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Review of Din Tai Fung, Bellevue, WA Branch

700 Bellevue Way NE
Ste 280
Bellevue, WA 98004
Phone number: (425) 698-1095

In the heart of downtown Bellevue (in Washington State) is a branch of the prestigious restaurant chain Din Tai Fung. Originating from Taiwan, this award-winning restaurant specializes in xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings (also known as juicy dumplings or tender dumplings). But aside from soup dumplings, the restaurant is also known for its chicken soup, various braised soups, solid noodle dishes and delicious and tender savory and sweet buns. As a side note, the flagship restaurants in Asia are Michelin-star rated restaurants; however, none of the branches in the United States have that particular honor.

This is my review of my experience at this particular location:

During this visit, I went with two friends that I was visiting on a weekend getaway. After being referred to this place by a friend, we took his recommendation and went on a Saturday morning just a few minutes after opening. We went on the weekend because of their early weekend special: 20 mini pork soup dumplings along with an order of their chicken soup. And we went early because of how long the wait can be at times for diners.

I can easily say that going early is definitely a great tip. Despite arriving only 20 minutes after opening, the restaurant was already packed and my friends and I needed to wait around 10-15 minutes before being seated. Even sitting at the bar would have been a similar wait because a lot of solo diners also frequent the restaurant. As for the other parties with more than four people, the wait was already being quoted as being around 20-30 minutes. By the time we left after our meal, the wait time had swelled to over an hour and a half.

On that note, it is definitely worth mentioning that Din Tai Fung does not accept reservations. So here is another key tip: don’t go without your entire party being available when you’re called in. They have a policy of not allowing parties without all people present to be seated (they do this in order to facilitate the amount of people who frequent the restaurant; because they are so busy, it’s no surprise that they want people to be able to enjoy dining at their leisure while balancing that with table availability). Fortunately, since this location is in a mall, you can check out some of the nearby shops. Just make sure someone is waiting nearby so that everyone can be quickly prepared when a table is ready. Usually, they will tell you when your table is nearly ready so use that prompt to gather up your entire party.

As for the dining experience, it was wonderful with nice touches of immersion when entering. Upon entry, you are able to peek into the kitchen and see all of the workers furiously making the xiaolongbao behind a large glass pane. Walking further in you can see their elegant bar stocked with many different sakes and Asian alcoholic drinks (in addition to the usual bar standbys). In general, the décor is sleek and elegant and evokes a quintessential balance of modernity belying Asian undertones. The table we sat at was sturdy and metallic with a wood-like finish. And the chairs had similar qualities.

Another plus was that we were seated window-side with a wonderful view of downtown Bellevue. And since we were a few stories up, we have the privacy of not being looked on by passersby on the street while not being so high that it bordered on being uncomfortable. If there was something with the décor/seating that I particularly didn’t like, it was that chair that I sat on ended up being a squeaky chair so I had to switch it with the chair next to me. However this ended up being a slight hassle because of the legs of the table and close proximity to the next table over.

After perusing their menu (which compared to so many generic Chinese restaurants is small), a friendly waitress took our order and promptly punched it in so that runners could start bringing our dishes over. The nice thing about the menu is that it provides pictures of many of the dishes on it. And because there is a lot to choose from, they provide a ticket which you can mark your order for.

Here is what the three of us ordered (we ordered much more than we needed and ended up bringing back quite a few things in doggy bags):

  • The weekend special (only available before 11:30)
  • Shrimp dumplings
  • Pork dumplings
  • Pork buns
  • Fried pork chop
  • Pork and noodle soup
  • Braised beef soup
  • Sautéed broccoli with garlic
  • Vegetable fried rice
  • Red bean buns

About a few minutes after punching in our order, runners began bringing various steamer baskets to our table so that we could quickly dig in. There doesn’t seem to be a set protocol of meal flow as they will bring out what they can as quickly as they can. So it’s a good idea to order some things first, and then order more later on if there’s room for more. Because runners bring food once available, and because of how they serve items (steam baskets, warmed plates, etc.) everything came out at the right temperature. In addition, everything that we ate was fresh and delicious.

Just like I was told, their soup dumplings and savory buns are definitely the stand out items. The buns themselves had a wonderfully decadent taste and had the perfect balance of firmness, pliability, and airiness. On top of that, they didn’t turn into a chewy gloop that is prone to happen to some savory buns; likewise, the buns didn’t turn overly solid as other buns do after cooling down. In addition, the fillings were very good; although seemed to lack the same depth of flavor that the buns had. As a combination the flavors melded very well, but I found myself needing to turn to the soy sauce or the braised soup more than I would have hoped for.

Similarly, just like the savory buns, the soup dumplings were very good; and in fact were nearly outstanding. The dumplings themselves had the right amount of tenderness balanced with firmness. And the fillings themselves were very juicy, but not overly so. These dumplings had the right amount of liquid that made eating the dumplings very pleasant and allowed the entire bite the mesh very well. I found myself turning to the condiments often also, but as it is with dumplings this is to be more expected. As a note with the pork filling though, despite being a mainstay item in several buns and dumplings, it isn’t particularly outstanding; but it is at least solid.

The third stand out item was the braised beef soup. The beef itself was quite good and maintained a strong balance of heartiness, softness, chewiness and lusciousness. The fat of the beef was interspersed very well throughout so the beef did not taste either overly fatty or gritty. The beef in and of itself was a pleasure to eat, but the broth is what brought this soup to the next level. It was hot, salty, savory, and had a wonderfully nuanced layer of umami; on top of this, the soup had that special throat-coating quality that few soups are able to successfully pull off. Another nice quality of the soups were that the noodles maintained its integrity while keeping that critical balance of soft, firm and chewy textures; besides that though, these were fairly ordinary noodles.

The last item that particularly stood out was their pork chop. Although very simple, the pork chop was adequately silken and was properly coated before being fried to a decadent golden brown. The pork chop was tender and juicy and the coating added an extra layer of bite while not being so think as to detract from the experience of eating the pork chop overall. It may have benefited with a pinch more salt or spice, but that is a very minor and nuanced detail. However, with that said, an additional amount of salt or spice would be good in the noodle soup since a lot of the strong qualities of the pork chop tends to fade away. Rather than getting a soup with pork chop, I’d say the better approach would be to get a different soup (like the braised beef or hot and sour) and to instead get the pork chop as a side or with a fried rice dish.

As for the other items, they were all also quite good, but didn’t particularly stand out. The shrimp dumplings were full of delicious shrimp flavor. The sautéed broccoli with garlic was neither overcooked nor overly greasy and had a balanced flavor profile. And the vegetable fried rice, was a solid vegetable fried rice. One thing that did disappoint me was how unspectacular the chicken soup was in comparison to other dishes. Even though Din Tai Fung is known for their exceptional chicken soup, it didn’t leave much of an imprint on me. The soup was definitely well-clarified and smooth; and it maintained its broth-like essences while eliminating virtually all of the impure flavors. Despite being well executed, it didn’t impress me as much as I hoped for. In fact, the soup may have been too well executed and lost a little bit of the soul that makes for a great chicken soup.

Finally, the red bean buns that we got for “dessert” were also very solid (made with the same dough as the other buns) and the filling wasn’t overly sweet. Regarding ordering and the food, one last side note is that unlike many other Chinese restaurants, tea is not complementary with the meal. However, this fact is made plainly clear with the choices of tea available. Additionally, there is a vast selection of drinks to choose from; however, on this occasion all of us went with tea.

In general, service was very good and the wait staff did a solid job of maintaining a professional atmosphere. Additionally, the speed of service is fast and prompt despite how busy the restaurant continuously is. This is because they have a solid team of food runners that ensure items are brought out quickly and this speed allows for both great service and allows the food to arrive at the right temperature consistently. On that note, the wait staff may not be as sociable as with other places (likely because of how busy they constantly are), but they generally are not unfriendly.

Another highlight of the experience was that if you get a lot (like my friends and I did) and end up taking items to go, they have these amazingly cute doggy bags. And it’s not just that, they also have very nice containers for soups and nice little boxes for the non-soup items. I wish that the food containers weren’t one-time use items, but I’m not going to fault them for that.

All in all, it was a wonderful meal that strongly succeeds in providing a great experience. However, as most would expect, this wonderful experience comes at a cost. Not only do you have to wait sizable amounts of time for a table, but the price point of the meal is fairly high. It may not be outrageous, but the price point is definitely up there. At times it feels like you are paying more for the experience, ambiance, service and hype rather than for the food. For example, the pork buns are 2 for $5; there are other solid dumpling houses where a bun can be gotten for under $1.

Even though the price and wait may be a bit much, I’d still recommend the Bellevue, WA branch of Din Tai Fung. With a wonderful ambiance, quick service, and well-executed food, it’s worth the fairly high price. Each time I find myself in the Bellevue area, I look forward to making a visit if time and budget permit. And I can’t wait for my next visit.

Food Quality: 9/10
Ambiance/Décor: 3/3
Service: 3/3
Price Point: 1/2

Final Score: 8.5/10

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