Allan Tea, the restaurateur responsible for bringing the Hello Kitty Cafe Food Truck and Hello Kitty Cafes to SoCal, has teamed up with a former Din Tai Fung chef and a member of the Mama Lu's Dumpling House family to open a dumpling restaurant in Irvine called Paper Lantern, Sept. 4. In other words, the guy who brought you Hello Kitty macarons is now making your Orange County dumpling dreams come true.
To put things in perspective, it's the dumpling equivalent of the Avengers. Foodists who appreciate excellent xiao long bao (the soup dumplings full of juicy pork and hot soup) have been known to wait in line for hours at both Din Tai Fung, the dumpling house that originated in Taipei with locations in Arcadia, Glendale and Orange County; and also at Mama Lu's, the family-run operation with four restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley. And Tea? He along with his family own two Capital Seafood dim sum restaurants and three Capital Noodle Bars.
Paper Lantern will specialize in xiao long bao, pan-fried dumplings and traditional Chinese comfort food such as beef wraps, scallion pancakes, spicy wontons and sesame noodles. Pork belly rice bowls; pork chop rice bowls; and tofu will also be on the menu.
Tea reached out to longtime friend Kenny Lim, of the Mama Lu's restaurant family and tapped former Din Tai Fung chef Ken Cao to make the dumplings.
"I put together this dream team," said Tea. "I have the operational experience and Lim has the background in dumplings."
Tea, 28, started working for his brother's Hawaiian BBQ catering business when he was just 13. His father opened a noodle shop in Los Angeles in the '80s called Kim Tar, and Tea opened his first Capital Seafood with his family when he was 21.
Rather than a traditional dumpling house, Tea's goal is to have Paper Lantern be more casual. You order at the counter, sit down, and someone brings you your dumplings. There will be no servers at the restaurant.
"No one has really done dumplings in a really casual quick-service model," said Tea, who plans to grown Paper Lantern into a 10-plus mini-chain of restaurants. "We appreciate Din Tai Fung because they put dumplings on the map here, but now I want to bring the dumplings to all the neighborhood centers. Dumplings don't have to be such a night out."
While Tea does happen to be behind the Hello Kitty Cafes in Southern California (along with business partner Charlie Chien), he says not to expect any Hello Kitty dumplings at Paper Lantern. It never hurts to dream, though.