In this corner, ladies and gentlemen, Din Tai Fung, undisputed xiao long bao champion of the world, representing Taiwan. And in the opposing corner, Singapore rising star Paradise Dynasty goes toe-to-toe with the legendary dumpling destination—almost literally, since the xiao long bao rivals now bookend South Coast Plaza, separated by a two-minute walk.
That’s how Americans might perceive the situation. But that’s not the viewpoint of Paradise Dynasty founder-owner Eldwin Chua, who just launched his 45th location and his first outside of Asia.
“I have a lot of respect for Din Tai Fung,” Chua says. “Din Tai Fung is like the king of soup dumplings. It is the pioneer, the restaurant that has brought dumplings to international recognition. It is not on purpose that we are near Din Tai Fung. I would be overshadowed by the king, right?
“It is the location. In terms of traffic count, in terms of revenue count, South Coast Plaza is No. 1 in the U.S.A. For our first U.S. location, we had to be somewhere iconic. It was like hitting the lottery when we were invited by the landlord to open our restaurants here.”
The landlord in this case is not South Coast Plaza, but a Bloomingdale’s subtenant that conceived a two-story collection of restaurants called Collage. Its Chinese American owner, already familiar with the Paradise brand, emailed Chua an invitation in 2019 to be the collection’s anchor. “The deal was concluded the very first day I met the owner,” Chua recalls.
Whereas American mall operators are loathe to have similar restaurant concepts near each other, there are numerous instances in Asia where Din Tai Fung and Paradise Dynasty are next to, across from, and even on top of each other. Both simply want to be in high-traffic locations.
Americans view this as a faceoff because 1) they’re unaware of the Asian precedents, and 2) in the U.S., the proximity is unusual.
Chua adds a third reason: the misperception among many Americans that there is one Chinese food.
“Chinese food is very diverse,” he says. “Cantonese, Sichuan, Shanghai, Hainanese…. Din Tai Fung is the Taiwanese style. We are the Singaporean style. We are similar … but different. In Asia, you can go to Din Tai Fung on Monday and go to Dynasty on Tuesday.”
The two restaurants do beg comparisons.
Locations: Din Tai Fung has opened nearly 170 worldwide over half a century, Paradise Dynasty has less than 50 since its launch in 2008.
Dumplings: Din Tai Fung, 20 grams each, three refined flavors, one color. Paradise Dynasty, 25 grams, 8 outsized flavors—luffa gourd, foie gras, black truffle, cheese, crab roe, garlic, Szechuan and original with Kurobuta pork or chicken—and eight colors, suggesting nothing so much as an assortment of French macarons. (The idea was inspired by a trip to Paris.) The dumplings at both are meticulously pleated with 18 folds.
Chua has also opened an outpost of his more casual Le Shrimp Ramen on the lower level of Collage; the namesake dish is known for its distinctive orange color and smokiness.
Chua’s portfolio includes more than a dozen dining concepts.
“I used to operate a little street stall,” he says. “I always say I’m a Cinderella—I came from zero to this mini food empire of today.” Chua’s “mini” food empire is Singapore’s largest, representing more than 100 restaurants valued at $300 million.
No two Paradise Dynasty outlets are alike. This one has a black and rose-gold palette, design motifs reminiscent of dumplings, contemporary chandeliers with hundreds of oblong plexiglass elements that seem to float, and the brand’s first bar.
On the menu are Chinese specialties from regions including Anhui, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, and Zhejiang.
Given the restaurant’s tagline, “Legend of Xiao Long Bao,” the must-try item is the “Specialty Dynasty” xiao long bao, eight rainbow-hued, delicately pursed, intensely flavored, and extremely juicy dumplings for $13.80.
Purists, Chua says, “might view colorful dumplings as a gimmick, a marketing ploy, not authentic. But throughout the centuries, food is about creativity. The French had molecular cuisine. We are the first to create eight rainbow flavors of dumplings.”
Other highlights of a first tasting include prawn-and-Kurobuta-pork dumplings in chile vinaigrette ($9.80); scrambled egg whites with fish and dried scallop ($13.80), an ancient recipe intended to replicate crab without using crab; and spicy, crispy Szechuan chicken ($15.80).
Two savory treats prove particularly fascinating: a daikon radish pastry, like a Chinese laminated croissant, not seen before in the U.S. (3 pieces, $6.80), and the ooey-gooey Steamed Salted Egg Yolk Custard Lava Charcoal Bun ($2.50 each).
Chua is flattered by any comparisons to Din Tai Fung. “It’s a good thing—I’m being compared to the king. If you don’t have that capability and that quality, you won’t be compared.”
And maybe some people will say you’re the king?
“No, no, no,” he says with a laugh. “But we will still put our heart and soul into all the food that we do.”
Paradise Dynasty and Le Shrimp Ramen
Collage Culinary Experience at South Coast Plaza
3333 S Bristol St., Costa Mesa