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Not Bad? It’s All Good

Dim sum is alive and well at TimWah

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Brothers Guorong and Han Fan and their cousin, Chef Sing, opened TimWah Chinese Dim Sum Restaurant in 2017. It’s right off Baymeadows Road, on Point Meadows, in a nifty shopping plaza—good location. TimWah is the only place in town that has an exclusively dim sum menu.

Known as Fan to his friends, Guorong is the face of the restaurant. His heritage is 100 percent Cantonese, but when he speaks, it’s pure Brooklyn, specifically Bensonhurst. He was born in Canton, China and came to America with his family at the tender age of nine. His story, and TimWah’s, are the stuff of the quintessential American dream.

Dim sum literally means “little heart,” and that’s exactly what Fan and his family offer at TimWah. Dim sum originated in Canton, where it’s a traditional breakfast food. Fan remembers his grandparents waking up “every day in the morning, grabbing a pot of tea and having some small dishes.” Those small dishes are part of the method of Chinese cooking that prizes all parts of an animal—zero waste. Dim sum is a result of utilizing those tiny bits of ground meat cut from larger choice cuts. Wrapped in a thin dough, each one is a morsel of goodness. Now, dim sum has transformed into a dish with a worldwide following.

“The best way to learn is to eat,” says Fan. Food has always been his passion and he experiments in his home kitchen. He didn’t start cooking professionally until about three years ago at Yummy House in Gainesville, when the craft of dim sum appealed to him.

After that experience, he went back to New York to learn more about the process of making dim sum. While he was looking for a job, he got lucky. Tim Ho Wan, the first Michelin star dim sum restaurant in the world, was opening its first location in New York; it’s based in Hong Kong. Fan was hired to be part of the dim sum team. “I thought I knew something, but I really didn’t know sh*t! I didn’t really learn to appreciate the love of making dim sum and really respect the craft until I got to Tim Ho Wan.”

Hours upon hours and days upon days of making shrimp dumplings (har gow) with the team, and now he’s a pro. For him, it’s one of his favorites. “I just think it’s cool … it’s uniquely Cantonese.” The knife used in prepping the ingredients is called a shrimp dumpling knife, to flatten the dim sum wrapper dough before filling. “It’s almost like making a tortilla.” The edge of the knife is not sharp—but it looks a little like a cleaver.

Six months into his time at Tim Ho Wah, the dim sum champ-in-training got a call from his brother. Han had found a location in Jacksonville for their restaurant, a dream plan years in the making. There was almost no competition here and the spot was perfect. Fan came to see the site in the Baymeadows neighborhood and said, “Let’s do it. I’ve always wanted to open a restaurant.”

So now, the fruits (in a manner of speaking) of Fan’s stint at Tim Ho Wah and Chef Sing’s mastery are being realized. Peer into the magical wonderland that is the dim sum cart and you’ll be transported to ancient China. At TimWah, there are steam carts and fried/baked carts rolling throughout the place. Steam is the most traditional method of dim sum preparation. Fan explained, “Baked dishes are not uniquely Chinese. About 70 to 80 percent of dim sum is steamed stuff.”

Lean in close to the towering baskets of steamed goodies of all kinds and get a good look. There are little cylindrical shumai filled with shrimp or pork; fluffy as clouds, bao buns are stuffed with sweet barbecue pork; and full-to-bursting soup dumplings, which are technically dim sum—but not all dim sum are dumplings. The dumplings are made in all sizes and shapes, with lots of different fillings and folds. Fan’s specialty, the one he spent so much time practicing at Tim Ho Wan, are the shrimp dumplings. These little darlings shine shell pink underneath a translucent wrapper. The most traditional kind should have 13 folds in each pouch.

Among the wrapped dim sum, there are small meat dishes like spareribs and chicken feet … that’s when things start to get a little dicey for the American palate, but don’t dismiss it. It’s all a matter of taste and texture. We prize crisp over gelatinous and crunchy over chewy but c’mon, everyone should branch out once in a while.

Chinese cooking features a variety of diverse textures and it’s worth going in for the taste. You’ll never know if you don’t try. The black bean sauce on the chicken feet at TimWah is mighty tasty. Pick it up like a chicken wing and nibble away, making sure to avoid the smaller bones. Fan recommends the unusual item. “I would encourage people to try chicken feet. It’s one of my best sellers.” He said that nine out 10 of his Asian customers order and reorder those chicken feet on his menu. That’s a sign of authentic taste.

What should you look for in a good dim sum place? For Fan, it’s the menu. “If you don’t see a shrimp dumpling, if you don’t see a shumai, it’s not a dim sum restaurant.”

Sharing is a big component when it comes to dim sum, in part because of the way it’s served. When the dim sum cart glides up to your table, pluck your selections from myriad varieties. Each tray has three or four pieces; if you want to try multiple dumplings, it’s best to bring a friend.

Fan is easy to find—follow him on Instagram @dimsumfan and see cool how-to-make-dim-sum videos. And he shares some of his culinary experiments that may or may not make it to the menu, including a way cute dim sum that looks like a penguin. Edible origami.

“Some stuff I just make for the sake of my own curiosity,” he said. “A lot of times when I go eat at a restaurant, I’m curious what it would look like if I put something of theirs in a dim sum wrapper, like, ‘Hey, it would be cool to put things together … like a spinach-and-cheese dumpling!’” His food and his experimentations have gotten a lot of attention from fellow chefs. A few months ago, Han did a collab in Miami; now he’s preparing a menu for a pop-up dinner at Brew Five Points on Feb. 12.

Part of that creativity and his ability to be fearless in his mix-and-match enterprises comes from his background. “I think it has something to do with being Chinese-American.” He’s not just “Chinese” and he’s not just “American.” He speaks Mandarin, Cantonese and English, which means he’s always explaining where he’s from, no matter where he is in the world. In the past he would think, “I don’t have a sense of what I am or where I’m from.” Now he says, “Who cares? I’m just me.”

Despite all the out-of-the-box trial-and-error activity going on in Fan’s home kitchen, he says that at “this restaurant, we try to keep it a little more traditional.” TimWah has touches of Tim Ho Wan and Nom Wah Tea Parlor, two of Fan’s main culinary influences. “Tim Ho Wah represents the quality that I wanted to keep up with and Nom Wah was the OG kind of dim sum restaurant I looked up to.” TimWah in Cantonese means “not bad,” in the very Cantonese and New York sense of “Hey, not bad!”

Fan has a goal for TimWah: to be a place of gathering and sharing. The increased hours and days that TimWah is now open (lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday, brunch Sunday, closed Monday) speak to the fact that our community is starting to get behind that idea. Experience the wonders of the dim sum cart and try  Fan’s favorite traditional Cantonese dishes. They’re “not bad.”

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