Noodle Soup and Dumplings (Los Angeles, Summer 2013)

Line outside outlet #1In the last decade or so, Shanghainese Xiao Long Bao, known in English as “soup dumplings” (though that’s not the translation), and usually found on menus as “juicy dumplings”, have become rather popular among American foodies. In Los Angeles the restaurant that was and is at the center of this cult is Din Tai Fung in Arcadia. This branch of a renowned Taiwanese dumpling house (which now has franchises all over Asia) opened in 2000 (or thereabouts) and came to mainstream attention via a LA Times article in 2002. Since then it has been showing up consistently on seemingly everyone’s “Best of LA” lists (including at #44 on Jonathan Gold’s recent list of the 101 best restaurants in LA).

We’ve generally avoided it on our trips back because a) the lines are usually out of control, b) it’s further away than most of the places we go to in the SGV and c) we’ve been perfectly happy with the XLB at Mei Long Village. But since this Friday morning was wide open, we decided to give it a go. Well, we learnt two things in pretty quick order:

1) If Din Tai Fung is open there will be lines. Despite arriving at 11.10 am (10 minutes after opening) we beat standing in line by a scant minute or so. And this despite the fact that the restaurant a couple of years ago opened a second, large outlet on the other side of the building. We were, in fact, routed to that location (the kitchen, we were told, is shared) and were the last table to be seated without a wait there too. By the time we left, there were long lines outside both locations.

2) It’s not worth the hassle by any stretch of the imagination. If it’s XLB you’re looking for, you can find as good or better all over the SGV for far less money, a shorter drive (assuming you’re coming from LA proper) and no risk of a wait–hell, even the ones we ate at Shanghai #1 Seafood Village in June were better. And nothing else we ate was in any way out of the ordinary. Nothing was bad, but nothing was as tasty as it was photogenic.

All of this came to $42 or so with tax and tip. Which seems like a lot for two adequate noodle soups and two orders of dumplings.

So, why is this place so hot? Well, a long time ago the New York Times listed the Taipei original as one of the great restaurants of the world and this halo seems to have spread to all the branches–or more accurately, the owners have spread the halo and enlarged it in the process (on the website the New York Times is described as having named Din Tai Fung one of the ten best restaurants in the world); and the Hong Kong and Macau branches apparently have Michelin stars. None of that seems to speak in any way to the merits of the branch in Los Angeles, where Jonathan Gold seems to be as responsible as anyone for hyping it. For what it’s worth, I don’t think I’ve seen a higher percentage of non-Chinese diners anywhere else in the SGV, and it may be the least intimidating place for non-Chinese diners who don’t usually eat in the SGV to venture into (this is no small consideration, by the way, and not to be scoffed at).

As it happens, our evening meal also centered on noodle soup and dumplings. The missus’s family are based in Koreatown (and that’s always our base of operations on our trips) and when we go out to eat with the extended family I leave it to the hardcore food loving Koreans to choose the restaurants. Their preferences tend towards down-homey places, usually known for one particular type of dish; we don’t go out to barbecue, for example. On this occasion we ended up at Myoung Dong Kyo Ja (on the corner of Harvard and Wilshire).

Myoung Dong is known for their kalguksu*, hand-cut wheat noodles in broth. Most of the group got the kalguksu with dumplings in hot broth and ground chicken on top. I got the hanchi mul hweguksu, an icy kim chi broth with raw cuttlefish and green noodles treated with chlorella (an algae of some sort with purported health benefits); the older ladies got bibim bap and kongguksu (cold soybean soup), respectively. We also got a couple of orders of steamed mandu (pork dumplings) for the table, and an order of bulgogi for our boys to share. The banchan is more limited than at most places: very garlicky regular kimchi (very good) and unseasoned kimchi (also very good). Everybody was well-pleased with their food (and the mandu were better than all the dumplings at Din Tai Fung). But you’re probably not going to score any points on Chowhound if you say you ate here.

As we did not pay I don’t know how much it cost, but it was much better than our brunch at Din Tai Fung.

*In fact, their name used to be Myoung Dong Kal Guk Su, and I think I heard someone say that the Korean signage still says that. Not to be confused with Young Dong a block or two away by the Wiltern, which is where I thought we were going till we ended up here. I don’t, in fact, remember Myoung Dong from when I worked just two blocks away in the Saehan bank building in 2001-2002. Then again, I’ve had two children since and therefore have a permanent concussion.

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