We all know and love Din Tai Fung, the world-renowned Chinese restaurant chain famous for their 小笼包 (xiao long bao). In fact, I’m no stranger to the Century City location, as I’ve been there a number of times with family and friends. My personal favorite is the garlic string beans and, of course, the sesame mochi XLB dessert. However, the more and more I go there as a broke college student, I’ve realized that however authentic and delicious, the food at Din Tai Fung is overpriced and not worth a two hour wait.
Beyond the financial impracticality of dining at Din Tai Fung, the restaurant chain itself is not without controversy – in September of 2022, the famous dumpling house was accused of falsifying pay records to deceive immigration officials. Din Tai Fung locations throughout Australia were discovered to have been underpaying migrant workers and instead paying them cash incentives that in the end, did not even add up to minimum wage amounts. In fact, a full-time cook in Sydney was “underpaid $50,588” over a four-year period. Workers were systematically denied days off and given fake timesheets. In addition to its unethical labor practices, Din Tai Fung only caters to a specific demographic – the people who can afford to eat there. After all, not everyone has the liberty to spend $16 on a plate of garlic string beans.
Growing up in the AAPI ethnic enclaves of California’s 626 zip code (San Gabriel Valley), I was surrounded by a virtually endless amount of family-owned restaurants that serve menus identical to that of Din Tai Fung for half the price and nearly no wait time. This greatly transformed my perspective on chain restaurants that served East Asian cuisine: I often found more comfort in eating in smaller, cozy family-owned establishments with my own family than globally franchised ones.
The intimate settings, employees who are all friends and family with each other and the knowledge that every dish was prepared with care and compassion is something that large chain restaurants often do not offer. Moreover, the pandemic drastically impacted local businesses – especially AAPI ones as a result of racist stigmas around Asian Americans – so it will both mean a lot to you and the restaurant owners to explore these locations. So below, I’ve compiled a guide spotlighting Chinese-Taiwanese restaurants in the LA area that you can visit instead of Din Tai Fung to support your local businesses and find your new comfort spot.
2049 Sawtelle Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025
With dumplings and noodles handmade fresh daily, Dan Modern Chinese offers a modern take on traditional Chinese food. This spot is closest to campus, located only two miles away from UCLA (11 minute drive!). I love the twist on flavors that the chefs put in their dishes – they have many unique fillings for their XLBs (pork & dungeness crab, spicy pork). The slightly dimmed lights and ambient music contribute to the restaurant’s relaxed atmosphere. And like DTF, Dan Modern Chinese has a large window displaying a spotless kitchen full of chefs handmaking dumplings.
Personal favorites: Pork XLB (5/$7.75), Scallion Pancake ($7.75), Steamed Chicken Dumpling (5/$7.75), Crispy Chicken Dumpling (5/$9.75), Seaweed & Tofu Salad ($7.50), Mapo Tofu ($12.75), Sauteed Baby Bok Choy w/ Garlic ($13)
I especially love this one because of how close it is to school! The XLBs are clearly delicious, but I love the crispy chicken dumplings. It’s pretty difficult to get the perfect crispy dumpling without over-frying it or drying the inside out, but these ones are juicy, savory, and crunchy – just right!
5966 W Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90036
Situated only a 20 minute car ride away from campus, Qi Steam Kitchen was established in 2019 when a family in China franchised their restaurant. Qi Steam Kitchen was one of the first restaurants to bring steamed, family-style food from the smaller villages in Beijing to big cities like LA. For many AAPI individuals and immigrant families, it’s difficult to find authentic and affordable food in heavily gentrified areas like LA, so Qi Steam Kitchen brings a taste of home and comfort with unique flavors that you can’t replicate with pre-made, store-bought products. They are reasonably priced, with appetizers & veggies all around $7, dumplings and buns $9-$14, noodles all less than $13 and dessert buns $5-8. I find Qi Steam Kitchen uniquely delicious, as it fuses Chinese, Taiwanese and Cantonese dishes. They also have a similar dessert menu to DTF. They know how to make comfort food and make it well.
Personal favorites: Pork XLB (8/$13.95), Stir-Fried Gai Lan ($11.95), Hong Kong Style BBQ Pork Baos (3/$9.49), Beijing Beef Burrito ($13.99), Molten Lava Dessert Baos (3/$8.80), Sesame Paste Buns (2/$6.95)
The sesame paste buns are just like the ones from DTF, thus making them my favorite thing ever here. Every bite into the bun just seems to get better, with the black sesame seeds and sweet oil sauce mixing together to create the perfect balance of flavor and texture. I always want to order more after the first bun!
326 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90401
Twenty minutes from UCLA is Lotus Dim Sum Dumpling House. This place has great portions and is authentic and delicious. Dumplings are all $8-10 with a serving size of 4-5 dumplings per order. They also offer a wide array of appetizers, poultry dishes, noodles, soups, steamed dim sum, fried rice and vegetables. There’s also a bar with happy hour if you’re over 21. The menu boasts many vegan and vegetarian options as well. Just note that it might be difficult to find parking here, seeing as it’s in downtown Santa Monica.
Personal favorites: Pork XLB (5/$8), Steamed Custard Bun (3/$9), Macau Style Crispy Egg Custard (3/$11), Cucumber Salad ($8), Garlic Edamame ($8), Garlic Noodles ($15), Sauteed Chinese Broccoli ($15)
I grew up eating steamed custard buns from a local Cantonese restaurant in Monterey Park, so my standards are pretty high. Luckily, this is the first time I’ve ever been to a restaurant in LA that actually made authentic-style, delicious ones. The sweet filling is perfectly warm and melts in your mouth, and the dough isn’t too overpowering either.
153 E Garvey Ave, Monterey Park, CA 91755
This spot is about 20 miles away from UCLA or a 40 minute drive without traffic. (Force that one friend who has a car on campus!) As my personal favorite alternative to Din Tai Fung, Mama Lu’s has an expansive menu, offering 26 different types of dumplings – like truffle pork XLB, pork and crab XLB, mushroom dumplings, and lamb dumplings. Other items on their menu include soups, fried rice dishes, noodles, seafood and meat entrees, bean curd and vegetables. The price range is perfect – every entree or serving of dumplings is $12-$18. There are also numerous vegetarian options. The only difference between here and DTF is that it doesn’t have as many desserts. However, I’ve been going here since I was young, and it never misses. A must visit.
Personal favorites: Juicy Pork XLB (10/$12.49), Chive & Pork Dumplings (10/$10.99), Scallion Pancake ($7.99), Sauteed String Bean ($14.49), Sweet & Sour Spare Ribs ($14.49), Beef Chow Fun ($14.49), Vietnamese Iced Coffee ($5.50)
It’s pretty hard to make the perfect XLB, but Mama Lu’s Dumpling House comes close. With almost identical levels of mastery as Din Tai Fung, the pork XLBs here have that thin, chewy layer of skin with hot and juicy broth inside. They don’t burst or break easily – a telltale sign of good quality XLB!
1120 S. Grand Ave. Unit 101 Los Angeles, CA 90015
I just discovered Pine and Crane this year, and ever since, I’ve been having cravings for it. Located in USC territory, this spot is 15 miles away from UCLA but very worth the drive. The prices are amazing, and the portions are perfect for sharing. However, Pine and Crane doesn’t have XLB, but everything else on its menu is nearly identical to that of Din Tai Fung and half the price. The inside is also comfortable and cozy and the music they play is always on point. Come here with a large group of friends, so you can try as many dishes as you can – you won’t regret it! (Note: The DTLA location has a bigger menu than the Silverlake one)
Personal favorites: Pork Belly Clamshell Bun (2/$5.5), Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken ($13), Crispy Rice Cakes & Mushrooms ($12.50), Dan Dan Noodles ($9.50), Minced Pork on Rice ($9), Grass Jelly Dessert ($9), Green Milk Tea with Boba ($4.50)
So many restaurants always try to make popcorn chicken, but the way Pine and Crane makes it just hits different. It’s perfectly crispy with pieces of fried basil, and the meat is well-seasoned, too. Even with a single bite, you can definitely tell that it’s authentic!
Though Din Tai Fung is super delicious, it’s important to support smaller businesses that aren’t as large-scale as chain restaurants. The controversial past of Din Tai Fung, as well as the exclusivity that its meals entail, often prohibit many from a fully enjoyable dining experience. So if you’re ever trying to decide where to go for dumplings, consider one of these spots!
Featured image: Collage of food from the restaurants mentioned, taken by Amber Phung