tom’s chinese bbq + dim sum / city heights – san diego

Jake used to live in the heart of City Heights and used to work at the Albertson’s on University near I-15. We spotted this place some years ago (six to seven, almost the whole length of our relationship) just driving up and down that dreaded street: Tom’s BBQ. We could tell it was Chinese from the top sign we couldn’t read but we didn’t really know anything else about it. Whenever one of us would mention it, we’d shrug our shoulders and decide to go somewhere else. This weekend, we finally went there.


We had a little bit of time to kill and I needed a little food in my belly. But we were planning on partaking of another place for San Diego Burger Week, so we didn’t want a whole lot to eat. We came in here and peeked around.

It doesn’t look like much inside. The first thing you see is this:


It’s a crappy photo, I know. The glass was a uh, bit dirty/scratched up. The whole place kind of seemed like there was a coating of something all over the place. But that’s pig hanging there, plus more pig that looks like it’s bbq’d, and then whole roasted ducks (with the head’s still attached).


There’s a little menu telling you the prices. You can get items whole and a few of them by the pound. I want to come back to try the pork offerings.


Over on the wall is this chalkboard menu with Chinese and English items with prices for the BBQ and dim sum that have been adjusted over time. It’s way high up on the wall, kind of small and easy to miss. I zoomed in to get this photo.


Near the trays of dim sum is this little paper menu listing all of the offerings they have. Whole lot of pig parts there. I suspect nothing goes to waste. Duck feet is much cheaper than chicken feet. I wonder why that is.


Starting at the far left end are some of the sweeter dim sum items. On the far left are the pineapple and coconut buns (.80 cents each), egg custard tarts (also .80 cents) and baked bbq pork buns (.90 cents).


Then there are these fried pork almost-ball-shaped items called xian shui jiao (which I only guessed the name of by price, which was .70 cents), sesame balls (under the Styrofoam and .70 cents) and har gow shrimp dumplings (3 for $1) or siu mei (pork filled, also 3 for $1).


I didn’t inquire after these items, but I suspect they are the various pig parts and maybe rice cakes? In the back, where the cutting board is, I saw a lady chop up some of the pig for someone.


These are the dim sum items we got, which came to a whopping five dollars. There is one table inside with two chairs and we parked it there to eat our treats.


This! I have never had this before. It’s possible I’ve seen the name at other dim sum places but had no earthly idea what it was. By deduction I figured out it is xian shui jiao. It’s filled with pork deliciousness and is deep fried and gloriously tasty. The dumpling wrapper had the same consistency as the fried sesame ball – chewy, doughy, soft. It’s not really crispy on the outside, but there’s a kind of shell that adheres it all together. This was Jake and I’s favorite item. In fact, I liked it so much that I got another one before we left.


This is the baked bbq pork bun. The bun is a bit airy and there’s more bread to filling. Jake didn’t like the bread on this one as much, he thought the flavor was a bit weird but I thought it was fine. The filling is a bit on the sweet side, and the bread is also a touch sweet so it might be a little overkill for some.


Jake and I both preferred the steamed bbq pork bun version. I always love the spongy, squishy texture of the steamed buns. This one was a bit small and a could have used a bit more filling but was still yummy.


I’ve eaten sesame balls my whole life. This was a good version, though maybe just a *tad* too greasy. The filling was creamy and tasted good with the soft, chewy dumpling.


I really got this for Jake, which seems weird in retrospect because he’s always fine with whatever I choose. I know he likes pineapple so I wanted him to try this. I didn’t really care for it, I didn’t like the pasty-smoothed out pineapple filling. I didn’t like it didn’t even remotely look like pineapple, either. It just tasted like a weird sweet paste, similar to the red bean paste/filling in texture but … not red bean tasting. I didn’t really even think it tasted like pineapple. * Update: Kirbie let me know she thinks this is a COCONUT bun – I asked for pineapple, but maybe they just gave me coconut. In any case, it didn’t taste like coconut to me, either.

Overall, Jake and I were pleasantly surprised to find that this place had dim sum and was so freaking cheap. I would have never guessed and honestly if I had known about the dim sum treats, I bet I would have wanted to come in sooner. We didn’t try all of their offerings, but I know without a doubt I’ll come back for that xian shui jiao because DAMN that was tasty. Their roast pork looked especially scrumptious and very crispy so I hope it’s just as good as it looks!

For some other takes on Tom’s BBQ, also see:
Chinese BBQ in City Heights from the San Diego Reader (2013)
Various quips from people on Yelp
Kirk from mmm-yoso wrote about this back in 2009

Tom’s BBQ
4414 University Ave
San Diego, CA 92105
(619) 563-8225

Tom's Chinese BBQ on Urbanspoon

11 thoughts on “tom’s chinese bbq + dim sum / city heights – san diego

      1. Another name for them is ham sui gok which is one of my favorite. And I think the thing that you thought are rice cakes can either be pan fried daikon or turnip or taro depending on what it is made of. I wish we had that kind of dim sum items near me. Man I want some dim sum now.

        1. Hi Van – Thanks for the name of that item! Maybe I’ll see it on a menu somewhere else and know what it is now so I can order it. Yeah, I couldn’t tell what the item was and I didn’t ask since we had already made all of our choices. I’ll have to ask next time.

  1. Oh man you made out like a bandit!

    I’m not sure why I’m not grossed out by the yucky window food panel thingies. I think I’m just used to seeing them at most fast food Chinese restaurants.

    This place reminds me of that dim sum place in Mira Mesa – augh – what’s it called. The one that used to be the old movie theater on Camino Ruiz. There’s a dim sum place there that’s cheap too.

    You and Jake should try Pearl in RB. I just posted about their $2.85 special so maybe you’ll have time to visit one day. You might enjoy their dim sum desserts there.

    1. Hi Faye – I was excited that it was so cheap! I wasn’t really that grossed out by the windows/panels, either, it was like… it made it more legit? Haha. The one in Mira Mesa is called Hong Kong BBQ & Dim Sum. It’s pretty cheap there, too, but this is cheaper! I read your post, I do really want to try Pearl! I’ve heard good things about it.

  2. I love those little footballs. Hehe. You can find them at most dim sum places which is nice. Hmm, I think the bun you got in the last picture is the coconut bun. From your other picture when you stated coconut bun and pineapple bun, the pineapple bun should be the one with the yellow sugary stuff on the top. It’s not actually made with pineapples but it got it’s name by resembling the pineapple shell. The filling for the sweet breads is usually a custard mixed with a little coconut.
    Another good option for cheap take out dim sum is Yum Cha Cafe in Linda Vista. It’s cheap and they have a huge selection too.

    1. Hi Kirbie – Thanks for the explanation about the buns – I feel like I asked for pineapple and then couldn’t remember. All I remember is I didn’t really like it. I don’t think it tasted like coconut either, haha! But I’ll fix that. I’ll have to check out Yum Cha Cafe – I feel like I have heard about that/read about that somewhere else… it seems vaguely familiar.

  3. I loved getting food on Sundays at Tom’s. It was the most affordable place for roast pork and duck. Loved the dim sum options too. I am glad to see that Tom’s is still in business.

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