Now reading Inside a Dim Sum Factory

Inside a Dim Sum Factory

A tour of the Koi Palace commissary.


Where Southern California’s landscape is rich with veins of dim sum deposits, the Bay Area has but one crown jewel: Koi Palace. Located in Daly City, about twenty minutes south of downtown San Francisco, Koi Palace consistently serves Northern California’s porkiest shu mai and plumpest har gow, crunchy-custardy egg puffs, perfect chicken feet, and silken-soft daikon cakes.

The restaurant is incredibly busy all of the time. The parking lot fills up half an hour before the doors open every day like clockwork. Even though the restaurant seats hundreds of diners at a time, if you show up at eleven-thirty a.m. on a Sunday, you can count on waiting for an hour and a half.

And yet, in spite of outrageous demand, the dim-sum quality remains remarkably steady. This is all the more impressive when you consider that Koi Palace has expanded to include two more restaurants and two express-service counters (one in SFO airport). They also fill orders from other restaurants, as well as catering services that stock the cafeterias of large Bay Area tech companies. All told, that’s a lot of dim sum.

So five years ago, they opened a commissary. In a nondescript building in Millbrae, about fifty employees work full time to keep up with the demand for buns, dumplings, baked goods, and roast duck. The majority of what you eat at Koi Palace is still made by hand at the restaurant, but the commissary provides support for all of Koi’s various operations. (When I visited, the team had just filled an order for 800,000 steamed clamshell buns for a national meal-delivery service.)

Here are some highlights from a tour I took with Koi Palace’s operations manager, Leo Leong.

Most of the action at the commissary takes place in the dumpling room, where a fleet of machines—manufactured in Taiwan and then customized with different attachments—fill and fold dumplings at superhuman speed. The head dumpling maker, Ben, has become a pro at fixing and outfitting these machines to Koi Palace specifications.

Here’s an interesting technique that Leo says is practiced in many Chinese restaurants: 飛水. Protein (in this case, shrimp, but also chicken and pork) is churned for long stretches in a tub of cold running water to give the meat a texture he describes as “crunchy.” (Think of a good piece of har gow and the way the shrimp is firm without being tough—sort of like how ike jime affects sashimi.)

Here’s the bakery department and steaming room. Below, a woman is mixing up a very large batch of daikon-cake batter.

Plenty of work is still done by hand, both in the restaurants and at the commissary. Leong says that the commissary and its mechanical systems help to keep things consistent, but it all comes down to people. Some of the people here have been with Koi Palace since the restaurant first opened. Others have been making dim sum since long before that.