food review: tim ho wan (irvine, ca)

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

✰ (3/5)

If you're an Asian-American like me, nothing fulfills the role of asian comfort food as much as dim sum. It's the perfect hang over cure, casual meal with friends and family, and my go-to morning brunch pick.

And if you're an OC local like me, you've probably heard of Tim Ho Wan-- a Chinese dim sum restaurant that started in Hong Kong and earned itself a Michelin star. In the past year, the restaurant made its way overseas to settle in Irvine, CA, placing itself in Orange County's competitive asian cuisine scene.

Here are some standout dishes that keep me coming back:

Sticky Rice in Lotus Leaf (古法糯米雞)
Damn. This was the melt in your mouth sort of tasty. The pork was super tender and the flavoring of the rice was so well integrated. It's a simple dish with few ingredients, but this was by far my favorite from the restaurant. It makes me all nostalgic for the the sticky rice my family makes for gatherings and celebratory events.

Baked BBQ Pork Buns (酥皮焗叉燒包)
This was the first experience I've had of eating pork buns that wasn't your typical asian bun texture. Instead, it was delightfully sweet and flaky on the outside-- sort of like a dessert bun. Amazing. With the tender pork inside leaning on the sweet side too, it can be pretty rich. So plan to share the three buns amongst friends! 

Shu Mai - Steamed Pork Dumplings with Shrimp (烧卖)
Admittedly, I was never a Shu Mai fan until I tried it at Tim Ho Wan. I'm not completely sure if it was my palette that changed or the alluring taste of the food itself, but I can definitely say that this dish was perfect-- it was sweet and savory, not overly so, and the shrimp and pork inside were so tender. This was the second dish I reached for the most when I ate with friends.

Steamed Rice Roll with Shrimp & Chinese Chives (韮黃鮮蝦腸)
Whenever my family went out for dim sum, this was always a staple dish to order. Granted, fussy kid Steff went through a no-seafood phase until college. So there was totally a period of time when I would just eat the rice paper and sauce, and give the shrimp to a family member. This place's steamed rice rolls were bomb-- steamed to perfection. Whether or not you eat the roll perfectly intact or eat just the shrimp itself, it packs a lot of flavor. 

Congee with Pork & Preserved Egg (粥品)
Congee is such a classic. Breakfast, lunch or dinner? Congee. In sickness and in health? Congee. Seriously, this stuff is the asian equivalent to chicken soup. This variation of congee is essentially a flavorful, rice porridge. Preserved egg is one of those things that you'll either like or really dislike, so prepare yourself. If you aren't the biggest fan, you can literally just pick it out or leave your portion for a friend who does because it doesn't affect the flavor of the porridge. I love Tim Ho Wan's take on congee. It may not be the best congee I've ever had, but every time I go it's the dish that I start with. It's lightness helps ease my appetite towards richer, heavier dishes.

Overall, I think that Tim Ho Wan's current yelp rating (read: 2.5/5) is underrated. 

Many of Tim Ho Wan - Irvine's first guests came to the restaurant expecting multi-Michelin Star service and quality when the very heart of dim sum is held in familiarity and humble roots. 

Granted, when the Irvine location first opened, pace of service was rather rocky. With months of hype built up about its opening, the wait time ranged anywhere from 3-4 hours, attributing to their initial lower ratings. Nowadays, wait times, even at peak hours, are significantly less. It usually maxes out at 45 minutes. They've even invested in an iPad for Yelp waitlisting. If you're on a time crunch, I'd recommend seating yourself at the bar which is first come first serve.

Though Tim Ho Wan brands itself as "the world's cheapest Michelin-star restaurant," to the average dim sum-goer their pricing is considered more on the expensive side. Expect to spend around $19-30 for super full bellies. Some competitors of similar quality and price range would include J Zhou Oriental Cuisine over at The District in Tustin and China Garden, also in Irvine. With Westminster just a 15-20 minute drive over, it is hard for Tim Ho Wan to compete with the abundance of dim sum spots that are not only cheaper but of equal or greater caliber. In fact, rivaling local favorite Seafood Cove #2 would probably take the cake on price to quality of food ratio. I personally believe the pricing comes down to the higher rent in Irvine as well as paying for the experience of being seated in a clean, stylish interior.

Staff wise, everybody is friendly and very polite. Reception is willing to answer any questions. The only improvements they could make are ensuring that all orders make it to the table and to make it easier to grab the servers' attention once seated. The two times I visited, there was always an MIA dish and we'd have to gently remind our servers (to which they would quickly resolve for us).

Ultimately, if you're down to spend a little more and feel curious about their signature pork buns, check out Tim Ho Wan. They satisfy one's dim sum cravings fully, and the location makes it easy to popover quickly for 85°C Bakery coffee or Somi Somi right after!

1 comment

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