Jonathan Lee comes from a dim-sum dynasty: his grandfather and father ran the sizable Flamingo House Chinese restaurants on Cambie and Fraser streets for more than 40 years, and the latter still oversees a downsized location on Southeast Marine Drive.
But despite Lee’s lineage and exposure to the restaurant industry, he never planned on opening a dining establishment of his own—until he realized that Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood doesn’t have access to traditional Cantonese-style dim sum.
That, and the intention of moving back home after living and working in the U.S. for more than 20 years, led to the opening of Little Bird Dim Sum (2958 West 4th Avenue).
“I spent eight, nine years in Chicago, and that city is all about neighbourhood, similar to Kits,” Lee told the Straight in an interview at the new eatery. “My brother and a lot of our friends live in this neighbourhood, and they say it’s hard to get dim sum in this area.”
Contrary to what some may think about a dim sum restaurant that also serves craft beer and wine, Little Bird’s food menu is as traditional as it gets.
Guests will find fan-favourite items like siu mai (Chinese pork and shrimp dumpling), har gow (shrimp dumpling), sticky rice (with Chinese sausage, shiitake mushroom, and goji berry), steamed barbecued-pork buns, pork spareribs, and chicken feet (with black beans and garlic).
To better accommodate the district’s growing palate for plant-based fare, the new spot also offers vegetarian siu mai (made with Beyond Meat), vegetarian sticky rice, baked barbecued-tofu buns, crispy bean-curd rolls, and vegetarian spring rolls.
“There are a lot of vegans, people who are gluten-free, and people with allergies,” Lee said. “A lot of times, they can’t go and have dim sum. We don’t serve specialty vegan dim sum, but we have options.”
Sweet items like egg tarts (made with egg custard and butter pastry), green-tea sesame balls (with matcha and sesame paste), steamed sponge cakes, goji-berry and litchi Jell-O, and almond Jell-O are also served.
The dim sum is made at a central kitchen in South Vancouver, and some of the chefs are from Flamingo. There is limited real estate inside Little Bird, so it makes sense that the steaming and cooking are done in-house while the actual food preparation takes place externally.
In terms of drinks, Lee has carefully picked out the alcohol to ensure it doesn’t overpower the food. Choices like Parallel 49’s craft lager and Four Winds’ Saison are available. Wines include Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Gamay rosé, and Cabernet Franc.
If you’re looking for spirit-free libations, go for the house-made Hong Kong iced lemon tea, ha fu chou (cold herbal tea), or classic hot Chinese teas: chrysanthemum, jasmine, and pu’er.
“We’re going to consistently evolve the liquor as well as the food,” Lee added. “Once we’re comfortable and the kitchen is comfortable with everything coming out, we’ll add in some new items as well.”
Lee acknowledges that Little Bird is an East-meets-West dining establishment but not in the sense that the food being served is fusion. Its traditional dim sum showcases flavours from the East, while its interior design and service components reflect West Coast hospitality.
Its tables, walls, and flooring are made by ChopValue, a company that makes its products from recycled chopsticks.
Little Bird takes only limited reservations for parties of six or more, but there’s an electronic wait-list system in place for walk-in guests, and a text message is sent to them once their table is ready. It’s currently only open Tuesday to Sunday, from 5 to 10 p.m., but will open for brunch on Sundays beginning this week.
“I think we provide great food, traditional dim sum, and great drinks,” Lee said. “We’re friendly. We have fun working, and when you come in, I’m sure you’ll have a good laugh as well.”
Scroll through the photos below for a look inside the new food spot on West 4th.