A Taiwanese co-worker had something to tell me: He said he’d just gone to a new restaurant I’d be interested in. But before he even got the chance to pull the business card out of his wallet, I knew he was talking about Tim Ho Wan. I told him I’d been anticipating the opening of its first West Coast location since it was announced last August. As Hong Kong’s most famous export since Jackie Chan, Tim Ho Wan’s reputation as the “World’s Most Inexpensive Michelin-Starred Restaurant” precedes it. I was obsessed. When Tim Ho Wan finally opened in early May, replacing Capital Seafood at Irvine’s Diamond Jamboree, there was word of waits as long as those at Din Tai Fung when it debuted at South Coast Plaza.
Since I hadn’t yet tried it myself, I asked my co-worker what he thought of his visit. “The service was great,” he said, recalling how unusually attentive the staff was for a Chinese restaurant. And despite it being dinnertime when he went, he was able to order dim sum. To him, this was tantamount to McDonald’s finally offering breakfast all day. It was, he warned, a very limited selection. And there were no roving carts. Everything he wanted to eat had to be marked on a sushi-style order sheet.
But what he noticed most was how young the crowd around him was. “I was at least twice as old as everyone else there! And I didn’t see any grandpas reading Chinese newspapers!”
I went to Tim Ho Wan for myself that evening. As it was a Monday night, there was no wait. After being seated, I surveyed the room and noted how different it was from Capital Seafood: There were no family-style round tables; instead, most were two-seaters. And rather than its predecessor’s in-your-face, Vegas-like opulence, Tim Ho Wan was understated, with muted birch and subtle splashes of jade green. Nothing was ostentatiously Chinese except for a few subliminal motifs that blended into the background.
But as anticipated, there was dim sum for dinner. The usual suspects were present and accounted for, including suimai, hargow and the barbecue-pork-filled buns for which Tim Ho Wan is acclaimed. The latter is rightfully lauded as the best thing on the menu. A thin, crispy sugar shell akin to Japanese melon pan or Mexican concha covered the buns. When I bit into one, my brain couldn’t decide whether I was eating a glazed doughnut or something savory made of pork.
There were also dim sum items that weren’t dim sum items, such as a metal bowl of rice steamed with a layer of minced beef and topped with a fried egg. Its presence on the menu was so puzzling I ordered it out of curiosity. But when the dish arrived, I realized it was nearly impossible to share because the loose rice grains were awkward to pick up from a plate with chopsticks.
A wonderfully tender braised beef brisket with daikon was also atypical of a dim sum restaurant. Yet the more I ate of the actual dim sum, the more I realized I was using a saucer of the hot chile oil condiment as a crutch. It compensated for the lack of flavor in the har gow, suimai, and shrimp-and-chive dumplings. Even the steamed pork ribs—usually a flavor-packed heavy hitter with salted black beans—tasted underseasoned. And then there was the steamed rice roll filled with pasty minced beef. The noodle and filling were indistinguishable from each other; I had to rely on a liberal dousing of soy sauce to make it palatable.
If the steamed dumplings were inexplicably dull, the fried items were only slightly better. The egg rolls filled with egg white and shrimp were airy, and the deep-fried eggplant smeared with shrimp paste had a satisfying springiness. But the bean curd with shrimp and avocado tasted of nothing other than greasy batter. It was still better than the worst offender: a dessert of batter-covered milk sticks that gushed so much oil that it made an OC Fair deep-fried Twinkie seem like health food.
There was some reprieve from the grease in the form of a wobbly steamed-egg cake; a refreshing tapioca-pearl dessert with pieces of halved grapes; and, of course, the tea, which cost an additional $5.25 since I opted for the non-caffeinated chrysanthemum instead of the standard pu-erh because I didn’t want to be up all night.
The millennials around me didn’t seem to care, nor did they blink that the dim sum was nearly twice as expensive here as elsewhere. But as I saw them scrolling through Instagram on their phones, I felt a bit wistful for those newspaper-reading grandpas and when dim sum could only be had in the morning.
Tim Ho Wan, 2700 Alton Pkwy., Irvine, (262) 888-8828; timhowanusa.com. Open daily, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Dim sum, $3.95-$8.50.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.