Creek House Dim Sum Restaurant
1291 Parkside Dr. (at North Broadway), Walnut Creek
Dim sum was destined to play a crucial role in Sheke Chow’s life. When he was seven, Chow’s family moved to Hong Kong from their home in Guangdong Province, in Southern China. The family was so poor that eight of them slept in one room and they shared their bathroom and kitchen with 30 other tenants. At the age of 12, Chow attended school at night and worked during the day to bring in some money for the family. His first job was as a cart pusher in a dim sum restaurant.
Over the years, he continued to work in Hong Kong restaurants, while dreaming of one day moving to America. “We called it ‘The Golden Mountain,’” he said, imagining it would be a beautiful place where it would be easy to get rich. Before he left Hong Kong at age 23, Chow graduated from bartender school and hotel manager school so that he could qualify for an advanced position.
But when Chow arrived in San Francisco Chinatown, the restaurant owners there just laughed at his precious certificates. “Experience is more important than certificates,” they told him. He started working as a waiter at a restaurant on Jackson Street. Three years later, his family matched him with a woman from his hometown in China. “But I as soon as I saw her, I fell in love with her,” he said of his wife of 44 years, Connie Chow. Their first date was at The Golden Dragon, a classic San Francisco dim sum restaurant.
In 1984, after working for years at Cantonese restaurants, Chow and his wife were finally able to open their first restaurant. Chow remembers trying to pick an auspicious name that would attract financial success. “It had to be golden…something,” he recalls. “Golden Chopsticks? No, too tiny. … Golden Bowl? No, still too small. Ahhh, Golden Wok! Now that will hold a lot of gold.”
When the couple both reached age 65, they retired after a career running several restaurants around the Bay Area that all specialized in Cantonese cuisine. They enjoyed traveling around China, Europe and Russia with groups of friends and went on a few cruises. But two years ago, at the age of 70, they started a new restaurant venture, in Walnut Creek, much larger than their previous spots. They called it Creek House after its location and the painting of a lovely pond with lotus flowers that they inherited from the previous restaurant in that location. They also wanted to honor their hometown of Kaiping, which is surrounded by streams and rivers. Creek House’s specialty is, you guessed it, dim sum.
Now that the Chows are older and can’t maneuver the heavy woks, they do less cooking themselves, but still work as servers, oversee food preparations and order restaurant supplies. They’re also responsible for hiring and have found five expert dim sum chefs trained in China who make things the old-fashioned way — all by hand — including har gow, with large crunchy shrimp; generous, moist shumai; baked barbeque pork buns with an irresistible crispy crust; and cute piggy buns with sweet cream filling.
The Chows serve premium teas — jasmine, pu-erh and chrysanthemum — imported from a relative in Kaiping, who also owns dim sum restaurants all over Canton.
Although Creek House initially lost 80% of its business when the pandemic hit, Chow’s advance planning paid off. Soon after opening Creek House in 2019, he had joined DoorDash, and other meal delivery services, even though friends and family told him he was crazy and would lose a lot of money. But when the shelter-in-place order took effect and locals were scrambling to find places for takeout, he was already set up.
“He lives under a lucky star,” said his sister Fanny Yan. Although his profit margin was low in 2020, he is proud that Creek House Dim Sum never closed. Connie helped by taking over cooking tasks in the kitchen with two part-time line cooks, while Sheke manned the front of the house for to-go orders. Things have improved now that they can have 50% indoor seating. They are also happy to welcome diners on Saturdays and Sundays, popular days for shared dim sum feasts. Just be aware that the restaurant does not take reservations, so seating is first come, first served.
But the real way these two septuagenarians survive their 15-hour-long days, which often start with a drive to Oakland Chinatown to pick up fresh vegetables or live fish, is with the help of their devoted family members.
After several years working at Genentech, daughter Goldie got laid off in 2020 and now works at the restaurant four days a week. “At least I am working for people I love,” she said. Chow’s sister Fanny handles the bookkeeping and other management tasks from her home in Los Angeles. Fanny’s son, Charles, a technology whiz who also lives in L.A., designed the restaurant’s menu and maintains its website. He also figured out how on busy days Fanny could answer the restaurant’s phones remotely from her home in L.A., take customers’ orders and transmit them by computer directly to the kitchen.
Fanny’s daughter, Vivian Yan, currently lives in Chicago with her husband, where she is working on her doctoral dissertation in Asian American history from Stanford University. She designed and set up her aunt and uncle’s website and keeps them current on Instagram. “We often visited their restaurants when we were young,” Vivian said, “and I remember they were always working. It feels good to help them after all the barbecued chicken wings they gave us when we were kids.”
“Sheke and Connie are so used to working so hard,” said Fanny, “that it took a long time before the family could convince them to close their restaurant just one day a week.”
The Chows say they are on a mission to educate people that good dim sum needs to be made by hand (not pre-made, machine-made or frozen). They hope that one day their family’s younger generation will take over the business.
Creek House Dim Sum Restaurant is open 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 4:3o-8 p.m., Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 4:30-9 p.m., Friday and Saturday; closed Tuesday.
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