The paper lantern in Irvine’s Diamond Jamboree offers the Orange County Register Asian dumpling home a contemporary twist
One of my favorite day trips is to have a dim sum brunch in the San Gabriel Valley.
I grew up in Japan and often crave authentic Asian dumplings, and there is no better place to do that than what has become the “real” Chinatown of Southern California.
But unless you grew up playing dim sum on a regular basis, figuring out what you want out of a dim sum cart isn’t easy, especially if the servers speak little English. They’re usually not patient enough to explain what they are serving and sometimes they just put the unidentifiable dish on your table.
(If you’re unfamiliar, dim sum is Chinese cuisine, where bite-sized foods like assorted dumplings and chicken feet are served in a steam basket or on plates.)
The Paper Lantern Dumpling House, recently opened at Irvine’s Diamond Jamboree Center, removes such adventures from the experience while still offering authentic flavors.
The fast-casual restaurant serves a variety of handmade dumplings such as Shanghai-style Xiao Long Bao or juicy soup dumplings and fried pot stickers.
It is the newest venture from 28-year-old Allan Tea, whose family runs Capital Seafood restaurants. He also co-owns the Hello Kitty Cafe pop-up container in the Irvine Spectrum Center and the Hello Kitty Mini Cafe in Arcadia.
Allan Tea, owner of the Paper Lantern Dumpling House at the Diamond Jamboree Center in Irvine (right), introduces his chef Ken Cao (left) during a media tasting on September 28, 2017. (Tomoya Shimura, Orange County Register / SCNG)
Tea hired Ken Cao, who worked as a cook at Din Tai Fung, known around the world for his Xiao Long Baos.
I have eaten at Din Tai Fung in Taiwan, Tokyo and Arcadia, and also South Coast Plaza, but the lines were long in all of these places. Paper lantern is a good alternative if you prefer a more informal atmosphere and shorter waiting times.
Cao recently demonstrated his dumpling-making skills at a media tasting at Paper Lantern.
With the precision of a surgeon, he placed marinated pork on a tiny thin dough and folded the edge to wrap a dumpling in about 10 seconds.
He said he had been doing about 3,000 of these a day for the past eight years.
They had us media people try to wrap our own dumplings at the event, which gave us a whole new appreciation for Cao’s talent. I will not post photos of my dumplings that looked like half-opened clams.
Tea said he and his childhood friend, Kenny Lim, whose family runs Mama Lu’s Dumpling House in the San Gabriel Valley, came up with the idea of opening a modern dumpling restaurant about a year ago.
They waited for space to open at the Diamond Jamboree, which Tea calls “Orange County’s Mecca for Asian food.”
“The competition at Irvine is serious,” he said. “Everyone wants to be here.”
They took recipes from Mama Lu to keep the flavors at Paper Lantern authentic, Tea said, while adding twists like offering Agua Fresca.
The restaurant caters mainly to Asians but is also getting interest from others, he said.
Young Asian entrepreneurs like Tea are leading the Southern California food trend, transforming their traditional cuisine into something modern and hip.
“Asians make food that isn’t even Asian,” such as frozen yogurt, Tea said. “I think entrepreneurship is in our blood.”
His goal is to make Paper Lantern a chain.
Paper Lantern is located next to Shinhan Bank and across from Ajisen Ramen at 2730 Alton Pkwy, C-101, in Irvine.