I remember hearing about Chef Tony Dim Sum years ago on our old Chowhound board, with it being recommended by some Hounds as Vancouver’s standout Dim Sum restaurant. Looking into it a bit, it turns out Chef-Owner Tony He also founded Sea Harbour, which for years was Southern California’s top Hong Kong / Cantonese restaurant. I had bookmarked Chef Tony Dim Sum in the hopes that if I ever found myself in Vancouver, it would be a place to try.
Then, right before the pandemic hit in early 2020, Chef Tony Dim Sum expanded and opened their first location outside Vancouver, in Pasadena, California. We couldn’t wait to try it. (The Pasadena location has remained shuttered since 2020, but they decided to focus on opening a new location in Arcadia (more on this below).)
Walking into the Old Pasadena location, it’s a beautiful space, but feels strangely a mix of different styles: A sleek modern, all-white, bright bar seating area, and then keeping the old European style and chandeliers of the previous business on the other side of the dining room.
Perusing the menu, and they certainly have a wide variety of Dim Sum dishes, all beautifully captured in a thick, hardcover, picture book menu.
They have 5 different types of Teas (about average for most local Dim Sum restaurants), but at least it’s presented in a beautiful teapot:
The Oolong Tea itself was fine.
Baked BBQ Pork Bun French Style:
We were hoping the Baked BBQ Pork Buns were a homage to the crispy topped versions made famous by Tim Ho Wan (Hong Kong). They did indeed turn out to be sort of a homage, slightly crisped on top, but the rest of the Bao texture felt too doughy, and the Charsiu BBQ Pork filling was a bit too much on the sweet side.
Roast Duck (Half):
Our waitress strongly recommended their Hong Kong Roast Duck, saying it was a specialty. Unfortunately, this was just mediocre. Flabby Duck skin, all of the Duck Fat was unrendered (see pic), and flavor-wise? It was on par with Sam Woo BBQ.
It should be noted that some of the plating was definitely a step up from typical Dim Sum eateries locally.
Deep Fried Crispy King Prawn:
Definitely a visually standout presentation, these giant Prawn were wrapped in thin noodle-like dough and deep fried. They were thankfully tasty, but a touch oily. They were also uncleaned (presented shell on), so that might be off-putting to some.
Chicken in Sticky Rice Wrapped with Lotus Leaf:
A favorite of ours at Dim Sum restaurants, Chef Tony’s Chicken with Sticky Rice Wrapped in Lotus Leaf was fine. Diced Chicken, Salted Duck Egg, the Sticky Rice wasn’t dried out, nor too wet. It was fine, but nothing about it said “unique” or “a cut above” the local favorites.
This was a Steamed Vegetarian Dumpling option, with Mushrooms and an Organic Vegetable mix. This was light in flavor, but a nice, alternate take.
Pan Fried Taro Cake:
We love Taro, so this sounded like a potential winner. It turned out to be crisped cubes of Shredded Taro seasoned and pan friend on all sides. There was a nice crunch to them, but they were rather oily / greasy, but looking past that, the Taro Root was earthy and aromatic.
BBQ Pork (Charsiu):
Typical Charsiu, using artificial food coloring, a bit dry, a bit fatty in places. There was nothing about this that elevated it beyond the typical offerings locally.
Deep Fried Chinese Donut Stuffed Mix Shrimp Paste, Squid Paste and Fish Paste:
Extremely oily. Why was a blob of Mayonnaise necessary on each piece? It looked and tasted unnecessary.
Fried Rice with Egg White, Fish Roe and Truffle Sauce:
Zero Wok Hei (Breath of the Wok), this was extremely average Fried Rice, topped with showy Masago (Fish Roe), and mentioning “Truffle Sauce” which turned out to be the disappointing, weakly scented fake Truffles from China. It didn’t add much, but allowing them to use the word “Truffles” felt like a way to make it more luxurious even though they weren’t using any actual quality Truffles from Europe.
As a point of reference, Dragon Beaux’s Fried Rice blows this out of the water, it’s not even close. (Thanks @ipsedixit !)
House Special Combination:
Perhaps the one smart menu offering at Chef Tony that’s an excellent idea is having a “Dim Sum Sampler”, which allows individual diners to hop in, try a variety of Dim Sum without having to be forced to order the traditional full orders (which comes with 3 - 4 pieces of various items). The traditional Dim Sum menu locally doesn’t really suit solo diners very well (unless you didn’t mind having a bunch of leftovers later).
At Chef Tony, their House Special Combination, presents 8 different individual Dim Sum bites on 1 plate. Neat.
Baked Mix Mushroom Custom Tart:
Another unique menu item not found on the local menus, this was a nice idea of having a Sauteed Mixed Mushroom filling baked in a flaky Puff Pastry. But ultimately, the Puff Pastry was lukewarm, undermining its potential deliciousness.
Bitter Melon with Edamame Paste:
Definitely a unique item not seen at our local Dim Sum houses, this was the type of offering we were hoping to see more of from Chef Tony: This was pureed Bitter Melon and Edamame, and the result was an earthy, slightly bitter, vegetal and totally distinct offering that was the highlight of this Combination plate!
Lukewarm, the Har Gow (Shrimp Dumpling) skin was already sticking to the plate.
Milk Mix Egg White Custard Tart:
They have this at Chef Tony He’s previously established Sea Harbour Restaurant, and this version tasted about the same: Which is to say, it’s nice to have an Egg White version of a Hong Kong Egg Custard Tart, but the execution was simply OK. It was room temperature, the filling was a generic type of milky-creamy sweet filling.
Shrimp, Crab Meat and Matsutake Dumpling:
A fancy-sounding Dumpling that could’ve been amazing. Taking a bite: It was mainly Shrimp, the Crab Meat was barely there (Frozen Crab meat), and if there were any true Matsutake Mushrooms, they were non-existent in this Dumpling.
Asparagus with Black Truffle Sauce:
Another dish brought down by using fake Truffles again (although Din Tai Fung has been doing this for awhile now as well): The flavor of these weak, alternate Truffles really undermine the flavor and idea and feels like false advertising. The Asparagus itself was fine.
Shrimp Dumpling with Gold Leaf:
Chef Tony He has actually debuted this offering at his local Sea Harbour Restaurant, so this wasn’t as impressive as if seeing it for the first time. Still there is no denying that this black-colored Shrimp Dumpling is visually shocking, and the contrast of black and gold (from 24k gold leaf) is showy and arresting.
Unfortunately, like the standard Shrimp Dumpling, the skin is soggy, overly sticky and it’s lukewarm.
Shrimp & Pork Dumpling with Black Truffle:
And finally, their version of Siu Mai (Shrimp & Pork Dumpling) is served with “Black Truffle” on top, which continues to be the fake Truffles from China. It adds a mildly aromatic quality, but nothing like in-season Italian Truffles. The Siu Mai itself was a bit fatty and rather unremarkable.
So while the idea of a Dim Sum Combination Plate is great, execution is critical: With just 1 bite of each type of 8 different Dim Sum items, the question is, “How can a kitchen guarantee that each of the 8 bites will be freshly cooked, hot and at maximum quality?”
The answer (at least at Chef Tony) is that it can’t.
We clearly got 1/3 of a pre-cooked basket of Siu Mai and Har Gow Dumplings (and the same with the other items). All of the items on the plate were lukewarm. It really takes away from the enjoyment of eating Dim Sum when your food was left sitting around for awhile before serving.
If they can figure out a way to actually cook each individual piece and have it piping hot, freshly cooked for each Combination plate, you’d have a much different experience and a menu offering absolutely worth ordering. But perhaps logistically it’s too hard to execute.
Sticky Rice Ball Stuffed with Salted Egg Yolk:
These were excellent: Nicely fried, piping hot, and the inside was the popular “Golden Sand” filling of liquid Salted Duck Egg Yolk that’s also sweet. Fantastic.
Floral, fragrant and a nice pairing with our Dim Sum today.
Eggplant Stuffed with Shrimp Paste:
This looked nice, and thankfully they were cooked to order, arriving hot, freshly fried, and tasty.
Deep Fried Squid with Salt & Pepper:
Oily, overcooked, rubbery Squid, and way too salty.
Steamed Chicken Feet in Brown Sauce:
It tasted just like most Steamed Chicken Feet offerings at many older Dim Sum houses. Nothing more, nothing less.
Scallop & Shrimp Dumpling with Fish Roe:
These were better than the Har Gow (Shrimp Dumplings), but not by much. The Dumpling Skin on these fell apart rather easily, but at least they weren’t as doughy as the Har Gow. The Scallop tasted silky, tender and fresh enough.
Assorted Seafood Fried Crispy Noodle:
This was terrible: It tasted like dried Deep Fried Ramen (from an Instant Ramen package), and the “Assorted Seafood” turned out to be only small chunks of Scallops. There was barely any sauce as well, resulting in a rather dry, overly crunchy experience.
Mustard Green with Oyster Sauce:
Nicely Steamed Mustard Greens.
Spare Ribs with Black Bean Sauce:
This was fine. The Spare Riblet chunks were tender, and the Black Bean sauce permeated every bite. But there was nothing standout about it to elevate this above the local competition.
Squid Ink Pasta with Crab Meat Gold Leaf on Top:
In what had to epitomize the entire Chef Tony experience on 1 plate, their “Squid Ink Pasta with Crab Meat Gold Leaf on Top” was everything wrong with the restaurant: First, the actual Squid Ink Pasta was awful. Overcooked, mushy, and falling apart at the slightest touch, the execution of just cooking Noodles was embarrassing and disappointing.
Next, they mention “Crab Meat” and what we got was 2 slivers of Crab Meat (frozen at that), with the rest of the dish being the soggy, overcooked Noodles and some random Vegetables.
Oh, but of course, they top it with 24k Gold Foil Leaf and that makes it Instagram-friendly, and perfect for those interested in conspicuous consumption and showing off.
Appetizer Combination (Shrimp Dumpling with Gold Leaf (Missing), Slice Chinese Broccoli with Black Truffle Sauce, Deep Fried Japanese Octopus, Deep Fried Silver Fish with Salt & Pepper):
This was their 2nd Combination offering, and similar to the Dim Sum-focused House Special Combination, it’s a nice idea: To have 4 bites of different Appetizers on a plate for individual portions. First, they just forgot to give us the 4th bite (the Shrimp Dumpling with Gold Leaf). The Chinese Broccoli was fine, but the fake Truffles detracted again. The Deep Fried Octopus was overcooked and turned the protein into Octopus Jerky. The Deep Fried Silver Fish was oily and lukewarm.
Pan Fried Radish Cake with XO Sauce:
Mushy blocks of Radish Cake that tasted like it was about 90% Flour / filler material, with almost no actual Radish. The “XO Sauce” was one of the weakest XO Sauce flavors we’ve ever tried. It really tasted like a mild Hot Sauce with vague, faint oceanic notes.
Steamed Sponge Cake:
Moist, arriving hot and fluffy, this was a solid version of Steamed Sponge Cake.
OK, these were adorable. They carved little “rabbits” out of Coconut Pudding, complete with a little eyes made out of Black Sesame Seeds. It tasted like a refreshing, chilled Coconut Pudding, a bit on the denser side most likely to make sure it could be carved into rabbit shapes and still hold up.
3rd Visit - New Arcadia Location:
So while Chef Tony Dim Sum (Pasadena) remained closed through 2020 and 2021, Chef Tony and staff decided to move on and open back up in Arcadia, in the OG location of the first So Cal Din Tai Fung restaurant.
We were hoping that in the 1 year+ of shutdown, that Chef Tony He and his team would train and improve the staff to execute at a much better level than their Grand Opening in Pasadena. Only one way to find out.
One immediate off-putting impression: Their brand-new menus are already taped over (covering up the old price of each dish). This is typical of many Chinese restaurants in the SGV, but for a place that is pushing for a “high class” / “high quality” dining experience, it smacks of laziness and not wanting to properly correct it (or lack of foresight printing the wrong menu prices - they’ve only been open for a few weeks).
Chrysanthemum + Pu-Erh Tea:
Chinese Broccoli with Oyster Sauce:
This was OK. A pretty standard execution.
Fried Rice with Dried Scallops and Egg Whites:
Zero Wok Hei (Breath of the Wok) again. The staff did not improve at all in the 1.5 years since their original opening / during the shutdown. Oily, soft, flat tasting.
Squid Ink Shrimp Dumplings with Gold Leaf:
These were slightly better than their original opening version: The Squid Ink Dumpling skin had a bit more structure and wasn’t too soft & soggy. But it still had a gummy quality that was a bit off-putting. The gold leaf was haphazardly thrown on (see pics). Not that it was necessary, but if you’re priding yourself on showmanship, this isn’t the way.
Shrimp & Pork Dumpling with Black Truffle:
Their Siu Mai (Shrimp & Pork Dumpling with Black Truffle) has not improved: It tastes exactly like their Pasadena Grand Opening, mainly fatty Ground Pork, some Shrimp and some filler inbetween. The “Black Truffle” is once again, the fake Truffles that aren’t even close to real, quality Black Truffles from Europe.
Sticky Rice Wrapped in Lotus Leaf:
Their Sticky Rice Wrapped in Lotus Leaf has gotten soggier: Flavor-wise, they were fine, but there was way too much liquid in the Lotus Leaf wrapper, the Sticky Rice was almost turning into a Porridge.
Rice Noodle Roll with Shredded Chicken & Bitter Melon:
Their Rice Noodle Rolls were solid. Sufficient pliability, some chew, but not all stuck together like some mediocre versions locally.
The Coconut Pudding was as cute as ever, with each bite carved into the shape of a rabbit. The taste was exactly the same as their Grand Opening Pasadena version, firm, light Coconut flavors, but soft enough to enjoy like a softer Jello. (Presentation-wise, it was slightly undermined by the fact that the leaves they were placed on were browning already.)
Chef Tony Dim Sum’s expansion into Southern California feels like a clumsy, ham-fisted attempt to cater to the affluent, and those clientele that are into conspicuous consumption. As long as it looks visually pleasing, or lists ingredients that might sound “bling-y” enough, Chef Tony He and his team seem to be satisfied.
Unfortunately, Chef Tony fails on all levels: If they were trying to cater to the most affluent, in trying to present top quality, “fine dining” Dim Sum, adding 24k Gold Leaf to a dish feels a bit absurd with Dim Sum, and almost childish. Using fake, inferior “Black Truffles” doesn’t elevate the Dim Sum either, but perhaps to those ignorant to what actual, quality Truffles are like.
Even on pure taste and execution, Chef Tony falls short: Almost every single dish we tried on the menu tasted like average (or below average) Dim Sum that you could get from local, standard Dim Sum restaurants. Unique standouts like the Bitter Melon & Edamame Puree were few and far between.
As a point of reference, San Francisco’s Dragon Beaux is a superior Dim Sum experience in every way, from the 21(!) different types of quality, Loose Leaf Teas, to every single Dim Sum item we had up there, they were all superior to Chef Tony’s So Cal offerings. And Dragon Beaux did it without needing to try adding 24K Gold Leaf on everything.
Still, Chef Tony Dim Sum’s business was brisk, with a waiting list, so perhaps this is exactly the type of food and experience that is fine in this market? Only time will tell.
Chef Tony Dim Sum
1108 S. Baldwin Ave.
Arcadia, CA 91007