The buzz of the dining room is a tell-tale sign of a good dim sum restaurant: It hums like a raucous turn-of-the-century cocktail party, where the revelers are families crowded around tables the size of small carousels piled high with stacks of plates and steam baskets and teapots.
In the old-school places, carts slalom around the tables, making a game of morning tea and adding the din of the call-and-response. The orchestra noise is mostly of conversation, as dim sum is at its heart about the conviviality of snacking as much as it is the snacks themselves. The best dim sum meal I ever had lasted from breakfast to lunch, through the arrival of more friends and more than one cart service. The food was pretty good too.
This is not the kind of dim sum that you will find at Tim Ho Wan, which arrived in May amid much anticipation in Irvine’s Diamond Jamboree Shopping Center. It’s the first Southern California location of the Hong Kong chain, now clocking in at almost 50 outposts around the world. (Hell’s Kitchen! Waikiki!) The original Hong Kong Tim Ho Wan opened in 2009 in Mong Kok, Kowloon, and a year later earned the Michelin star that it still holds. The “world’s most inexpensive Michelin-starred restaurant” tagline is all over the chain’s site and menus.
The ambiance at our Tim Ho Wan is more Cinnabon than banquet hall: pale wood, red cushions at the counter bar, a pristine wall of tea urns, a golden dragon or two on the wall. To be fair, the Tim Ho Wan in the IFC Mall in Hong Kong’s Central station, where my daughter and her boyfriend and his family took me for my first lunch in Hong Kong a few months ago, was similarly styled.
And if the conceit — whether operating principle or tire company Platonic ideal — is dim sum in a well-trafficked pedestrian zone, with fast service, a cheap check and well-executed food, then Tim Ho Wan’s Irvine branch is an excellent pit stop. It’s a few thousand miles closer than Hong Kong, and the only political protests you’re likely to navigate are either on television or in your head.
That said, Irvine’s version is not the dim sum grail that you might expect, given the Michelin hype. The baked barbecue pork buns that are the chain’s emblematic dish, textured pillows of pastry enveloping a pocket of char siu, are a notch too sweet, whereas the famous originals, in an admirable bit of restraint, halt just short of pork-pie-as-dessert. The steamed egg cake that paired so well with repeating pots of the house pu-erh in Hong Kong suffered from coarse crumb syndrome. The deep-fried spring rolls were unfortunately oily.
So maybe steer clear of the fried stuff and concentrate on the steamed portion of the program — a happily large chapter of the menu. The har gow might not have as many pleats as a proper field hockey kilt, but they’re well-cooked, bouncy and soothing. The shumai, steamed pork and shrimp dumplings, each topped by a single bright goji berry, are worth repeat-ordering and requisite Instagramming. The steamed bean-curd-wrapped beef balls (which is to say: meatballs) are crazy tender; and the various steamed rice rolls, albeit over-sauced, are properly addictive. The turnip cakes are torqued with dried shrimp, which gives a ferment-y punch to the dish’s normal vegetal geometry.
There are soups and braises on the menu — brisket with noodles, congee with preserved egg — but this is commuter dim sum, so order another basket of buns and save the slow food for a San Gabriel Valley brunch parlor with giant tables and the languidly spinning lazy Susans.
One of the best items is the hefty envelope that is sticky rice pressed around a filling of Chinese sausage, chicken thigh and shiitake mushrooms and wrapped in a slate-green lotus leaf as pretty as anything your kid pressed between pages in kindergarten. As for dessert, since you’ll be skipping the fried matchsticks of goo — the less said about the fried milk sticks, the better — try the osmanthus with goji berries, which tastes like floral Jell-O and looks like jiggly, Neolithic amber.
All-day dim sum is no longer the novelty it once was, so the main draw of this Tim Ho Wan outpost — other than a notch on some Michelin stick — may well be its takeout window. From this counter-size portal on the other side of the restaurant’s cocktail bar, you can order an abbreviated menu including the pork buns, shumai, sticky rice and chicken feet. Just the thing to picnic on at the nearby Crystal Cove State Park beach.
As for egg tarts, sadly neither the Irvine Tim Ho Wan nor the one I went to in Hong Kong offers them. In Hong Kong, I pilgrimaged to the egg tart specialist Cheung Hing Coffee Shop in Happy Valley, since a visit to that city without the flaky custard pastries would have been unthinkable. Fortunately, there’s an 85°C bakery in the Diamond Jamboree mall with two kinds of very creditable egg tarts. And since your dim sum meal will have been a highly efficient one, minus the long narrative of carts and their conversation, you’ll have the time for another pit stop.
Where: 2700 Alton Parkway, Ste. 127-131, Irvine
Information: timhowanusa.com, (262) 888-8828
Scattergood writes for the Los Angeles Times.