By May S. Ruiz
Chinese food is one of the most popular cuisines the world over. Almost everyone has eaten fried rice or chow mein with orange chicken or sweet and sour pork. It’s not very often, though, that people think of dim sum when they hear Chinese food. And that’s a pity because anyone who has eaten these bite size delicacies would most probably say they’re addictively scrumptious.
A Wikipedia entry informs that the origins of dim sum date back to the 10th century when commercial travel increased in the city of Guangzhou (formerly Canton). These travelers went to teahouses which served two pieces of delicately made food items – sweet or savory – to go with their tea; the second is dim sum, the term used for the small food portions. Teahouse owners later added a variety of snack pieces to their dim sum offering.
It was during the latter part of the 19th century that this practice of having tea with dim sum evolved into what’s called yum cha, or brunch. Originally based on locally available food, chefs introduced influences from regions outside the Canton province and the dim sum culture flourished.
There are over a thousand dim sum dishes which are usually eaten as breakfast or brunch. Over time, however, restaurants started serving them for dinner as well. A big part of the experience is seeing and smelling the food. Traditionally, dim sum dining involves servers pushing rolling carts of small steaming baskets and tempting diners with the aroma of the delicious offerings. And it has been done that way for centuries – until Chef Tony He set the concept on its (tree) ear.
In February 2020, Tony He introduced upscale dim sum when he opened Chef Tony Dim Sum in Old Town Pasadena. Moreover, he eliminated the mainstay of dim sum restaurants – rolling carts. Instead, dishes are served á la carte (which, in the past, was only done for take-out orders) and include ingredients such as freshly shaved black truffles and gold leaf touches.
The restaurant had to close shortly after that, however, because everything went on lockdown when the coronavirus reached American shores. But last year, Chef Tony Dim Sum Arcadia opened on Baldwin Avenue in the space that another Chinese restaurant vacated. And a month ago, Chef Tony Dim Sum Pasadena finally reopened (read Brianna Chu’s food review here).
Tony He began his cooking career at the age of 15, apprenticing with some of the greatest chefs in Guangdong Province, China (formerly known as Canton Province). He later moved to Hong Kong where he further developed his culinary techniques, including training under ‘Abalone King,’ Yeung Koon-yat.
In 1992, Tony He opened his first Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant in Zhongshan City in southern China. When he immigrated to Canada, he launched Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant in Richmond, BC. It was such a huge success that he expanded his business southward, opening Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant in Rosemead, in the Western San Gabriel Valley. Los Angeles Magazine ranked it as #1 in the Top Ten Best Chinese Restaurant in Los Angeles in 2011 and 2012.
Given that Tony He owns several restaurants, anyone will naturally assume that he comes from a family of restaurateurs. It’s surprising, therefore, to find out that isn’t the case. Answering our questions via email, he discloses cryptically, “No, I learned it myself, since I had no choice at that time.”
“I immigrated to Canada in 1996, and started my business in 1998,” Tony He states. “The first restaurant I opened is a traditional Cantonese restaurant. The taste of the dishes made by the restaurant is very authentic, so it is loved by everyone. It was wildly successful and led to the opening of another one in the L.A. area. While they pretty much have the same menu, I make some adjustments to the offerings based on diners’ taste as well. I am always about innovation – I create more products based on customers’ feedback and suggestions.”
With the thought of delivering high-end fusion dining experience to a diverse clientele, Tony He founded Yi Dong Seafood Restaurant, also known as Chef Tony Seafood Restaurant, in British Columbia in 2013. Occupying an area 6,700 square feet, the restaurant won many awards over its three years of operation, including Gold Award for Best Dim Sum 2015 and Silver Award for Best Chinese Upscale 2015 by Vancouver Magazine (26th Annual Restaurant Awards). The Restaurant has also won Critics’ Choice of Chinese Restaurant Awards for three consecutive years (2014-2016) and Top 10 new Vancouver restaurant of 2014 by the Globe and Mail.
There are three Chef Tony restaurants in Canada. The dim sum dishes on the menu are a reflection of Guangdong Cantonese cuisine layered with refined touches and high-quality ingredients, aimed at elevating traditional dim sum.
In 2016, Tony He and George Pang established the first Chef Tony Dim Sum, a unique dim sum fast food operation in the food court of Metrotown. It was their first step in building an international fast-food chain that specializes in bite-size Chinese dim sum.
British Columbia is like a test market for Tony He – it’s where he introduces his culinary concepts, expanding only when the reception is highly favorable. Furthermore, some dishes find their way onto the menu of his various restaurants. He explains, “I integrated some diner favorites at Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant, such as squid ink shrimp dumpling with gold leaf, French baked BBQ pork bun, black truffle chicken with cilantro and onion, to Chef Tony Dim Sum. If I can offer something that everyone agrees with, from children to the elderly, then that’s my motivation. Our attraction is our new products.”
The restaurant business is notoriously tough and fickle. There are over 2,000 restaurants offering various cuisines in the Western San Gabriel Valley and staying in business – much less standing out among the competition – could be a daunting task. But Tony He rises to the challenge, “Independent innovation, leading and being at the forefront of this industry are utmost. The customer agrees and we succeed by the customer approbate. The secret to having diners coming back regularly and keeping their loyalty are fair price, new products, customer happiness, and customer satisfaction after dining.”
It also helps to have a prime location, an impressive building, and warm ambiance. Chef Tony Dim Sum Pasadena is housed in the historic Bear Building built in 1929 on Colorado Boulevard. This stunning 1,260 square foot restaurant showcases historic art deco walls and features red accented booths and chairs; original opulent chandeliers beam in the main dining room. A separate cocktail area that seats six guests at the bar and 10 guests at the counter offers extra accommodation and drink options.
“The goal for our Pasadena location is to create a memorable dining experience, serving modern dim sum to a new generation of diners,” says Tony He. “Guests are welcome to sit solo at the bar, order a cocktail and try a special house dim sum platter, or celebrate with a group of friends or family in our private dining room downstairs.”
Currently, there are two Chef Tony restaurants in this area and Tony He declares, “People love them; however, we keep improving based on customers’ needs and tastes. I plan to open more high-end restaurants like Chef Tony Dim Sum.”
Tony He has restaurants in British Columbia and the Los Angeles area but he calls LA home. His family isn’t in the food industry business, though. He says, “I have my team that continues pushing innovation and creating with me. My children have their own dreams and I respect their decisions.”
The Chef Tony Dim Sum menu offers something for everyone, featuring twelve delectable selections. These include: starters of steamed dim sum; rice noodle roll; baked and fried dim sum; main dishes of seafood and meat; soup; congee; noodle; rice; and vegetables; and a variety of desserts. There are signature dishes like: sliced Chinese broccoli with black truffle sauce; squid ink shrimp dumplings with gold leaf; sticky rice ball with lava salted egg yolk. Also on the menu are uniquely elevated dishes such as Chef Tony house special lobster salad; savory deep fried Chinese donut; deep fried crispy king prawn; eggplant stuffed with shrimp paste; BBQ pork puff pastry tart; pan fried shrimp and pork pandan bun; roast duck and minced duck lettuce wrap (prepared two ways and must order in advance); and roasted crispy chicken with black truffle (must order in advance).
With an array of meticulously prepared and beautifully plated dishes, diners are guaranteed to have an amazing dim sum experience! Chef Tony may have upset the apple – in this case rolling – cart, but for an extraordinary outcome.