Ian Harkes burnished his own personal Dundee derby history with a late winner as United emerged victorious in the first Scottish Premiership meeting of the neighbours in more than five years.
Harkes, who netted a stunning strike in a 6-2 Championship win two years ago, fizzed in a fine effort to earn victory and extend Dundee's streak without success at Tannadice to 11 games.
James McPake made great play in the build-up of snapping that 17-year run, but his side were unable to make good on his rhetoric.
Dundee had the best chances of a keenly-contested scuffle, but Jordan Marshall was denied by Ryan Edwards' goalline clearance in stoppage-time and Leigh Griffiths somehow lashed over from six yards.
It means they are still searching for their first win since promotion and are seven points behind their city rivals in the division.
United, meanwhile, are ensconced in the top half after a fourth clean sheet in six league games and a third single-goal victory of the term.
And in keeping with those wins, Thomas Courts' side claimed the points by making the most of the few opportunities that came their way.
They huffed and puffed without cleaving open a compact Dundee all that often, with Harkes' fine strike - arrowed past Adam Ledzgins from 20 yards - coming after another attempted incision faltered.
Their main source of threat was Peter Pawlett, notionally playing on the left of a front three but bustling infield whenever the mood took him.
His shooting was similarly haphazard. One early effort caused consternation as it rattled around the directors' box, moments before another attempt thudded into the fleshy mass of United fans in the lower tier.
Pawlett was getting closer, though, and his third attempt cannoned off the base of a post with the aid of Legzdins' fingers after an adroit spin and burst at the edge of the area.
That effort seemed to fleetingly ignite something in United. A Charlie Mulgrew free-kick whistled narrowly past, then Harkes bypassed a bewildered Liam Fontaine with a pirouette and flick through his legs before being thwarted by Lee Ashcroft's goal-saving intervention.
Marc McNulty, Dylan Levitt and Kieran Freeman all had tame efforts fielded and, just as Dundee looked as if they wresting the ascendancy, Harkes struck.
Ledzgins perhaps might have pawed the shot away, but McPake might rue other failings among his players amid a decent performance from the visitors. Their profligacy in front of goal, for one.
Perhaps surprisingly, given his history with Dundee, this was Griffiths' first derby and two early flashes of sudden menace suggested he could be the matchwinner.
Twice in the opening 15 minutes he met teasing Jordan Marshall crosses, looping a header agonisingly past then having a flashing effort shovelled away by the returning Benji Siegrist.
That he faded from the game after that was scant surprise, given his lack of match fitness, but the on-loan Celtic striker should have scored deep into the second half when Shaun Byrne's shot was blocked into his path, but he wildly swiped over the bar from close range.
After the concession, Dundee had chances to level. The imperious Mulgrew denied Cillian Sheridan with a judiciously-timed challenge before, in the dying moments, Ryan Edwards diverted Marshall's fierce shot off the line.
Had it gone in, it would have been hard to argue it was ill-deserved. But instead, Dundee's long wait for a Tannadice win continues.
What did we learn?
United had not scored in three of their five Premiership matches this term, and netted just once in the other two. Again on Sunday, they struggled to fashion clear openings, with McNulty a frustrated and isolated figure at the point of their attack.
Harkes' goal masked all that for now, but how Courts addresses that lack of creativity could be key to the success, or otherwise, of their season, given they look solid defensively and diligent in midfield.
Dundee seem to have similar issues. Well-structured and committed, they only really had Griffiths' two early efforts to show for their work until a late flurry and are still searching for a first league win since promotion.
The longer that continues, the more edgy things might become for McPake, his players and the fans.
Man of the match - Jeando Fuchs
What they said
Dundee United head coach Thomas Courts: "It was exhilarating. The goal was a sensational moment.
"The game went exactly how we expected it to. But we were well worth our victory today. It's a phenomenal effort from the players. And now we've got a phenomenal game to look forward to on Thursday (League Cup tie with Hibernian)."
Dundee manager James McPake: "We're devastated. I don't think it was a game we deserved to lose. If either team were going to win it, it looked like us, but its a sloppy goal and we need to be more clinical. I know I sound like a broken record.
"Bringing on Jason Cummings was to try and win the game, Leigh Griffiths was tiring. Was it brave, I don't know. I don't think that cost us the derby. The shape was fine in the team, but you've got to do the basics right and we didn't."
Dundee host St Johnstone in the League Cup quarter-finals on Wednesday (19:45 BST) before Rangers visit Dens next Saturday (15:00). United welcome Hibernian in the cup on Thursday (19:45) before travelling to face Celtic (15:00) three days later.