This is the fifth post in the Oh Canada series, summarizing some of the great eats I had when visiting various Canadian cities this past year. We're moving from Montreal onto Toronto now! Other posts in this series (Montreal posts) include St. Viateur Bagels, Le Bremner, Schartz's Smoked Meats, and Joe Beef.
I was most definitely totally fooled.
I mean, I'd vaguely heard about this happening. My mom has told me anecdotal stories about my Taiwanese relatives popping into Din Tai Fung in other countries (was it Macau, or maybe some small city in China?), only to be turned off by the clear subpar quality of the food - an obvious knock-off.
But for some reason, I didn't think it would happen in North America, a place where trademarks are typically enforced rather strongly.
It wasn't until after I came back to the US, and after some online research, that I confirmed that I had indeed eaten at a fake Ding Tai Fung.
It's actually a pretty authentic-looking copy. When you enter the restaurant, you see the signature window displaying chefs making the dumplings. This is something you see at every Din Tai Fung, and it affirmed to me even more strongly that this restaurant must be the real thing.
The menu looks the same and the dishes look pretty similar. I didn't even notice that the English name is technically off by one letter. You see, it's confusing because when you pronounce "Din Tai Fung" in Mandarin, the proper phonetic spelling using pinyin (the official method) is actually "Ding Tai Feng." So the spelling with the letter "g" in the title (the way this fake restaurant spells it) actually sounds more correct in Mandarin.
The dishes look identical, and many tasted pretty good.
Pan fried rice cakes with mustard greens, bamboo shoots, and pork were decent - not too gummy and pretty good flavor. The tofu sheets with mustard greens was OK, and I actually quite enjoyed the spicy wontons and I took several helping - there's something about that addictive hot & spicy oil!.
But the dumplings were definitely sub par. They weren't made with quite the same finesse as the real ones. The flavors were OK, but the texture of the skin was not nearly as good. Still, though, it was objectively a decent dumpling, and still better than many dumplings I've had in the US.
I guess it's an interesting question - would you visit a restaurant that you knew was blatantly copying another restaurant (down to the name, trade dress, menu, etc) yet still produced reasonably solid Shanghai-style dim sum?
This Ding Tai Fung has been in Toronto for years, so clearly it's been able to survive in one of the most competitive Chinese restaurant markets in North America. By this point, I'm sure a lot of people know that it's not the real Din Tai Fung, yet they are happy to eat there because it's still a decent imitation and offers them a workable copy of something they wouldn't otherwise get (at all).
It kind of reminds me of all the Pinkberry inspired places ("insert-name"-berry) that started opening in various cities where the real Pinkberry was not available. People still swarmed to these places because they offered something that people couldn't otherwise get in their hometowns. Maybe this is something like that.
I had heard from a friend that this Ding Tai Fung has "gone downhill" in the past few years. Perhaps there was a time when it was really close to the real ones, and maybe no one knew? I don't know the history, but I find it interesting that the real Din Tai Fung hasn't really tried to go after these fake ones. Maybe there are too many? Or is that difference of one letter enough that it doesn't constitute copying? (I would highly doubt that, but who knows!) Or was there some sort of "break up" where before, there was a time when it was "real"?
I find it peculiar that the real Din Tai Fung did not say anything about it until July 2010, when they posted a statement on their website calling the restaurants in Toronto and Macau "imposters."
Nevertheless, most of the guests who were with me that night still enjoyed the food. To this group of out-of-towners (virtually none were local to Toronto), this was still better Chinese food than anything they had in their hometowns. Maybe it's because I've visited too many better Din Tai Fungs that I could quickly tell that it wasn't as good.
However, like I said, it's still reasonably enjoyable. If it had a totally different name and opened in Boston, I'd probably eat there because it competes reasonably favorably with many of Boston's Chinese restaurants. However, the fact that they are blatantly copying sort of puts a bad taste in my mouth, and for that reason alone, I'm not certain I'll return.
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