Much Ado About Nothing--Tim Ho Wan In Irvine

As you may recall, the reaction to last year’s announcement of Tim Ho Wan’s opening in Irvine was much more muted on this board as compared to all the general hoopla due to the comments by myself and others that existing Tim Ho Wan locations in the United States were nothing to write home about except for the crispy baked bbq pork buns. However there were hopes that since Irvine is a Chinese dining hotbed, compared to the existing locations in Manhattan’s East Village and Times Square, and Waikiki beach, Tim Ho Wan would want to bring their “A” game to this location. Those hopes seemed to dim after evaluating the reviews after the Irvine opening last month despite the massive waits, and with the crowds starting to die down I figured it was time for a first hand look. Unfortunately, even with diminished expectations, I found the visit disappointing.

On the positive side, they did a really nice job of renovating the old Capital Seafood space–light, airy and modern.

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A pleasant surprise was the beef cheung fun, one of the best versions I’ve eaten, enhanced with the flavor of orange peel. I do find it ironic, though, in that Tim Ho Wan gained their fame as being the most inexpensive Michelin starred restaurant in the world, something that clearly doesn’t hold in their US branches. The order of three rolls was almost $6, and like everything else we ordered the items themselves were undersized compared to normal dim sum.

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Something different was the fried tofu, shrimp and avocado roll. I presume this was an ode to their California setting, effectively their version of a California roll.

The real shocker was the signature crispy baked bbq pork buns. From the moment I bit into the first one five years ago at the original Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong, this has been my single favorite Chinese dish and which I actively seek out wherever I go. I’ve had many good versions of this item, and while not as good as Hong Kong, the Tim Ho Wan Manhattan version was quite good. However, the Irvine version was not. Too sweet and not terribly flavorful. Now if you had never eaten this kind of bun before, I can see easily how someone would be impressed by these buns. But having become sort of a connoisseur of these items in the past few years, I feel that Irvine’s are not competitive. At $6 for an order of three buns these are pricey to boot–Family Pastry in LA Chinatown has a version that’s at least double the size, at least twice as good, and goes for $1.35.

The brisket with noodles wasn’t bad, just undistinguished and overpriced at $8 for a small bowl.

“Blah!” is probably the best description of the flavor of the har gow. I’m much rather get eight of these for about $3 at Lucky Deli in LA Chinatown than pay $6 for this tiny quartet.

As with the Manhattan branch, the menu at the Irvine is very short, such that we really had trouble finding a sixth item we wanted to order. We ended up with sticky rice in lotus leaf for almost $7. What we got was sticky rice in lotus leaf and a small amount of meat inside. We wouldn’t have even finished this dish if we didn’t pay so much for it.

Well at least for the price you pay you get good service. Well, not really. With our little table for two and six dishes it was very cluttered. And even as the restaurant was emptying out nobody cleared off our empty plates until we called them over.

Obviously, Tim Ho Wan in Irvine is for somebody, perhaps people who want to say they ate at a restaurant related to a Michelin starred eatery. As I write this review a little before 1:30pm on a weekday, Yelp shows a 15 to 30 minute waiting time. Charitably I guess I’d rate this on a par with mid-tier SGV dim sum restaurants like NBC and 888, not taking into account price. But if you have other options there’s no reason to come here.

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I wonder if there’s a lack of talent in the US so it doesn’t matter how great the brand name is…if you can’t find talent here to cook properly…

I don’t think that’s the issue. There’s plenty of much better dim sum than Tim Ho Wan in LA and SF. Heck, J Zhou in Tustin is better. And even in New York, where dim sum is pretty poor compared to California, Tim Ho Wan doesn’t even stand out in that town.

I just meant in general and wasn’t necessarily directed at THW. None of the dim sum in SF or LA are even close, in terms of execution, when compared to the higher end ones in Hong Kong.

True, and the issue of talent applies in Hong Kong as well. https://medium.com/airbnbmag/dim-sum-is-dead-long-live-dim-sum-f2eb94200cbb

Meanwhile over here there’s the declining relative importance of Cantonese cuisine, most strikingly evidenced by the recent demise of Ocean Star and Empress Harbor.

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true

those two dim sum places are just not up to par and they’ve been slowly bleeding out customers for many years…

Definitely true, but the LA Times article made it sound like Ocean Star and Empress Harbor were more old school than they really were. Empress Harbor opened in 2000, which I believe was one year before Sea Harbour’s opening. Ocean Star opened on Atlantic Blvd. in 1992, which is not exactly long in the tooth either.

sad turn of events

Thanks for the report @chandavkl. Sad to know that your experience mirrored ours as well for Tim Ho Wan Irvine. :frowning:

Thank you! My dad, who lives in HK, refused to let us go to Tim Ho Wan in HK, saying the there was much better dim sum to be had. I’ve regretted not going and was keen to try out the one in Irvine - if only for those baked BBQ pork buns. Family Pastry, here I come!

Well I wouldn’t mind going back to Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong. Yes, there is much better dim sum in Hong Kong but it costs maybe 10x times what Tim Ho Wan charges–and you might not be able to get into those fancy places.

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Family Pastry calls theirs the Snow Mountain Bun. But even their regular baked bbq pork bun is superior, at least when the head chef is there. Unfortunately once in a while somebody else sneaks into the kitchen and you get a less full and less flavorful bun.

It is clear to me that their corporate strategy is to capitalize on their “Star” status and associated name recognization to expend to be the global leader in the Dim Sum world much like Taco Bell is known worldwide for their tacos.

All I order there are their burritos. I don’t recall ever having had a Taco Bell taco lol…

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Agreed. Bring back the Encherito!

I remember the encherito, but can’t you get a TB burrito that is pretty much the same thing?? The XXL grilled burrito I indulged in the other night was pretty much that.

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I don’t know, but I’ll have to get in and check it out. I migrated over to the Del Taco camp years ago, and now that Naugle’s is back and a mere couple of miles from my house…

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There’s not a shortage of talent; I just had lovely, well-done dim sum in Chicago, which I’d previously thought of as a bit of a Chinese food wasteland. However, the your potential customer base will be different if you’re paying high rent, charging higher prices, and touting a Michelin star, with valet parking available…

Where at in Chicago because I’m here now and most of the places I’ve tried were decent but nothing I thought was great.

Curious where you went. Do agree Chicago Chinese food has made good strides in the past 5 years or so.