Tim Ho Wan. I can’t wait for the day that nobody cares anymore. When all the lines have dispersed and the last of the camera-toting journalists pack up their tents. Maybe then the regular folks in Hong Kong can have a laugh at all the transpired hoopla and go back to regular life eating regular meals. Here’s your cliff notes: former dim sum chef of Four Seasons’ Lung King Heen leaves and sets up shop bringing quality food to the common ‘layfolk’, creating the world’s cheapest Michelin starred meal. From 10am to 10pm daily, there is a qeue of 2-3 hours at any given time. The restaurant seats 20 and has a short order sheet of standard dim sum fare. There are more servers than there are patrons and the head waitress presides over the counter outside barking table numbers and wait times.
The morning I showed up, precisely at 10:03am, the wait was 1 hour. There was an Australian business woman in front of me, fresh off the plane in a suit. Some middle aged eat-pray-love-ites who seemed to be soul searching on the wrong island. The rest of the line was formed by tourists from other parts of Asia. There were no locals- except for the ones walking on the other side of the street, amused by our growing posse. We chattered amongst each other. Nobody had eaten there, only read the reviews. And the reviews were glowing. Before I sat down, I already knew how the char siu bao was going to be. Smaller than your regular ones and golden in colour, the outside is topped with a crispy sugar coating similar to a pineapple bun. The inside is succulent barbecued pork in soy and sugar sauce. Genius, why hasn’t anyone thought of this before.
In addition to char siu bao, I also ordered crystal shrimp dumplings, turnip cake, pork chang fen, and osthmanthus jelly for dessert. If I wasn’t alone and this wasn’t the first meal of the day, I would have ordered the whole menu. Hell I could have ordered two of everything and thrown one on the floor, it was that cheap. My entire meal came to about USD $10, and everything tasted perfect. The shrimp dumplings, delicately stuffed in the thinnest rice wrapper I’ve ever seen, were so good I almost didn’t notice the hungry faces pressed up against the glass doors, imploring me to finish and get the fuck out. I stuffed another turnip cake in my mouth and smacked with rapture. They were soft and spongey, with savoury flecks of pork throughout. I’m not a huge dessert person, but the jasmine tea jelly with osthmanthus flower petals tasted like a refreshing midsummer morning under an osthmanthus tree. If you live somewhere like Canada and don’t know what that smells like, what I just said might sound like cheese, but for people who know the power of osthmanthus in bloom, this dessert is ecstasy.
After my meal, I paid and walked out of the restaurant into the throngs of impatient qeuers. Was the meal delicious? Of course it was. Did it deserve a Michelin star? Here’s where I think those clandestine reviewers should get smart. Was this the first cha lau these guys have been to? What do they think we’ve been eating for the last thousand years in the mysterious Orient? Tim Ho Wan is good, but so is a LOT of Hong Kong’s top dim sum restaurants. Ask any locals and they’ll rattle off a list with the likes of Fu Ho, Che’s, Fu Sing, even Maxim’s. What Tim Ho Wan is doing well and seemingly consistently is exactly what dim sum restaurants all over the island have been doing for generations- MAKE DELICIOUS DIM SUM. There’s no mystery in the ingredients, the atmosphere is sub zero, and the lineups are preposterous thanks to the star rating. Of course I’m happy for Mak Pui Gor’s success in creating a worldwide sensation, and drawing attention to dim sum while keeping prices where it should be. The point I’m making is that the Michelin review board needs to step up their game in Asia big time, and get schooled in Chinese food so we start to see the balance tilt in this direction. If taste is the only value in this equation, then its time for them to dole out a giant sack of stars, because I know of deserving recipients in Hangzhou, Chengdu, Beijing and my favorite xiaolongbao joint in Shanghai.
Verdict: Tim Ho Wan is great, but show up at 9:30 and be the first in the door. Since its in Kowloon and you’re probably staying in Central, its likely you won’t make it in time. In that case, its not worth the wait. But hey- you dim sum, you lose some.
Shop 8, 2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok, Kowloon