The Weekly Eater


Tiny Tai Pan serves up
dim sum that’s big on appeal

As I mentioned last week, the biggest dining trend has been the downsizing of restaurants due to economic realities. The same is likely to hold true well into 2003, and for starters, I visited Tai Pan Dim Sum at the Chinatown Cultural Center.

Generations from now, children may look at us with curiosity as we talk about how things used to be -- with dim sum restaurants constructed as temples to dim sum, surrounded by ornate pillars and rooms of thousands as noisy and crowded as a city street.

They'll look at us with puzzled expressions as we tell them how we had to look both ways before crossing or else risk getting struck by a cart piled high with bamboo steamers full of chicken feet, char-siu baos and chive dumplings. Or meeting a metal wagon bearing fried turnip cakes or stuffed peppers.

Cozy Tai Pan Dim Sum doesn't have room for dim sum carts, as every square foot is taken up by table space.

Although there's no shortage of people clamoring for dim sum on weekends, it seems the large rooms are following dinosaurs' path. First Sea Fortune, then China House disappeared. Much smaller dim sum houses have opened to fill the vacancies.

At one point I thought they couldn't get any smaller than little Mei Sum at 65 N. Pauahi, with barely enough room for three carts to maneuver, but at least they HAVE carts.

Tai Pan's done away with the carts because just about every square foot is needed for a table, chair or narrow path for servers to snake through. Talk about cozy. You'll be sitting back-to-back with neighbors and if you don't bring a party of three to five friends, you'll probably be making some new ones. Sharing a table may be the only way to land a seat. You could also aim for a 2 p.m. rather than 11 a.m. or noon seating time, but by then, they may be out of many items, which during peak hours are stacked on a counter for quick delivery. This has been a source of confusion to non-Chinese who don't know the names of dishes and have been accustomed to pointing to whatever catches their eye.

WHAT YOU'LL FIND is a basic menu of favorites running $1.80 or $2.25 per dish, with the bulk priced at $1.80. The soft look funn rolls are $2.50 and bowls of jook are $3.75.

The restaurant started with ambitious plans to offer noodle and rice dishes, but having opened so close to the holidays they found themselves, as could have been expected, overwhelmed by crowds and unable to prepare dishes such as Singapore-style fried rice noodles, seabass fillet stir-fried noodles and salted fish and chicken fried rice. When things quiet down, these dishes will be available for $4.99 to $7.95.

Chef Zhi Qiang Ou with his dim sum delectables.

For now you can enjoy clean flavors of pork hash, bean curd rolls, steamed spinach and scallop dumplings, and plain shrimp dumplings as cooked up by chefs who -- guess what -- formerly wokked and steamed elbow-to-elbow at Sea Fortune and China House.

A light hand is used on the spareribs with black bean sauce also, so you taste more pork than salt and less oil than typical.

Pan-fried taro cakes are done Hong Kong style, with more rice flour than chunks of taro in local-style versions. And an order of beef with bean curd balls shows the assimilation process at work. A mere generation away from the Motherland, I'll never get used to beef with the texture of fishcake.

I settled for steamed chicken buns when the char siu ones had sold out, but they were a staid second choice. I'd opt for something else next time.

In addition to traditional desserts of jin dui and custard, you're also offered a refreshing taste of mango pudding topped off by a thin layer of condensed milk.

Already, Tai Pan has shown its food is worthy of a crowd, but given its small size, the staff seems overwhelmed. If they can manage to keep customers happy I have no doubt they can fill a space four times larger than the one they're in.

Next week: How one dim sum restaurant did outgrow its venue.


100 N. Beretania St. #167 / 599-8899

Food StarStarStarStar

Service StarStar

Ambience StarStar

Value StarStarStarStar

Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily

Cost: Dim sum for two about $10 to $20

See some past restaurant reviews in the
Columnists section.

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews run on Thursdays. Reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

very good, exceeds expectations;
below average.

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