Dim sum continues to simmer as one of LA’s most popular dining formats, but often it’s difficult to find one with a prime location. Yes, the best of the city’s dim sum scatters around San Gabriel Valley, but with Lunasia making a big move to Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard, it was only time before Sea Harbour chef Tony He brought his popular Canandian restaurant Chef Tony to the heart of Old Pasadena’s bustling district. Residing over the former 800 Degrees at the corner of Colorado and Fair Oaks, Chef Tony opened earlier this month inside the historic Bear Building, which was built in 1929 and still retains some of that classic Art Deco look in one of the dining rooms.
The juxtaposition of old and new seems fitting for Tony He, who opened SGV’s now essential Cantonese institution Sea Harbour back in 2003. 17 years ago, Tony He helped usher in a new era of great Cantonese dining in Los Angeles, though in recent years Cantonese cuisine has taken a second step to more spicy Sichuan restaurants.
He immigrated to Vancouver back in the late 90s are part of the wave of Cantonese chefs who decamped to the North America just after the transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese control. In 2013, He opened Yi Dong Seafood Restaurant with a massive 6,700 square foot location in Richmond, British Columbia, earning accolades along the way.
Chef Tony here in Pasadena is a more casual reflection of He’s original Yi Dong, a compressed menu with highlights like squid ink shrimp dumplings with gold leaf, roast Peking duck, deep fried crispy prawns, and asparagus with black truffle sauce. Considering the opulence of the highest end of Cantonese cuisine, Chef Tony is a fine balance between the relaxed dim sum of Chinatown and the refined palaces in Hong Kong to SGV’s Sea Harbour.
“The goal of our first U.S. location is to create a memorable dining experience, serving dim sum to a new generation of diners,” says He, who thinks a modern dim sum meal could include solo diners at a bar (which seems inconceivable at other dim sum spots) all the way to a big group dinner in the private dining room. Instead of just tea, a typical beverage with dim sum, diners can sip a cocktail, Tsingdao beer, or baijiu, the fiery Chinese spirit.
Some elements of the place still feel a little too branded out, with obvious placards and food photographs on the wall, but that Art Deco dining room and its original chandeliers and textured walls look pretty cool in person. The menu isn’t cheap by dim sum standards, with classics like har gow and rice rolls with minced pork and black truffle for $7.80 a plate, or whole Peking duck at $99. The higher rates likely must cover the optimal placement and better-than-average interior design. But per-person combo deals start at just $16.80, a more than fair price for the budget conscious.
With a likely bustling daytime situation, the dinner offerings help showcase He’s mastery of Cantonese cuisine, with stir-fried Maine lobster, Dungeness crab, and roast crispy black truffle chicken alongside glazed barbecue pork. The place even hopes to appeal to late night crowd until 1 a.m. on weekends. Hours run 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday otherwise.