of the film, if they showed a lot of previews first.
Nearly one hundred tables, fully loaded
Then we hit a dead end. Construction. We would not make the movie on time, but instead turn around and drive right back into that soggy traffic nightmare. The UTC mall was expanding, and I didn’t know it yet, but the corner of construction zone I cursed and shook my fist at that night was the future site of internationally acclaimed restaurant chain Din Tai Fung.
See dumplings made by hand while waiting for your table.
Well, I can’t stay mad at that. It would be one thing if UTC had been expanding to squeeze in a new Dippin Dots or Forever 21. But a Din Tai Fung in San Diego couldn’t arrive soon enough, and I’m not alone in thinking so. Following a long build-out, the Taiwan-founded chain with a Michelin Star to its credit started a reservations-only soft open in September. Three months later, online reservations for Din Tai Fung still look to be all but booked solid two weeks out.
But not unattainable. I’ve had luck requesting a table a day or two in advance, then waiting for an automated text offering a table at roughly the time I requested (it manages this through a Yelp reservation system). It’s a pretty easy workaround, but I marvel at myself each time I catch myself booking a reservation at a mall restaurant. 2016 me would not be impressed.
2018 me finds Din Tai Fung impressive. When fully engaged, it can serve nearly a hundred tables, and nearly all of them will want to order its famous xiao long bao soup dumplings. Through a picture window next to the large restaurant’s lobby you may watch teams of kitchen staff roll the dumplings by hand.
The xiao long bao are must-try, whether you go for pork ($11.50 for ten), pork and crab ($14.50 for ten, or splurge on pork and truffle ($23.50 for five). These delicate steamed buns, filled with seasoned meats yielding a broth of their own juices, are celebrated with good reason. Do yourself a favor and eat at least ten in a sitting.
4301 La Jolla Village Drive #2000, San Diego
Order a few other things too. The menu’s designed for family style dining, so our party deliberated awhile about sharing a number of noodles and vegetable dishes, in addition to dumplings. Once ordered, the food started to appear quickly. I was especially fond of the sautéed baby bok choy, lightly flavored with oil and garlic so it remains refreshing and crisp ($10.25).
Our waiter told us this location now qualifies as the chain’s largest. It’s instantly become one of our region’s top Chinese food destinations, and one of the few excuses I’ll make to go back to the mall.