A New Pasadena Soup Dumpling Shop Contends With Din Tai Fung’s Dominance
Pasadena gets a worthy home for dumplings, handmade noodles, and fried rice at Dan
Dan, a modern Chinese eatery specializing in dumplings and noodles, opened last week in Pasadena next to the Sunlife Organics in The Commons on South Lake, recently adding dinner hours.
The bright woods and modern furnishings of the interior at Dan feel right at home at The Commons’ collection of slick eateries, but it’s the food where the restaurant might make a serious mark on the SGV dining landscape.
Unlike the typical SGV-area Chinese restaurant where menus can span multiple pages and dozens of items, the menu at Dan is brief and focused. Owner James Kim is intent on playing some of Chinese cuisine’s greatest hits for his Pasadena audience, with an attention to detail that would do the dishes justice.
“One thing with Chinese restaurants: [The belief is] when you want one thing, you go to one restaurant, and if you want another thing, you go to another,” Kim said. “The goal [at Dan] is to bring everything under one roof.”
Traditionalists might cry foul at the notion that one place could possibly have good versions of everything it serves; the notion of “one place specializing in one dish” is a persistent narrative.
Kim is determined to break through those old assumptions with the requisite care and attention to detail, starting with the xiaolongbao. The miniature steamed soup dumplings are the subject of lively debates among Angelenos, and Kim isn’t afraid to step into the fray. Kim’s reference point isn’t the tried, true and fully-scaled version at Din Tai Fung, but a local favorite from the East Coast.
“I always thought xiaolongbao was something I wanted to do,” Kim said. “I always liked Joe’s Shanghai [in Flushing, New York] because it was fatty, comforting and really good.”
The distinction between Din Tai Fung and Joe’s xiaolongbao is in the details. Din Tai Fung’s xiaolongbao employ those incomparable dainty, delicate wrappers that are just thin enough that one can see the soup through the skin. Joe’s on the other hand is a bit bigger, more substantive and yet no less challenging to balance.
The xiaolongbao at Dan tends toward the latter, with warm soup on a pork and blue crab rendition bursting with savory porcine and sweet crab flavor. It’s all encapsulated in a substantive wrapper that’s basically the picture of perfect winter comfort food.
Kim is also rolling out handmade noodles in soups, and the oxtail noodle soup is a showstopper. The broth is reminiscent of Korean kkori-gomtang (an oxtail soup with a thin broth similar to sullungtang), and is skimmed of fat to let the clean, savory and gently iron-inflected taste of oxtail broth to really come through. The meltingly tender oxtail meat and springy handmade noodles are also worth a look.
Dan might stand for “dumplings and noodles,” but there’s another component to be considered seriously: the fried rice. Dungeness crab fried rice arrives generously peppered with bits of crab meat. But the overall effect is a clever play between the sweet-and-savory Dungeness crab and an airy fried rice that showcases the back-of-house’s considerable finesse. Despite the impeccable quality of most of the dishes, Kim is being careful to avoid being called “chef-driven.”
“My goal was to really provide good food that people could come in in a casual settings, that’s not chef-driven at all,” Kim said. “It’s the process that takes more time.”
And Kim is married to the process, testing new methods, constantly seeking feedback from diners, and paying close attention to the way the line moves back-of-house. One could argue that generating consistent food is more a matter of careful planning and process than it is vision and creativity. And though the belief is that the current plans at Dan will be in a perpetual state of improvement, the fruits of Kim’s process are more than prepared for their close-up.
Dan. 146 S. Lake Ave. Pasadena, CA 91101
Open Tuesday to Friday 5:30 to 9 p.m., weekends 12:00 to 9:00 p.m. Closed Mondays.