Aristotle once said that a swallow does not a summer make. But a bite and swallow, followed by another bite, is enough to give a verdict.
A bamboo steamer of xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung might contain 10 pieces of the juicy pork dumplings, but the tenth is probably going to taste very much like the first. This consistency, after all, is part of Din Tai Fung’s appeal. So, by the second bite, I was convinced that this is the best xiao long bao you can get in Manila.
Its Rockwell branch is Din Tai Fung’s third outlet in the Philippines. But I haven’t set foot in one until now, not for any particular reason. When I’m at SM Megamall, I’m usually about to catch a movie, and would rather get a quick fix at Tim Ho Wan next door.
Also, until recently, I was traveling to Hong Kong and China often enough that I could get my xiao long bao fix there.
My first encounter with it was in Shanghai in 1985, and I instantly fell in love with the pork dumplings filled with soup that
—if you were careful with the chopsticks and they were properly made—would hold their rich contents and burst in your mouth when you bit into them.
Din Tai Fung’s instructions to nibble a little hole in them, sip the soup out, and then eat the soupless dumpling separately, seems to miss the point, rather like having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as two separate slices of bread, or to eat a halo-halo layer by layer.
The restaurant also veers from convention in instructing you to make a dip out of julienned ginger threads (so far, so good), and then add a bit of soy sauce and dilute it with clear rice vinegar.
More commonly, you get the ginger and then pour in black vinegar—also known as Chinkiang vinegar, which is aged in the manner of a balsamic vinegar. This innovation I approve of—it allows for a milder formulation of the xiao long bao, and you can then adjust the saltiness of the dip to your liking.
In China, most servers will ask you whether you want vinegar or soy sauce in your dipping dish. I like a mixture of mostly vinegar, with a quick dash of soy, in any case.
The production of xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung straddles the line between artisanal and industrialized. I’ve tried making it at home and it’s not easy. The recipe, in Chinese home cookbooks, calls for pork broth, including bones, ligament and feet, to be simmered until it turns into a broth that cools down as a jelly.
You then make a pork dumpling and put chunks of the jelly in, making sure the warmth of your hands doesn’t melt it back into soup.
From what I could see through the window, the mixture is made in an amalgamated form, and then weighed so that the dumplings are a uniform size, and then are pleated to the famous Din Tai Fung standard of 18 folds before being transferred to a wooden steamer.
I’ve eaten at Din Tai Fung in Hong Kong (the Silvercord branch is the one to go to), in Singapore, in Taipei and in Shanghai. I asked a foodie friend of mine where the best xiao long bao in Shanghai was, and was told to just go to Din Tai Fung. I disagree—but that’s another column.
Not created equal
The fact that it’s a global chain is either dispiriting or a great success story, depending on your point of view and your attitude toward capitalism. However, not all Din Tai Fung xiao long bao are created equal. The ones in Singapore were probably the least scintillating. In Hong Kong they used to play second fiddle to plumper ones at Crystal Jade, but the quality of the latter has gone down (both xiao long bao and food in general). And in Shanghai, where the standard is very high, they were just not up to par.
I’m happy to report that, at least, from the several instances since it opened that I’ve been there, the Manila branch is well up to standard.
However, just as Tim Ho Wan is, in my mind, a lovely cha chaan teng, or all-around tea-room serving short orders, rather than a mecca for barbecued pork buns (I don’t really care for these), the general quality of cooking at Din Tai Fung is overshadowed by the xiao long bao.
It also does pork chop with rice well. Sweet and sour pork or crispy beef with shrimp fried rice is an excellent short order, and the vegetables are always crisp and redolent with wok hai (the “breath” of a wok that comes from using really hot high-pressure burners).
You will have to wait, though. I think that being a maitre d’ at a Manila branch with a long line is a thankless task, because we are not a people who believe in waiting in a queue. We believe we have a God-given right to beat the queue because we’re more important, richer, know the owner, are about to give birth, have arthritis, a senior citizen, a food critic, a blogger, a TV personality, a congressman, or have one leg longer than the other. If it works for an National Bureau of Investigation clearance, it must work here.
The maitre d’, a brave King Canute against the tide of self-important humanity, takes the brunt of it all. They’ve mastered the art of giving you a menu and the order slip to tick off to make you feel like you’re doing something, but it’s still going to be a 40-minute wait, on average. (In Hong Kong, there is an app called Food Gulu that lets you take a virtual number while you’re on the way there—but you’re out of luck if you miss your turn.)
Rockwell’s rather dull mix of retail establishments for the new extension promises to make it, once more, a mall that everyone goes to—not to buy anything, but to just go and eat, and Din Tai Fung augurs well for the new mix of restaurants. Welcome to the neighborhood. —CONTRIBUTED
Din Tai Fung is at G/F Power Plant Mall, Makati City.