When my daughter sent me a snapshot earlier this week of signage in Irvine's Diamond Jamboree shopping center showing that Hong Kong's famed Tim Ho Wan would be opening up there this winter in the abandoned Capital Seafood space it seemed like terribly exciting news.
And indeed, as soon as I posted the news on the internet the reaction was swift, and well, exciting. The highly acclaimed, Michelin starred, but ridiculously affordable Tim Ho Wan was bringing its dim sum, including its acclaimed and signature crispy baked bbq pork buns to Southern California, after first setting up American branches in Manhattan's East Village and Honolulu. When the East Village branch opened up a couple of years ago, the waiting time for diners was historic, typically running three to four hours. It certainly would not be surprising if there will be similar waits when the Diamond Jamboree location opened, particularly considering that in turning back the clock a few years, people would wait at Diamond Jamboree for an hour just to get into a bakery, the first US branch of Taiwan's 85°C Bakery and Café.
But upon further reflection, Tim Ho Wan's arrival in Irvine needs to be looked at in the context of the trajectory of their East Village location in Manhattan. When I visited that location a year ago, I showed up early, at 10:30am on a Thursday morning, to minimize my waiting time. Turns out that I didn't need to bother as the restaurant was only half full at that time, and still not entirely full when I left the restaurant. It seems that over the first year of its operation, New Yorkers discovered that while the crispy baked bbq pork buns were superior, everything else was "Meh." And the dim sum selection was quite limited, particularly in comparison to what we were offered in Hong Kong. Given that New York is a pretty sorry city for dim sum when compared to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, Toronto, and probably a couple of other cities, to say that the rest of Tim Ho Wan's New York dim sum arsenal didn't stand out in that town is quite an indictment.
Of course we're talking about Tim Ho Wan opening up in the Los Angeles metropolitan SMSA, home to the best Chinese food in the United States. One would hope that they will bring their "A" game to Irvine with the wonderful dim sum we had at one of their Hong Kong locations a few years ago. And I certainly hold out hope that will be the case. But there are other disconcerting signs that the Irvine location will be more like New York and not Hong Kong. Tim Ho Wan has opened up a second US branch, in Honolulu, on Waikiki beach, a couple of months ago and the reports are similar to New York. Long lines when they first opened, but already the lines have disappeared. And a very abbreviated dim sum menu.
But perhaps the most troubling sign is what appears to be a rush to open new branches in the US. Besides Irvine and Honolulu, Tim Ho Wan is opening a second Manhattan branch shortly, this time near Times Square. And just yesterday they announced a branch will be opening at the Palms in Las Vegas. To me, this sounds like a further dilution of the product as has already been seen in the Manhattan East Village location.
But, we can still hope that the Irvine branch will be the real deal. The Irvine location will be by far the least touristy location and the only one located in the midst of a large Chinese American community. But I'm certainly going to keep my expectations down for now.