Restaurant: Tim Ho Wan
Location: 2700 Alton Pkwy, Irvine, CA 92606. (262) 888-8828
Date: May 15, 2019
Cuisine: Hong Kong / Taiwanese Dim Sum
Rating: Solid, new format, but not amazing
Tim Ho Wan, the Michelin-starred dim sum restaurant from Hong Kong, opened last week in Irvine at the Diamond Jamboree Shopping Center.
It’s the first Southern California location of Tim Ho Wan, which has 47 outposts in nine countries, with U.S. restaurants in New York City, Las Vegas and Hawaii. The restaurant earned worldwide acclaim when it opened in 2009 as a 20-seat dim sum restaurant in Mong Kok, Hong Kong, earning a Michelin star a year later. The restaurant has continued to earn a star for nine consecutive years.
Tim Ho Wan is best known for its baked BBQ pork buns, made with a sweet, sticky char siu (barbecued pork) encased in a cloudlike fluffy bread with a sweet, crunchy top. In addition to the buns, there are the usual dim sum favorites, including har gow (steamed shrimp dumplings), siu mai (steamed pork dumplings with shrimp), braised chicken feet with abalone sauce, congee with pork and preserved egg, steamed egg cake and fried turnip cake.
And the restaurant is known as much for its long wait times.
Mid week, Yarom and I, dedicated Chinese eaters that we are made the full on 1 hour+ pilgrimage to the OC just to try the new “hot” dim sum place.
It’s one of those newish maxi-malls (10 years or so) — a bit nicer than a traditional strip mall but cheesy construction. There were all the usual suspects like 85 degrees, hai di lao, etc.
11:15am — 3 hour wait! Yep! The buzz is a-buzzing. We were lucky though and were only 2 people (we had a third join us mid meal), so we got seated in about 35 minutes.
Meanwhile we went next door and got some 85 degrees coffee.
Besides the regular tables there is a bar, but it’s not open yet. This will make coming in by oneself easier/faster eventually.
The main dining room is attractive, with some build out, but it’s quite casual. Even more downscale maybe than Din Tai Fung and set up for smaller 2-4 person parties (younger audience) and not the traditional giant round tables of a big Cantonese banquet house. More on this later at the end.
The menu is small, and everything (pretty much) is pictured on the placemats.
The older sheet. Today about 1/4 of the items were not available, as they haven’t come “online” yet. It’s still in soft opening.
Steamed Rice Roll with Shrimp and Chives. As I always mention, in my family, when I was a kid, this was called “shrimp slime.” We liked it then, I love it now. This particular one had nice fluffy texture, but the taste was a bit reduced. Maybe less grease? (which is a good thing in dim sum). The sauce was a bit mild too, not as sweet as it usually is.
Braised Chicken Feet with Abalone Sauce and Peanut. Nice abalone sauce and good texture on the little chicken claws.
Foot fetish (not everyone loves a good chicken foot).
Sticky Rice in Lotus Leaf. A dim sum classic.
Inside the meat and sausage bits of the rice were good, but it also tasted a bit under-seasoned. Not salty enough? Texture was pretty good though.
Braised Beef Brisket with Turnip. Just like mom’s Rosh Hashanah brisket with potatoes! Actually pretty close. Beef was excellent. Soft and full of flavor.
Braised Beef Brisket with Thin Rice Noodles in Soup. Soup was delicious. The meat was the same as with the turnips — and just as good. The noodles are a bit thin and soft, which is traditional with this soup, but I like more al dente noodles in general. The bowl size, which is hard to tell here, is single person small. It’s not the bigger bowl that most Chinese places use. More on that later too.
Pan Fried Noodles. Very simple, classic pan fried egg noodles. Nice taste and light texture though. A bit less greasy than the most traditional version. I’m thinking they use a different (or less) oil than traditional Chinese.
Steamed Pork Spare Rib with Black Bean Sauce. Bone in. The usual sketchy looking pork niblets, but great flavor. Also maybe a touch lighter than usual at most dim sum places.
Deep Fried Spring Roll with Egg White and Shrimp.
You can see inside the fluffy egg white. Very nice light roll. Good crispiness, good texture on the filling. Slightly lighter grease though so I think the flavor was a bit muted. The sauce is more a slightly sweetened soy. I kinda like the sweet sauce for this kind of fry. This may be a Taiwanese influence?
Deep Fried Bean Curd with Avocado and Shrimp and Golden Chives. It’s bean curd, but fried up like a spring roll. The inside with the avocado was interesting and flavorful, adding a bit more heft than the fluffy Spring Roll. Again a sweet sauce would have worked.
Steamed Vegetable Dumplings. Nice texture on the skin and chunky vegetables inside. Light skin too which I like. Still a touch under salty/greasy?
Steamed Dumplings with Shrimp and Chives. Great texture again for the skin, but soft on the inside and muted in flavor.
Har Gow. Steamed Shrimp Dumplings. Nice skin, big chunk of meaty shrimp. This was the best dumpling and fairly classic.
Steamed Beef Ball with Bean Curd Skin. Nice soft meat ball with a good beefy flavor.
Siu Mai. Steamed Pork Dumplings with Shrimp. Small like I like them, and very good texture, but again had that slightly muted flavor.
Steamed Rice with Minced Beef and Pan Fried Egg. Rice less sticky than typical Chinese rice (on purpose). Pretty much a flat layer of the same meat as the beef ball on the rice, with a fried egg and the sauce from the Rice Roll. The whole thing was pretty great. The beef on the rice, with the richness of the egg, and the sauce soaking into it all.
House Special Baked BBQ Pork Buns. Soft crunchy outside. A good bit of sugar.
Inside was delectable sweet pork. This was a great pork bun. As good as I’ve had. It’s of the slightly crunchy type. There are several other types like the steamed white ones, or the baked syrup glazed ones. I probably like this and the glazed ones best.
Tim Ho Wan is interesting. They are clearly making a play at becoming (expanding?) a little empire of fine casual focused dim sum eatery. It’s very new generation. Very millennial. The table layout is for 2s and 4s instead of the giant round tables of the big old Cantonese palace. The decor and format are more casual. The menu is smaller, maybe 1/4 the size and focused only on the dim sum greatest hits. Also importantly there is no “second chef” and giant banquet menu. It’s all the same focused small set of dim sum.
Service, particularly for being in soft opening, was excellent. They kept checking on us. They were speedy. Some confusion but they were on it double checking and made sure everything was perfect in the end. They are clearly very dedicated to improving and doing a good job. There were some minor quirks, like they had no chili oil (only chili sauce) — but they promised to get some by next week!
Plate/order size is smaller than a tradition dim sum house. I actually like this as it allows more dishes. They don’t have any large plate items. This is more consistent with the likes of DTF (Din Tai Fung). It works better with parties of 2.
Food wise, the textures were consistently good, which is the standard thing that many dim sum places mess up. Food was pretty fresh and very hot and not soggy. Problem for me was that on many dishes the flavors felt muted or light. I think it’s under seasoning. Maybe there isn’t so much salt (MSG?). Maybe they use a lighter oil. There is this standard dim sum oil taste that I really like and it wasn’t present or at least was very much more reserved. That oil and salt thing is one of the things I love about dim sum. As I mentioned, the menu is fairly small. We ordered every dish available the day we went and all are pictured above. There were about 6 or so on the menu that weren’t online.
So in terms of actual dim sum quality, places like Elite and Grand Harbor are a notch better at current. I can hope that Tim Ho Wan tunes up a bit, but it’s also possible that they are deliberately going for a lighter less coma-inducing style. It has this new faster/more casual format too, but with a long wait, that’s offset. Eventually though, it probably will be easy to get in on a weekday — it’s always going to be a long wait on weekends. Of course, there is always 85 degrees while you wait. And for me the long drive. I hope one opens on the Westside up here!