Arriving into Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) requires little more than a jet-lagged attention span. Signs easily point you in the right direction; waiting in line for the Airport Express train to Kowloon or Central Station is timely and orderly - every 10 minutes to be precise - as local residents set the standard for other passengers by forming single file lines and obeying arrows pointing towards train car seating. People seem to respect the rules, there is no eating and drinking during the ride (I saw no one partake of anything), gates open swiftly like clockwork, and keep ing with their clean image, gel hand sanitizers can be found in convenient locations for stress and germ-free use.
So the irony of finding an extremely unorthodox restaurant in Hong Kong truly rattled my perceptions. After the Airport Express journey, a no-fuss taxi ride through towering residential buildings and respectful traffic movement, we were pointed to a huddle of people on Kwong Wa Street, housing - alongside a arms dealer and a mobile phone shop - the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world. Tim Ho Wan dim sum is the antithesis of the once pompous haute-cuisine Michelin star rating system. All of the European and North American press that I have ever been attuned too, continuously placed restaurants obtaining Michelin stars in another category, another element of dining, and while the best ______ typically was left to the likes of Zagat guides, 7x7 and LA Weekly articles, dining at one of these bestowed holders of at least one Michelin star - but topping out at three - was cause for a special occasion, or at least cause for a special kind of check book. Enter Tim Ho Wan to the picture, who was granted its first star in 2010. Chef Pui Gor, formerly the highly touted dim sum chef of the Four Season's hotel restaurant Lung King Heen, left in 2009 soon after they were awarded the prestigious 3 Michelin star rating to ride the wave of success towards his own more humble business venture. Tim Ho Wan was born, and later backed by a Michelin star in 2010, Anthony Bourdain's The Layover, and various press by the Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure Asia, CNNgo, to name a few.
Simply stated, Tim Ho Wan will leave an impression on you. It certainly did for me, I'm still tasting our meal there. Never-mind the always flowing yet uncontrolled pouring of the luke-warm or steaming hot - depending on your luck - pu'er tea (or pu-erh tea, a post fermented Yunnan province product, another Chinese refugee tradition brought to Hong Kong), which stands as another ironic gesture of how the "controlled" Hong Kongians fall off their rocker a bit, adding another tick to the polarity of this restaurant. But don't judge yet.
Nothing fancy as far as tableware is concerned. Plastic bowls, cups, saucers and unlimited tea refills.
Vermicelli roll with BBQ pork and soy sauce at Tim Ho Wan. Lovely texture (again), great flavor.
Steamed dumpling in Chiu Chow style. Peanuts, chives, water chestnuts.
Har Gao, shrimp dumplings. They arrived steaming hot - and you should eat them this way - in the most delicate skin I had ever seen, tasted or had the pleasure to enjoy. You can see that simply by picking the dumpling up, it began to tear. Classic dim sum, straightforward execution - fabulous.
I couldn't resist the fried dumplings filled with BBQ meat. One of my favorites of the meal. Lightly fried, chewy glutinous innards and finally a just-right-bite of saucy sweet pork filling.
The Baked BBQ Pork Buns. The sole reason that some guests to Tim Ho Wan spend 3 hours waiting in line. 3 buns per order. Order many!
The main event, baked BBQ pork buns, were a perfectly blended rendition of some Asian flavors we know and love - sweet & sour - and a mild recollection to the dirty fast food Americans (and apparently the world with outlets in Trinidad, Thailand, Spain and beyond) can't get enough of (e.g. Popeye's or KFC biscuits).
Preparing steamed shui mai dumplings and other specialties at Tim Ho Wan, Kowloon, Hong Kong.
A crucial element of the kitchen at Tim Ho Wan, Hong Kong.
But should we label it tacky? Does eating from red and black (made in China no doubt) plastic bowls, rubbing elbows and hips with your neighbor in extremely close sitting quarters, and rushed service cut it in the Michelin guide? Are we degrading a brand image? If you pay attention to what's being laid in front of you, I'm sure it can be argued that it does merit such recognition. Based alone off of price to taste ratios, it may just deserve two. Dumplings steamed with the softest glutinous rice flour texture, baked BBQ pork buns that resemble sweet and salty better than any take-out dish ever could, plump shrimp. It's no surprise this joint has become a cult classic with locals, cabbies, foodie-fiends, and shopaholics. They say the fame in recent years has led to a standard expectation of 2 hours waiting in line. Luckily, on a Wednesday at 4pm, we had missed the rush hour of lunch, and were seated at our place on the humble and dilapidated booth in roughly 20 minutes. This included however, that we knew what we wanted to order before we sat down, and for lack of language skills and bravery, we didn't think to ask about daily specials or add-ons to our check once the dishes had been consumed, knowing that we could have put away a couple more menu options, just to increase and elongate the memories that would be conjured up of the experience at the finest and cheapest Michelin star in the world.
But that's the beauty of food for me, something so powerful - let it be a simple hole-in-the-wall or the 10 fork meal at 2 Michelin starred Mugaritz - that takes me back to a moment, a flavor, a layover in Hong Kong.
When to go:After the lunch hour rush is a recommend time, say 4pm, where you're likely to wait around a half hour (depending on your group size). I've also heard of other diners who pick up a number in the morning, walk around the city a bit and return in time for their ticket to be called at lunch time.
Hours 10am to 10pm (tickets stop being given around 8:30pm)
Price:The most expensive dish is now listed at HK$24 (US $3.10). The cheapest, HK$12 (US $1.55). Apparently, beer can put the bill over expectations (or so was the topic of one arguing tourist having an altercation in line).
Tim Ho Wan
Shop 8, Taui Yuen Mansion Phase 2
Kwong Wa Street
Mong Kok, Kowloon, Hong Kong
Transportation : Kowloon (then best to take a US $3.75 taxi to destination at Kwong Wa St)
This is the original, and therefore the most authentic. You won't be able to find the same 20-seater atmosphere, and controlling hostess that goes along with this experience at their other two outlets.
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More Michelin stars and restaurant recommendations around the world at Sobremesa In Spain's Facebook page. Thanks for joining my culinary adventure!