A Chinese restaurant that's nothing like you would expect

Eating on the Edge: In downtown Bellevue, a Taiwanese immigrant is serving high-quality food in an upscale setting, following a surge of young, upwardly mobile Asian immigrants who are heading to the suburbs.

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The open kitchen at Din Tai Fung.

Eating on the Edge: In downtown Bellevue, a Taiwanese immigrant is serving high-quality food in an upscale setting, following a surge of young, upwardly mobile Asian immigrants who are heading to the suburbs.

One of the newest restaurants in downtown Bellevue is located in Lincoln Square, a complex of high-end shops, bars, and even a bowling alley, nestled below a tower of offices leased by Microsoft, among others.

David Wasielewski’s new restaurant opened last fall near one end of a pedestrian skybridge that connects Lincoln Square to Bellevue Place, yet another vertical, commercial utopia of boutiques, offices, fancy restaurants and a luxury hotel.

Inside Wasielewski’s new place, banquettes and dining chairs are trimmed with dark-stained wood. Windows are dressed in long, elegant drapes, and the walls are painted in warm, soothing colors that bring to mind dusk in the tropics. Oblong pendant lights hang from soaring, 15-foot ceilings. Servers wearing pressed, black uniforms communicate using discreet, wireless headsets.

As impressive as the dining room are the bathrooms, a sanctuary of granite, modern gadgets, and polished fixtures. They are cleaner than the bathrooms of most of the homes I’ve been in. To keep the restrooms looking this way, Wasielewski hired a woman whose only job is to clean the bathrooms all day.

“All she does is go back and forth between the men’s and women’s restroom,” said Wasielewski, 36.

The most remarkable thing about his restaurant, called DinTai Fung, is that it is a Chinese restaurant. Specifically, Din Tai Fung specializes in the informal comfort food of Taiwan, the island republic established by defeated Chinese nationalists opposed to the Communist Party that prevailed in mainland China after World War II. Wasielewski is of Tawainese heritage, a fact belied by his last name, which comes from his stepfather.

Din Tai Fung is an emporium of the dumplings, buns, noodles, and soups close to the heart of the Taiwanese. Its marquee dish is xiao long bao — steamed, soup-filled dumpling of pork and crab ($11 for 10 pieces). Din Tai Fung serves the Taiwanese version of xiao long bao, which is also served at Wallingford’s Rocking Wok restaurant, a place nowhere near as polished as this one. The Taiwanese soup dumpling tends to be smaller and less juicy than the Shanghai original, which, to my knowledge, has yet to reach Seattle.

The food at Din Tai Fun is not entirely unfamiliar to Americans, even those who are unaware of the distinctions between Chinese cuisine of different regions and traditions. What is most striking about Din Tai Fung is how much it clashes with our expectations of what a Chinese restaurant looks like, smells like, or sounds like.

Established then duplicated by the thousands for most of a century, Chinese restaurants in America have come to mean certain things: harsh lighting, low ceilings, garish carpeting, vinyl chairs, indifferent if not curt service, poor ventilation that allows the smells of the kitchen to pervade the dining room (both a welcome memory and a lingering annoyance once the scent has followed you home on your clothes), and the cacophony of voices speaking in unknowable syllables.

Prepared with pleasing uniformity, far from fancy, Chinese food has come to represent low-end dining in the best possible way. It carries a certain comfortable predictability. Like McDonald’s, a Chinese restaurant can be relied upon to deliver the same food no matter where you eat it. Chinese food has arguably become just as American as the hamburger.

With some exaggeration, you could assert the Internet might not exist were it not for Chinese food. In his 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, author Steven Levy described a life of early computer geeks at MIT, building our computing future by going on all-night coding binges sustained by meals of — what else — Chinese food. That is another tenet of Chinese restaurants that Din Tai Fung breaks away from: They are always open late into the night. Tis one closes at 10 p.m., although Wasielewski hopes to eventually extend weekend hours to 2:30 a.m.

Interrupting this long tradition of casual, gritty, gruff, lovingly sloppy Chinese-food dining, is Din Tai Fung. Its gleaming wood floors shine; its wait staff is conspicuously polite and helpful and speaks in unaccented English; there is not so much as a whiff of kitchen smell.

Din Tai Fung, in every way, represents the new, post-war, east Asia, the so-called “Asian Tigers” of South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, whose booming economies have created educated, affluent immigrants of means and taste. Born in Taiwan, Wasielewski arrived in the U.S. with his parents and older sister at age 11. He spoke no English and because of that “had a rough first year and a half…I didn’t have too many friends…Like many other Asian families, mine came over to give us a better education and better opportunities.”

The family settled in Federal Way and ran a construction business. Wasielewski attended the University of Washington and earned a degree in economics. Din Tai Fung marked his entry into the restaurant business.

“My vision,”  he said, “was to create an environment that is welcoming to all people, not just to Chinese customers and not just to non-Chinese. I wanted a nice, upscale restaurant that was well designed, had a good atmosphere, a friendly environment, and was in a nice neighborhood. But I was also very adamant about the food quality. I wanted it to be authentic.”

In Asia, Din Tai Fung is a well-known brand, a franchise of 50 restaurants in Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, and recently the United States. Los Angeles, where the largest number of Taiwanese-Americans live, was the first U.S. franchise; Bellevue was the second.

“I believe Bellevue is really the up-and-coming city,” said Wasielewski, who lives in downtown Bellevue. “Downtown Bellevue fits my style.”

The Din Tai Fung chain — Wasielewski described the arrangement as more of a partnership than a franchise — was started in Taiwan in the 1980s by Yang Bingyi, who began with a cooking-oil business in 1959, eventually expanding it to sell noodles and dumplings. Wasielewski approached the Yang family through mutual friends and convinced them the demographics in Bellevue would support a 220-seat, 7,000-square foot restaurant in the downtown shopping and office district.

Increasingly, restaurants that cater to immigrants are opening in the suburbs. The best Korean and Chinese food can be found not in Seattle but in Lynnwood, Federal Way, Bellevue, Edmonds, and Renton. Diners no longer have to visit Seattle’s Chinatown to eat dim sum. The trend is also true of other cities. In New York, most know the best Chinese food is in outer Queens, not Manhattan. The rent is cheaper, the spaces larger. When the battles are fewer and the stress lower, good food tends to prevail.

The upwardly mobile, young, urban Asian professional seems to prefer that which is slightly less than urban. Vancouver’s community of Hong Kong émigrés settled south of the city in the suburb of Richmond, where the Chinese restaurants are, in similar fashion, new, shiny, clean, and fancy. In Los Angeles, Chinese-Americans have helped turn the San Gabriel Valley and the suburb of Monterey Park, east of downtown L.A., into an upscale suburb of good schools and thriving businesses. The Los Angeles Times reported that real estate values in this particular part of Los Angeles have defied the downward trends of the rest of the city; prices there have been buoyed by wealthy Asian buyers.

While Asian immigrants from a previous generation arrived with few resources and little education then worked their way up the ladder, immigrants of Wasielewski’s generation more or less have entered the middle class directly.

In December, Din Tai Fung hosted a toy drive put on by an organization called the Taiwanese American Professionals Society of Seattle, a savvy, ambitious group that organizes events like “personal branding 101” and “speed networking.” Its Facebook page lists 596 members.

All the comforts of the suburbs can be found at Din Tai Fung. A flat-panel television is mounted in the roomy waiting area, near a window into the kitchen so diners can watch the cooks assemble dumplings. The restaurant’s entrance is indoors and protected from the weather. Underground parking is free, with validation.

“If Bellevue is good enough for Neiman Marcus,” Wasielewski said, “it’s good enough for me.”

If you go: Din Tai Fung, 700 Bellevue Way N.E., #280, Bellevue, 425-698-1095. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at hugo.kugiya@gmail.com.