On the oft-overlooked food corridor of San Bruno Avenue in the Portola neighborhood lies one of San Francisco’s only reliably vegan dim sum options. That’s thanks to restaurant consultant Menny Ly who just started rolling out an all-plant-based menu on March 19 at her friend’s family’s restaurant Imperial Garden Seafood Restaurant.
The tea house and restaurant has been in operation for 28 years, and the original owners have passed it to their daughter Elaine Yen, one of Ly’s best friends. They started the vegan dim sum with a kickoff event, which was a hit. Now, the vegan options are available on the regular menu, though the already-popular baked mochi buns are only available on weekends.
The friends only thought to try out vegan dim sum when Yen kept hearing a desire for meat alternatives from regular customers. Yen was giddy when she remembered her childhood friend was vegan. “We decided to take the menu items and, with my past experience, brought them to the chefs,” Ly says. It worked: the cooks took to the recipes like fish to water. The dumplings were mainly vegetable-based, but the siu mai riff used Impossible Meat and the shrimp dumpling featured a soy-based alternative. Mushroom, used in dishes like the truffle rice roll, play a big role, too, to bring that meaty umami to bear.
Ly, who’s vegan, owned a number of Thai restaurants before she dove into plant-based cooking and living. She worked with a vegan food company in Hayward, with Indigo Burger in Newark, and has done lots of consulting gigs. She likes to tap into the memories food creates, that deep sense of nostalgia that dim sum provides, for example, while accounting for dietary restrictions, allergies, and environmentalism. “Someone told me they hadn’t dim sum for 11 years,” Ly says. “Meat and dairy have so many impacts on our world.” The next vegan event at Imperial Garden Seafood will be a Thai food tasting on April 14; the events are going so well that Ly and Yen are hoping to own a whole other vegan restaurant next door to Imperial Garden Seafood.
Ly is wise to look into plant-based dim sum for more reasons than her own personal diet — Forbes reports Impossible Meat’s 2021 retail sales were up 85% year over year, and the current valuation is somewhere around $10 billion. Plus, the Portola is on the comeup with an under-construction garden walk behind Hey Neighbor Cafe. And Yen wants to continue the legacy that her father started with the restaurant. Her family used to own San Bruno Market down the street, where Ly would visit her friend who was working the register with her parents. Many of the regulars who continue to come to Imperial Seafood are seniors who don’t drive and aren’t able to visit other restaurants farther away. “People recognize Elaine from 20 years ago,” Ly says. “Customers thank us for keeping the restaurant running. People come here for every birthday. We want to be able to maintain that for them.”
Imperial Garden Seafood Restaurant is open at 2626 San Bruno Avenue from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and also 5 to 9:00 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.