Throughout the year, Restaurant Editor Bill Addison will travel the country to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
I'm on board with the ramen rage as much as the next food obsessive. But I may be keener on the other trending, brothy wonder whose excellence also proves elusive—xiao long bao, the round soup dumplings that hail from Shanghai. Most XLBs reveal some sort of construction flaw when consumed: The pleated wrappers are too thin and they leak or rip when lifted from the bottom of the steamer basket, or the dough is too thick and they bloat unappetizingly. I've occasionally stumbled onto an optimal batch at a restaurant only to return and find them off. To butcher Emerson: Consistency is the hobgoblin of xiao long bao.
Din Tai Fun, a growing chain out of Taiwan, seems to have mastered the formula. The company opened its first U.S. location in 2000 in Arcadia, a city in the San Gabriel Valley (less than 15 miles from downtown Los Angeles), which is the country's epicenter for XLB culture. Lines can snake out the doors on weekends. Its popularity led to a second nearby restaurant, basically to handle overflow. Two outposts appeared in Washington State; one is coming to Orange County this summer.