The Most Affordable Fine Dining In the World: Tim Ho Wan’s, Hong Kong

15 Sep

Tom had another long weekend last week (Hari Raya), so we decided to splurge on a weekend in Hong Kong. (One of the perks of crazy business travel is spending your points on vacation.) Most of our time was spent on those deeply cultural pursuits, eating and shopping. I think Hong Kong rivals KL for number of tasty edibles per square meter, although in fairness it’s more compact. (Not to mention easier to navigate on foot. Sidewalks, how I’ve missed you.)

Asia, in recent years, has been trouncing Europe and the US in the Michelin-star wars. Tokyo alone has 150 Michelin stars. Hong Kong is no slouch, with 42 to its name, one of which has become famous as the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world; it’s a hole-in-the-wall dim sum place called Tim Ho Wan, where the most expensive menu item tops out at US $3. It’s probably also gotten the most press. Hong Kong is widely known to have the best dim sum in the world anyway, so this was going to be either the most transcendent yum cha or biggest letdown ever. I had to find out. (Oh yeah, and it’s the first Michelin restaurant I’ve seen that I can afford.)

I was a bit intimidated by the stories of four-hour waits and the cranky Chinese hostess (is there such a thing as a winsome Chinese hostess? Discuss), but sucked it up in the name of the blog.

Perusing the menu in the queue at Tim Ho Wan

I was even more nervous about missing our number. The hostess shouts out your number in Cantonese, which I am not even remotely familiar with. (Mandarin at least kind of sounds like Japanese.) When I wasn’t trying to figure out what the (Chinese) menu items were by comparing the characters with the magazine photos plastered on the windows, I was obsessively checking the list to see where we were. (By the way, much thanks to the nice lady behind me who told me how to say “83” in Chinese, all 20 times I asked. No, I still don’t remember.)

The wait turned out to be much shorter than feared, only about 40 minutes. We got crammed into a corner so tiny we had to ask our neighbors to move their table when we needed to get out. The official capacity of Tim Ho Wan is 20 Asian people, or about five Americans, not counting the servers darting around with steaming pots of tea and baskets of food. They don’t do the traditional pushcart thing here, for the main reason that there’s not enough square footage to fit a cart, let alone push one around.

But enough about ambiance; that’s not why we’re here. Does the food live up to the hype?

The famous char siu bao

Tim Ho Wan’s specialty is their char siu bao; they sell up to 750 of these in a day. Bao (which in Chinese refers to any sort of bun) are usually steamed, but Tim Ho Wan bakes theirs with a light sugar coating, resulting in an airy bun with a bit of crunch. Oh, and this in the middle.

Sweet, sweet char siu.

That’s the char siu, barbecued pork in a sweet-and-savory glaze. The char siu was a little sweeter than what I’m used to. The whole thing sort of tasted like a porky dessert, like the “pig newtons” (some sort of pork-filled cookie) that I accidentally bought at a Vietnamese bakery in Chicago. I see why they sell so many of these; it’s the perfect marriage of delicate pastry and savory filling.

Steamed dumpling in Chiu Chow style

Dim sum involves a lot of dumplings, particularly of the sort wrapped in glutinous rice pastry. I think the above are called glass dumplings. You see the shrimp-stuffed version (called har gow, and of course we ordered those too) more commonly in the US. These were filled with a mixture of pork, chives, dried shrimp, peanuts, Chinese radish, and cilantro. Rich and savory, yet fresh-tasting, with each dumpling encompassing a world of flavors in a mouthful. The pastry wrapping was perfectly tender but strong enough to encase the fillings, and a testament to the kitchen’s skill. (If you’d ever like to engage in an exercise in frustration, try wrapping dumplings with wet, sticky glutinous rice wrappers.) “Chiu Chow” is a subset of Cantonese cooking developed in Hong Kong. I have no idea why these dumplings are considered Chiu Chow style.

Meatballs, and more dumplings

On the left we have steamed meatballs with bean curd skin (why is it that Asian food sounds so unappetizing in English?), on the right, deep-fried mochi pastries with a pork filling. The meatballs were remarkably tender and light, with the bean curd adding some chewiness and sopping up the sauce. Some day I will make meatballs this delicious.

On the right are deep-fried mochi (that’s glutinous rice again, this time pounded into a cake) with a filling of pork, mushrooms, and water chestnut in a soy gravy. This is the kind of thing that can easily become cloying or greasy (and often is), so again, kudos to the kitchen for pulling it off.

Rice steamed in lotus leaf with beef and chicken

We were getting full at this point, but it’s not dim sum for me without this dish: sticky rice with soy-braised meats, steamed in a lotus leaf. The rice soaks up the savory juices from the meat, and the lotus leaf lends its…lotus-y flavor. (You know, like grape leaves.) Often it includes things like mushrooms and lotus root, but this one just had meat (beef and chicken…I think). The beef was especially delicious, in that way that makes you keep eating even though you’re stuffed.

The world's best mango pudding

I don’t normally order desserts at dim sum (why waste the stomach capacity?), but Tim Ho Wan’s had gotten glowing reviews. Tom was initially skeptical (“Mango pudding? Really?”) but ate his words (and the pudding too), calling it the “platonic ideal of mango puddings.” It was pretty delicious; just on that fragile, quivering side of the line between a solid and a liquid, creamy, but full of mango flavor, like a mango panna cotta.

Jasmine-infused jelly with jasmine flowers

Our second dessert was less enthusiastically received. (Tom: “Are those flowers or bugs in the jelly?”) It was refreshing, but there’s something about floral-flavored desserts that makes me feel like I’m eating a particularly delicious soap.

Keep in mind that I’ve only posted the mind-blowingly good stuff here in the interest of space; we ordered other stuff that was also just outstanding (the aforementioned har gow, awesome turnip cakes, those “rice crepes” we always get at dim sum). It turns out that Tim Ho Wan has a ringer of sorts: the owner/chef, Mak Pui Gor, was formerly the dim sum chef at the three-starred restaurant in the Four Seasons. My only regret (okay, besides not ordering the chicken feet for Tom) is that now I think I’m ruined for dim sum elsewhere, and it’s too expensive to fly back to Hong Kong every time I have a dim sum craving.

More Hong Kong delights await!

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4 Responses to “The Most Affordable Fine Dining In the World: Tim Ho Wan’s, Hong Kong”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Duck, Duck, Goose « Straight Out of Kampung - September 26, 2010

    […] Tim Ho Wan, we kept our Michelin streak going for dinner with a visit to Yung Kee, a Michelin one-star as […]

  2. Chee Cheong Fun and Egg Tarts at Imbi Market « Straight Out of Kampung - May 5, 2012

    […] is a chee cheong fun spot. Chee cheong fun is a sort of rice crepe that you may have encountered at dim sum, stuffed with char siu or shrimp; in Malaysia, it’s served unstuffed with a sweet and spicy […]

  3. Fó Tiào Qiáng: “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall” « Straight Out of Kampung - August 31, 2012

    […] pao (pork-stuffed steamed buns), which I quite enjoyed but Tom felt were overshadowed by Tim Ho Wan‘s. The hit of the afternoon, though, was the pork belly cooked with red wine, which led to a […]

  4. A Cronut™ by any other name… | Straight Out of Kampung - August 29, 2013

    […] is no foodstuff I’m willing to wait for with a potentially cranky infant, even dim sum at Tim Ho Wan’s. Luckily, there was no such crowd at Dessert Storm. We tasted The Breakfast […]

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