Either everyone reviewing the food at Tai Wu have lost their minds, or I have. And I am pretty certain I am no crazier than I was a year ago.
Tai Wu is a relatively new restaurant that opened in an enormous building on El Camino Real in Millbrae. Three stories high, it’s a strange location at which to have a restaurant. The first floor is used to house the aquariums and is used as a lobby; the second floor has the restrooms and what appeared to be private banquet rooms, and on the third floor is the main hall — used as the restaurant floor and shown above.
What you’re seeing above is merely a fraction of the restaurant. To say it’s huge is an understatement. It’s clear to me that this spot’s main appeal is to be a large banquet hall or wedding reception venue before it’s a true restaurant. But on all the days there are no venues, they do what they can to make it work.
But in the Peninsula, particularly in Millbrae, they have some tough competition. There’s The Kitchen across the street, Hung To just a couple of miles up the street in South San Francisco, Hong Kong Flower Lounge just down the street and so forth. (I’ve just now realized I never reviewed any of the ones listed. Shame on me!)
My friends and I have a Sunday custom. We could be somewhat ill, totally hungover, on our way to lunch or getting ready to get out of town, but if at all possible, we’ll gather for a quick dimsum on Sundays. I don’t know why we rarely do this on Saturdays, but it will almost always happen on Sundays. It’s like we wake up with siu mai on our minds.
This past Sunday, I was going to go to Hung To, but a friend called and suggested we try Tai Wu. And so, we did.
A lot of folks seem to be dinging Tai Wu for not having parking.
First, they did lease a space next to Burger King right down the street and have staff out there guiding traffic. Second, places like The Kitchen also don’t offer parking of any kind. This isn’t the first time I’m in Millbrae for dimsum and it takes 20 minutes to find street parking some three blocks away. So while I dislike it as much as anyone, I won’t count it against Tai Wu. Parking in the area for all of the restaurants is terrible, though having a business as large as Tai Wu doesn’t help at all.
Upon entering, we were told to head to the third floor, and one elevator was used to accomplish this. Not knowing how big it was upstairs, I didn’t think anything of it, but this place can seat hundreds. My advice — take the stairs! They’re right there next to the entrance, and it’s really not that steep.
On the third floor, what immediately strikes me is the service from each host, server or employee. Mildly reminiscent of Yank Sing’s top quality service, I was shocked at how welcoming they were. Then, as we turned the corner, I was shocked at how large this space was. I didn’t actually count the tables but believe me – – it’s huge, putting some hotel ballrooms to shame.
With the setup as it was, with roundtables everywhere and tons of casually dressed folks, the nice decor of the room was significantly diminished. But if you remove the noise and imagine the space, it’s actually a really nicely done room with purple hues, many chandeliers and a built-in dancefloor with large screens everywhere. There’s ample room for a DJ setup, and all in all, I think an event here would be rather glorious.
Lastly, I was shocked at just how many people were in here at 11:15AM on a Sunday. From the outside, without a lot, it’s hard to tell how full this restaurant is, but it was packed. While a few tables remained unoccupied when we entered, within ten minutes, it was at full capacity.
That makes for a lot of Asians in one room. I’m not even sure where we all came from.
But what’s an event if the food isn’t good? I was excited to try the food here.
The Dimsum at Tai Wu
Upon being seated, servers rapidly brought trays around. Each server tended to carry the same item on their tray instead of the multiple offerings in one cart. Before we even picked up our utensils, we found our table was full of food with some six baskets or plates of food.
The roast pork belly was nicely presented in a row. The meat was tender and cool, and the skin was as crispy as could be, but thin. This was considered a “kitchen special” and was priced higher than the dimsum offerings.
Up next was the Siu Mai (燒賣)– perhaps my favorite dish at dimsum. We took two off the tray and dove right in. Though we were offered this immediately upon being seated, I noticed it wasn’t as hot as I’ve come to expect at other restaurants. It was fine — warm enough — but not “The roof of my mouth has disintegrated” type of hot. The pork flavor was rather mild compared to other siumai in the area but it was also lighter and less oilier than others.
The next dish I tried, also offered up immediately, was the Xiao Long Bao – also known as Shanghai Dumplings. Done well, this is my favorite dish in the world….but rarely do I find it done well.
This would remain unchanged at Tai Wu, as the skin of the dumpling was too “doughy” and in the little aluminum cups (which I really don’t get why restaurants use!), the skin overcooked and came apart. The soup on the inside was half decent, but the meat filling was strange looking and a bit on the grey side of things, despite not tasting like it had gone bad.
Skip this — there’s no reason to waste space on this type of Shanghai Dumplings at dimsum.
I tend to have certain dishes I will just order at new restaurants; they tend to help me gauge the “cooking” even if it’s not a dish I ordinarily love. Pork spareribs in black bean sauce ( 豉汁蒸排骨?), as shown above, tends to be one of them at dimsum restaurants. (I also always try Lo Mai Gai (lotus leaf-wrapped rice with chicken and Chinese sausage), which I didn’t spot while at Tai Wu.) The seasoning was a bit bland and the meat was minimal compared to bone, but overall, it was acceptable — but not impressive.
At dimsum joints, there’s a dish I love just because I’m a glutton for carbs and it’s har chung fun — or shrimp in rice noodle rolls. I always order it and more often than not, it’s a dish that’s made well everywhere. With a slightly sweet but light soy-based sauce, it’s always fun and fattening. At Tai Wu, it was good, and I enjoyed the texture of the wraps themselves, though the shrimp filling was less than Hung To or The Kitchen.
At the end of the meal. I would determine that three things stood out at Tai Wu, and one of them would be the har gow (蝦餃燒賣), shown above. If there is one dish I’m not altogether pleased with at other Millbrae dimsum locations I’ve tried thus far, it’s this dish. The har gow at Tai Wu is most similar to the great ones at Yank Sing — tightly wrapped, moist inside, with a good balance between thickness and stickiness in the wrappers themselves. When lifting out of the basket, a well-made wrapper should not give in to the bit of pull experienced against the paper lining in a basket. It also shouldn’t be so sticky that you can’t pull it apart from the har gow adjacent to it.
This is one great dish at Tai Wu — and like their other cooking, tasted clean.
Given how popular BBQ pork buns are universally, this is one of those times where I dismiss my own taste and go with others’. I don’t get the appeal of what is usually too much bread to minimal fillings, and making a sweetish pork filling, to me, is incomprehensible. But from China to even Hawaii where it’s called manapua, steamed pork buns are beloved.
For me, the ratio of meat to bread was off yet again, and the filling had minimal taste. Mr. K, who is a much bigger fan of 叉燒包, didn’t like it much either. Across the street at The Kitchen, they pan-fry their pork buns which made for a much better experience, and I will review that shortly.
Not enjoying the pork filling of the char siu bao, I didn’t try the char siu sou at Tai Wu. My two dining companions informed me it was just okay.
When a server was passing me with these beautifully deep-fried beauties, I automatically hailed her down. I had no clue what it was, but anything so nicely and lightly deep-fried has to be good, right? I asked for a plate and both Mr. K and Ian waited until I tried it (not because they’re polite but because if it was anything remotely weird, they were going to refuse to eat it.)
One bite of this and you’re immediately taken to a faraway unknown land where the taste is familiar yet…foreign. Is there condensed milk in here? Is this a scent of durian? No…. Do I taste flour? What is this!?!
We asked (three times, in fact) and indeed, it’s called “fried milk”.
The outer coating is very thin and very crispy. As you crunch into it, the inner filling is custard-like — soft and almost a pudding, if you will. It’s a light cream color — and it’s sweet and creamy. Your mind doesn’t really wrap around how they milk this — but I looked it up and the recipe is here.
I haven’t seen this at any other dimsum restaurant I’ve frequented; it may be available upon request but as I only just found out what it is, I never requested it either.
This was the second of the three favorites at Tai Wu.
Towards the end of the meal, as more servers passed by, I opted for one basket with unusually delicious looking dumplings. I had to email a friend of mine to find out the name — to which I was told “Chiu Zhou Style Dumpling” (fun guo?) or “潮州粉果” is most accurate, but imagine my dismay when I cut into one and it was more pork filling, much like the BBQ pork bun filling. Personally, I preferred this rice wrapper to the bun, but nobody else at the table did; they preferred the bun.
My third favorite at Tai Wu would end up being the pan-fried shrimp and chives dumplings (韭菜虾饺). The amount of crispiness on the outside was perfect; the chive flavors were subtle on the inside and the shrimp flavors held its own. There was enough filling to make it very balanced and with a little mustard and hot sauce, this last dish was really delicious.
All in all, Tai Wu is a solid addition to the dimsum scene in Millbrae. They’re experiencing their own set of legal and neighborhood issues as reported here, so what they’ll have to do to stay open remains to be seen.
Price-wise, it was significantly more expensive than my other usual spots with the total of what we had above being $67, keeping in mind that we had two orders of the siu mai and har gow. On average, with this amount of food, I’d expect a bill for three people to remain at around $50.
That said, the incremental increase doesn’t compare to the usual dimsum prices at Yank Sing, where three people would easily exceed $150 for our appetites. But ultimately, it’s whether the quality of food warranted a more expensive dimsum option in the neighborhood.
My conclusion, based on only dimsum and not the actual dinner that Tai Wu also serves, is that for dimsum, I have better options. I have better priced and hotter/fresher options at Hung To; I have significantly better cooking at The Kitchen across the street from Tai Wu. And I have incredibly delicious but also pretty pricey options just up the freeway at Koi Palace. I don’t see the need to go to Tai Wu.
One difference I did notice was in the food coma I have come to expect after dimsum. The coma that results from a heavy dimsum is not just about how full we are, but also a serious MSG-induced comatose state. And that, I noticed, was significantly less at Tai Wu than The Kitchen. That’s not to say this place doesn’t use MSG, but it only says they didn’t use enough to make me go stupid after a meal. This may also explain why some of their dishes lacked the extra flavor I expect from dimsum, as cooking with less MSG can have this affect.
I’m rating for the dimsum only below; if ever I go back for the regular menu, I’ll review separately.
Ambiance: 8/10 (nice, but not a Steakhouse feel)
Addictive Factor: 7/10
Overall Rating: 7.2/10
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.