Tim Ho Wan, 5 Kwong Wa St., Mong Kok, Kowloon, Hong Kong, open 10 am to 10 pm.
Just before noon we turned the corner onto Kwong Wa Street in the Mong Kok district of Kowloon and stepped into a crowd. A large group of people was milling about in front of a run down storefront. The throng was dense enough that fingers of humanity were forced off the sidewalk and into the gaps between a row of scooters parallel parked against the curb. Our next Michelin-starred dining experience was in sight but it seemed so unlikely. The crowd was waiting to get into Tim Ho Wan, a restaurant anointed with one star by the Red Guide. The masses could just as easily be waiting to pick up their laundry on a weekend morning.
At the podium desk resting on the sidewalk Becky made our “reservation” with the no nonsense attendant. The attendant said nothing and simply handed her an order sheet with the number seventy-two scrawled on top.
“One hour,” the attendant said loudly a moment later with a sideways glance towards Becky.
It seemed that she was checking whether we would balk at the wait time and change our minds.
The attendant clearly faced a routine of working the mass of people in the front of the restaurant daily. Most of the customers, it seemed, had been there before. They knew what to expect. For us, this was new. We had now in our hand evidence that we had reserved a spot at one of Hong Kong’s culinary hot spots, a Michelin starred restaurant at that, Tim Ho Wan. We blended back into the crowd and waited for our number to be called.
It was clear when we first saw the large throng outside the restaurant that there would be a significant wait. Back into the crowd we looked more closely at the order sheet “menu” with 72 written on the top. There were 30 food items available not counting the two printed menu lines that were individually lined off by a blue ballpoint pen. The most expensive item on the dim sum list was $19. That’s 19 Hong Kong Dollars or about $2.40 US. Apparently the price was not going to be an issue.
We were expected to mark the boxes on the sheet with our food requests as a prerequisite to entering the eatery. But what should we order? With a larger group we might just have ordered everything, but we were only two. Clearly some Internet research ahead of time would have been very helpful here but that was a little late now. We improvised. Soon we had a fellow queue member marking our order sheet with her favorites. Now we were set to enter the restaurant if only the wait would end.
Forty-five minutes of our projected hour-long wait time remained so we decided to wander. Nearby an open air market had the typical impossibly complex and exotic array of fresh food items on offer. With lunch still a distant, abstract concept, we purchased a large piece of an unknown dried fruit and tried it. The fruit was deliciously sweet and fruity, but what exactly was it? We never did figure that out.
We conservatively arrived back in the queue 20 minutes before the end of our announced waiting time. Periodically, the attendant would call another number in Cantonese and a clutch amongst the waiting pack would shout and raise their hands in the air as if they had just won at bingo. Still we stood and waited for our number to be voiced. We casually engaged in conversation with the other prospective diners subtly making sure they new our queue number. It might help to have some support if our number was called in Cantonese, so we thought.
Slowly the attendant’s numbers were creeping up to ours. But, when our hour-long wait time passed, we were still some distance from the top of the list. After an hour and half, we started to question whether we would ever get in. But the others that had come to the restaurant when we did still remained, so we too stuck it out. It had to be worth the wait.
“Seventy-two” the attendant called in accented English.
Finally it happened. It was our number. After an hour and fifty minutes of waiting, our brunch had turned into a late lunch. We were certainly hungry as we entered the restaurant and handed over our order sheet.
The humble exterior of Tim Ho Wan is mirrored by its interior. Inside there are a mere 30 seats. The diners sit elbow-to-elbow sardine packed into all available space. A busy kitchen, shielded by glass, takes up the back corner of the room. All expense was spared on the interior design; the only updates to the original wood paneled decor are posters of the restaurants accolades haphazardly pasted to the walls. And, as usual in Hong Kong, bring your own napkins. The restaurant provides none.
Soon the food came dim sum style in bamboo steamers, one after another. Each basket was loaded with the items long ago marked on our order sheet by a friendly lady out front of the restaurant.
First up were the steamed dumplings filled with fresh shrimp. Additional dumplings, with spinach and garlic, soon followed. The dumplings were both good if not exceptional.
“Fried glutinous rice with assorted preserved meat” sounded scary on the menu but was delicious. This dish is commonly served in Hong Kong. It’s a sticky rice mound embedded with savory chunks of meat.
The crispy fried pleasures of the “Deep fried dumpling filled with meat” were sure to please. The fried dumplings had the perfect combination of crispiness and interior gooiness.
“Poached fresh seasonal vegetable,” as described on the menu, meant iceberg lettuce wilted at the table by a dose of a soy-based sauce. This dish was simple and surprisingly satisfying.
All of this was good, but there is one particular menu item worth the visit on its own—the “Baked bun with BBQ pork.” When these treats arrived at the table, both Becky and I ignored them. They looked like painfully humble dough pucks. When I make a bad batch of biscuits at home, which I often do, this is what the least appealing ones look like. Eventually Becky tried one of the dough disks. Her eyes rolled like a slot machine eventually landing on 777. (Is this really the true purpose for her third eye?) I knew enough to quickly move to get my hands on the buns before they were all gone.
In my mouth, the pork buns were completely unlike what they looked. So much for the presentation impacting the flavor perception. The outside is slightly sweet and baked crispy. On the bottom, the bun is caramelized to goodness. The dough itself is indeed biscuit like but that description is inadequate to convey the sweet moistness of the quick bread. On the inside is just the right amount of a sweet BBQ pork concoction. It’s true; I’d eat these buns for dessert. But it is also true that I’d eat them for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and all times in between. Indeed, it was all I could do to keep from snagging a stray bun off of our helpful neighbors’ table when they weren’t looking. The buns are just that good. For sure the pork bun jewels at Tim Ho Wan are worth the long wait for a table on their own.
Some publications state that Tim Ho Wan is the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. Perhaps this would be true if you only ordered a few items and not a full meal. For us, our visit ran to $14 US. We paid less for our meal at the one-starred Ho Hung Kee earlier, but really, whose counting when it’s that cheap? The hour and fifty minutes of wait time was much more of a deterrent than the price. And even then, it was definitely worth the wait.
Needless to say, we’d return to Tim Ho Wan. Next time, though, we will try an off time when the wait might be shorter. Maybe 10:21 am on a Monday morning would work better than noon on a Saturday? And next time we will be certain to order multiple batches of the BBQ pork buns. We wouldn’t want to risk getting jail time for stealing 60-cent pork buns off of neighbor’s tables, would we?
Find out more about Tim Ho Wan from The Telegraph.