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June 30, 2010 at 11:28 AM

Din Tai Fung opening in Bellevue: xiao long bao fans rejoice

Rumors circulated for more than a year. Then came word: Din Tai Fung, the famous dumpling house with roots in Taiwan and franchises throughout Asia would be soon be coming to Bellevue. Fans of xiao long bao — the ethereal soup-dumplings that some say have no equal — will no longer have to fly to Taipei, or to L.A. (home to the nation’s only other Din Tai Fung) to get their chopsticks on the real deal. And now I’m here to say that the opening date is slated for early fall, when a 7000-square-foot, 220-seat den of dumplingfied deliciousness will be unveiled on the second-level at Lincoln Square, next to the skybridge connecting to Bellevue Place.

Xiao long bao. Careful! It’s hot in there! .

As I write, a team of dumpling-makers are hard at work at a training facility in Bellevue, learning to properly weigh, roll and stuff the wide variety of steamed dumplings that are Din Tai Fung’s stock-in-trade. Their instructors are part of the Asian home-team. And any day now, dumpling lovers will get a firsthand look at the fleet-fingered process when those newly minted “dumpling chefs” put their training on display behind a glass storefront in Bellevue Square. That temporary setup is an attempt to torture those in-the-know (sorry, no samples!) and whet the appetite of others new to the, uh, fold.

Artfully folded juicy soup dumplings: Say xiao (“show” — rhymes with “ow”) long (lawng) bao (as in “bow-wow”).

In Lincoln Square, as at other Din Tai Fungs (like the one below, in Taipei), the dumpling-kitchen is poised at the restaurants’ entrance, providing some visual rock and roll.

The Eastside’s Din Tai Fung marks the first U.S franchise for the company, founded in 1958 by Bingyi Yang and Penmai Lai whose son, Frank, owns and runs the only other U.S. store, near the Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia. So, what brings the vaunted dumpling house to the Eastside?

It’s not a what, but a whom: franchisee David Wasielewski. A Taiwanese by birth, Waslielewski, 35, is a UW graduate with an MBA from Seattle University who moved here when he was in middle school — but not before he developed a taste for (and a love of) Din Tai Fung’s wondrous wares. For him and other native Taiwanese, he says, Din Tai Fung dumpling houses are the equivalent of McDonald’s — in that they’re ubiquitous and provide patrons with certain consistency in product and in service. Though unlike at Micky D’s, “the beauty of this product is that everything’s freshly handmade when it’s ordered. It’s home comfort-food, and I think the people in the Northwest ought to be able to experience what I and many Taiwanese have had the luxury of experiencing: good, healthy, authentic dumplings,” most of which are steamed rather than deep-fried or pan-fried.

Though this is the first restaurant foray for Waslielewski (if you don’t count a short stint as a busboy when he was in his teens), he insists he’ll surround myself with a solid team. “If that means we need to hire someone with 30-years experience as a GM, then I’m going to hire that guy.”

The franchise-owners are his partners, he says, and together they’re committed to making sure the Bellevue operation is a success. “We need to learn from those guys,” who play a supporting role during training. “The key for all of us is to produce the highest quality of food and service and protect the brand.” By doing so, he says, customers will get hooked — and come back for more.

Once open, Din Tai Fung will serve lunch and dinner daily, and Wasielewski envisions the place as a post-entertainment-venue hangout and a late-night hotspot in a city where wee-hour dining options are few.

“I live in Bellevue, and if you’re hungry, you can always hit-up Denny’s, but if you want Chinese food you have to go to the ID,” he says. As someone who often has late-night cravings for Chinese food and doesn’t relish the idea of driving over the bridge in search of it, he’s convinced his restaurant can fulfill the demand, especially on the weekends. Looking ahead, “If last call is one-thirty, two o’clock, I’d like to stay open till 3 a.m.”

But most of all, says Wasielewski, he sees Din Tai Fung through the lens of his Taiwanese childhood, where families gather around tables to relax over a variety of dumplings, soup noodles, Chinese vegetables and other comfort foods.

“You don’t have to be Chinese to know Din Tai Fung,” he says of the international reputation of the restaurant name he’s taken on. And if everything goes his way, Lincoln Square will become the dumpling mecca that proves him right.

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