Rainbow Soup Dumpling Sensation Is Opening Its First U.S. Location
When Eldwin Chua saw the first wave of the xiao long bao craze spreading from its origins in China to the rest of the world around 2008, the Singaporean restaurateur thought to himself, "I want to have a slice of this amazing pie." But instead of opening a concept similar to what already existed, he took inspiration from the colorful bakery displays he saw on a trip to France. "I needed the macarons of dumplings," he decided, modeling his version on the eye-catching colors and appealing flavors of the cookies. It was an instant hit.
At the time, the former hawker stand cook had just three restaurants. Now – mainly on the strength of his Instagram-sensation rainbow soup dumplings – his Paradise Group has more than 100 restaurants around Asia. In September, the first location outside Asia of his flagship brand, Paradise Dynasty, arrives at the South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, California.
After a year of delays because of the pandemic, the soup dumpling specialist will finally introduce Americans to the Eight Flavor Rainbow Xiao Long Bao. The dish uses natural ingredients like spinach for the green-hued dumpling skins and orange for the carrot, each of which get the standard 18 pleats as they wrap around the various flavors of Kurobuta pork filling: original, cheese, crab roe, garlic, luffa gourd, black truffle, Szechuan, and foie gras.
But the bright colors on the table and sparkling rose gold and glossy black space lit up by shimmering chandeliers belie the challenges the chain faced to cross the Pacific. "Opening a restaurant in the U.S. has always been my dream," says Chua, who came to California a decade ago to start studying the restaurant landscape and making connections. For five years, every shopping center they looked at rejected them – they already had a Chinese restaurant, often Paradise Dynasty's biggest competition in the xiao long bao world, Din Tai Fung.
We are really very different," Chua says, calling Din Tai Fung's style "the Taiwanese version of Chinese food," and describing Paradise Dynasty's offerings as a hybrid of Chinese and Singapore Chinese food. "People will always rate you and compare, call you a copycat," Chua remembers thinking when he first opened Paradise Dynasty. "We have to be different." But Chua seems to thrive on the competition, using a real estate loophole to finally get Paradise Dynasty (and sibling brand Le Shrimp Ramen) into the South Coast Mall, which already has a Din Tai Fung – technically, the space is part of a food hall within Bloomingdale's, and thus controlled by them.
After signing the lease, Chua hired a team of chefs and brought them to Singapore in December of 2019 to learn the signature dishes. The team had only two weeks of training before COVID-19 sent them home and Paradise had to lay them off. By the time a team from Asia could make it back to the U.S., only 10 could come, rather than the usual opening crew of 30, and only the chef and general manager from the originally trained team were back.
The staffing struggles meant that when the restaurant finally began serving customers during the soft opening phase in late July, they only opened ten tables – while customers lined up for more than an hour to try the famed dumplings. Now, they are up to almost 30 tables, and Chua says the staff are improving and growing everyday as they get closer to the official opening, and achieving Chua's goal to open in the U.S.
Along with the famous xiao long bao, the menu includes the flaky, crispy radish pastry, the smooth-skinned steamed salted egg yolk custard lava charcoal bun, more than a dozen each of dumpling and noodle options, plus soups, main dishes, and desserts. But anyone who has been to a Paradise Dynasty elsewhere will see a few differences in the U.S. menu, as the restaurant tries to cater to what they consider American tastes: the famed crispy sweet and sour pork is instead crispy sweet and sour chicken, and there's no whole fish, intestines, or century egg. There's also no jellyfish, but that may have less to do with preferences than quality – Chua told the LA Times in 2019, "You can't get good jellyfish in the U.S."
But the ambitious owner refuses to let a massive competitor, lack of ingredients, or staffing difficulties stand in the way of his dream of a U.S. location. And the hundreds of people waiting up to two hours in line for their chance to taste the rainbow – the macarons of the dumpling world – show why he shouldn't.
"We take it seriously, we hope to have a second, a third, eventually all across the United States, at least one Paradise Dynasty in every state," says Chua. "That is our ultimate dream."