For a time, Tim Ho Wan was Michelin’s cheapest starred restaurant in the world, which in and of itself was enough to draw thousands of diners to its Hong Kong locations throughout the last decade. The high-quality dim sum was already a hit with overseas locals, and it’s a hit with ours, too, now that California’s just landed its first outpost—just on the other side of the Orange County border. With roughly 50 locations dotting the globe, Tim Ho Wan is one of the world’s most famous dim-sum chains, esteemed for its pork buns and infamous for its hours-long waits to get seated. (Sure, L.A. is already home to some of the best dim sum in the country, but you want to see what all the fuss is about, don’t you?)
California’s location is the fifth in the country, joining outposts in Waikiki, Las Vegas and two in New York City. Ours, tucked into the Diamond Jamboree Shopping Center in Irvine, might feel a little late to the party, but it’s got a few unique traits that made it all feel worth the wait. The Irvine space is the first U.S. Tim Ho Wan to feature a takeout window (a lifesaver when you don’t want to hang out for three hours), and features three California-only items: shrimp toast; an avocado-and-shrimp roll; and a sweet tapioca sago that’s made with California-grown grapes, when in season.
The menu isn’t lengthy by dim-sum–house standards, but with around 30 items to pick from—and, if Irvine is a trek for you, repeat visits a rarity—you should plan your order carefully. Here’s our guide to the five dishes you need to order at your first (and probably every) visit to California’s first Tim Ho Wan.
1. Baked BBQ Pork Buns
The buns that launched a thousand visits, Tim Ho Wan’s signature item is beloved by Michelin and dim-sum enthusiasts the world over—and with good reason. Char siu bao are almost synonymous with dim sum, a savory dough that’s usually steamed or baked, and full of roast pork in a salty, tangy sweet sauce, but Tim Ho Wan’s pork buns are unlike any other.
Every location makes and proofs the dough in house, though the BBQ pork itself might get sourced from nearby specialists. (Don’t worry, the BBQ sauce is made onsite, thick with honey and spice.) Once they stuff the buns, they glaze the top with a butter-and-sugar icing, which is what gives the item an outer crust that gives way to the soft, meaty filling beneath. Tim Ho Wan’s BBQ pork buns are all about the interplay between the crunch of that glaze and the flakiness of the baked dough, giving you a texture you won’t find in BBQ pork buns anywhere else. Believe the hype.
2. Deep-Fried Bean Curd with Avocado, Shrimp and Chives
There are three Irvine-only dishes at California’s first Tim Ho Wan—including those aforementioned shrimp toasts and the grape sago dessert—but the best of the bunch is so simple that it’s brilliant. Almost resembling a crispy spring roll, the deep-fried bean curds wrap around plump chopped shrimp and slices of ripe avocado before the whole rolls get lightly battered and sent to the fryer.
They’re crunchy, oily and wholly satisfying, and much of that’s due to the creaminess from the avocado, which retains its shape and cool temperature thanks to a quick fry. You’d think these flash-fried bites would be one of Tim Ho Wan’s easiest and fastest dishes, but you’d be mistaken: These particular bean-curd rolls get dipped one at a time, making them one of the restaurant’s most labor-intensive items. Try to remind yourself of that hard work and really savor each delicious bite (hard as that might be when you want it all, immediately).
3.Steamed Rice with Minced Beef and Pan-Fried Egg
Tim Ho Wan is far from a fusion restaurant, but its take on Cantonese minced beef with egg is a little closer to the Hawaiian staple loco moco, and how could we not appreciate that? As opposed to the more traditional Chinese stir-fry of loose ground beef, Tim Ho Wan forms a patty out of sirloin, and goes beyond simple grinding—once broken down, the kitchen adds its beef to an industrial mixer with a range of spices and herbs, most notably dried-then-rehydrated orange peel.
The citrus brightens and livens the hearty and textural beef patty, which sits snugly atop steamed rice and gets a drizzle of umami-laden beef gravy, and finally, a fried egg. Puncture the yolk and either mix the components together, or dig your spoon into layer after layer of comforting, rich cuisine.
4. Steamed Pork Dumplings with Shrimp
Sure, shumai are some of the most popular—maybe even, dare we say it, basic—dumplings of the dim sum world, but it’s easy to see why: A succulent blend of pork and shrimp makes for an ideal filling of any kind, and the paper-thin wonton wrappers ensure the spotlight remains on the meaty center.
Tim Ho Wan’s take isn’t particularly innovative or even notable in size (unlike, say, our gargantuan hometown heroes at Lunasia), but they’re the platonic ideal of shumai: plump, an even blend of pork to seafood, slightly oily, and steamed to order so you’re getting a fresh example of the dumplings—and avoiding an unfortunate, occasional byproduct of soggy or even rubbery texture, a telltale sign that shumai have sat in the steamers too long. Topped with a single goji berry to lend some sweetness, Tim Ho Wan’s shumai are a classic done right, with just a pinch of style.
5. Fried Silky Milk Sticks
The name isn’t exactly appealing or informative, but it’s certainly apropos: Really, you’re eating battered-and-fried milk. We’ll get to the science of it later.
Tim Ho Wan doesn’t offer much in the way of dessert—in fact, there are only three options, with nary an egg tart to be found—and admittedly, dessert isn’t the chain’s strong suit, but the milk sticks are a must on every visit. Each bite tastes as if you’ve stumbled upon the best fried-foods stall to ever grace a county fair, but in lieu of deep-fried Oreos, you’re feasting on silken, almost custardy milk. The filling holds its rectangular shape due to the kitchen’s technique: Tim Ho Wan thickens milk with cornstarch and pours it into a large sheet pan, where it waits until the blend sets. The staff then slices and tempura-batters it before sending the dessert to the deep-fryer. The result? A light crunchy exterior, with a mildly sweet and familiar filling that’s nostalgic but still feels new.
Tim Ho Wan is now located at 2700 Alton Pkwy in Irvine’s Diamond Jamboree Shopping Center, with hours of 10am to 10pm Sunday to Thursday, and 10am to midnight on Friday and Saturday.