By Kathleen Luppi
7:19 PM PDT, August 21, 2014
Visitors to a new Chinese restaurant at South Coast Plaza already know their fortune when they walk through the door.
It's going to be a two-hour wait.
That's because Din Tai Fung, the acclaimed Taiwanese restaurant that opened Monday, is famous for its Shanghai-style soup dumplings. So famous, in fact, among food connoisseurs, restaurant critics and national and international stars that Tom Cruise once donned an apron to help one of the top dim sum chefs make the small pastry during a visit to Taiwan.
But visitors have no need to worry about the long wait.
Staff will notify guests when a table is ready by a text message, allowing visitors to browse and shop luxury retailers while waiting to eat at a restaurant steeped in rich family history and legacy.
In the summer of 1948, Bingyi Yang, then 21, left behind the Civil War in China. He boarded a ferry to live with his uncle in Taiwan, where he found his first job as a deliveryman at Heng Tai Fung, a cooking oil retailer.
Seven years later, Yang married a co-worker, Penmai Lai. The couple found themselves unemployed four years later when the owner's other investments failed. Yang and his wife decided to start their own oil business, naming it Din Tai Fung to show their appreciation for Heng Tai Fung's kind owner and wife.
But when tinned salad oil went on sale in 1980, consumers began purchasing the oil from the new and large supermarkets, leaving the mom-and-pop business to plummet. The Yangs thought their business days were over until Mr. Tang, the owner of the neighboring Fuhsing Garden restaurant, suggested the couple turn half of their shop over to making and selling steamed dumplings.
Crowds of customers who had heard through word-of-mouth about the quality of the dumplings lined the streets.
That was when Din Tai Fung stopped selling oil and became a restaurant.
An international brand was born. The restaurant's flagship is in the Taipei 101, a landmark skyscraper known as the world's tallest building until the 2010 opening of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The space seats 350 customers. But here in the United States, with two locations in Washington state and now four in California, the restaurant's busiest location is in Arcadia, usually serving over more than 10,000 dumplings a week.
As he stood in the restaurant's 8,000-square-foot space at South Coast Plaza, Frank Yang, a son of one of Bingyi and Penmai's five children, proudly introduced private-event guests to one of the restaurant's largest locations in the world.
Frank and his wife, Joanne, operate the dumpling house with their two sons, Aaron, 22, and Albert, 21, both graduates of Cornell University's well-regarded hotel administration program.
The brothers started in the family's business early in life.
At 8, they ran credit cards. At 13, they started making dumplings. Now the sons are following in their father and grandfather's footsteps as they greet customers, help in the kitchen and monitor service.
"We've learned with each restaurant how to prepare best," they said. "We're always maintaining that authenticity."
That authenticity has been highly praised by the media.
In his 2014 list of "101 Best Restaurants," Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, a Pulitzer Prize winner, described the steamed pork dumplings, known as xiao long baos, as "small miracles; plump, round spheres soft yet firm to the touch, delicately 'fragranced.'"
In 1993, Din Tai Fung was selected as one of the top 10 restaurants in the world by The New York Times.
Debra Gunn Downing, executive director of marketing at South Coast Plaza, said she was delighted to welcome the Yang Family.
"I can't recall a restaurant opening generating this much excitement," she said. "There is no doubt the restaurant will be an extraordinary success with both our local and international shoppers."
For a chef to prepare the cuisine, he or she must spend three to seven months learning the special technique behind the xiao long bao.
The dumplings, containing minced pork wrapped in a delicate dough skin, must be pleated and twisted at the top and steamed. Din Tai Fung's signature rendition requires a minimum of 18 folds.
Father and sons said the number is not only for aesthetics but for functionality as the dumpling is delicate. If there were fewer pleats, Frank explained, there would be a "chunk of dough" in a bite.
"Consistency is very important to us," he said.
A team of 12 chefs, many who have worked in the kitchen for years, constantly make dumplings throughout the day, beginning preparation at 8 a.m.
The dough is first made from scratch, then kneaded and formed into shapes that resemble crescents or lily pads. The shape is then weighed on a scale, one used for jewels, to confirm the dough weighs 6 grams. A tablespoon of the filling, from pork to cabbage to Italian truffles, is spooned into the middle. A solid form of broth is poured into the dough purse.
With swift fingers and nimble hands, the dumpling is pinched, turned and folded until the filling is encased. Then the dumpling is moved to the steaming station, where chefs cook the dumplings and arrange them in a bamboo basket, which the son explained as the perfect solution to house the dumplings because the bamboo preserves the heat.
It's a five-minute process.
"We work really hard to do the best that we can," said Albert as he and Aaron watched a chef reach for another piece of dough to start making another.
With more than 175 employees staffing the newest restaurant and eight master dumpling and wok chefs who flew in from Taiwan to assist with the training, the Yangs said they are cautious when opening new stores as they don't want to overexpand.
At 12:15 p.m. Monday, Orange County fans queued around the nearby Sears, patiently waiting three hours for a taste of the delicately steamed dumplings. It was a short distance to satisfy the craving for many compared with the drive to the next-closest location in Arcadia.
"I'm very proud for us to come to Southern California to serve our loyal customers," said Frank. "Now they don't need to go so far."
If You Go
What: Din Tai Fung
Where: South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, level 2, Sears Wing, adjacent to the north parking structure
When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays
Information: (714) 549-3388