It’s not your typical description of a Michelin-starred restaurant, but then Tim Ho Wan is not typical of the restaurant that makes the hallowed pages of the world’s most revered food guide.
Forget sniffy sommeliers, decor taken straight from the pages of Vogue and a bill that’ll stretch your credit card to the max; think instead constant queues, two dozen diners crammed into a bland dining room next to a tiny kitchen … and prices that make it difficult to spend more than $10.
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Indeed, Tim Ho Wan (it means “good luck”, apparently) is the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world.
The restaurant made it into the 2010 Michelin Guide for Hong Kong and Macau for its dim sum – that Cantonese staple comprising dumplings and buns, noodles and rice, steamed or fried. The dishes usually come in threes, often in bamboo steamers.
Traditionally, dim sum was eaten as a snack around breakfast time but it has since evolved into an all-day meal and become extremely popular in Hong Kong, where I found myself recently with a few hours to kill on a stopover back to Perth.
I’d heard about Tim Ho Wan before arriving and tracked down its whereabouts by employing the best techniques of investigative journalism – Google Maps. Within 90 minutes of landing at Hong Kong international airport, I found myself outside Tim Ho Wan’s very modest premises off Nathan Road in Mong Kok, Kowloon.
I wasn’t alone.
Though it was only 9.30am and opening time was still 30 minutes away, two dozen mainly young Asian tourists had beaten me to it.
Apart from the fact half the queue was taking photographs of the restaurant, there was nothing to indicate this eatery was famous until I noticed a small red sticker on the glass door declaring its Michelin credentials.
No to-die-for views from this restaurant; across the road was the Paradise Square Hourly Carpark and the Challenger Model Trading Company.
But then, should diners feel moved to gaze out of the restaurant windows to take in the scenery, all they’d see is a pack of prospective customers with their noses pressed against the windows. You can’t reserve a table, so first come, first served still holds good at Tim Ho Wan.
The queues are famous and rate a mention in the Michelin Guide with the advice: “The wait is worth it.”
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Crowds line up outside Tim Ho Wan before opening time. Picture: Mark Irving
The publicity following its inclusion in the guide, of course, resulted in longer queues and the opening of another Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong – which has joined the original eatery in the 2011 Michelin Guide.
I waited as patiently as possible considering the stifling Hong Kong humidity. Encouragingly, one of the female staff came down the queue with small menus and pencils so our orders could be expedited. I was given the English version: “$2/one person for Pu-erh” had me baffled but I reckon I got the gist of: “Make it ourselves. Do it at once open from 10:00am-10:00pm.”
I ticked off a few likely looking items: steamed pork bun with vegetables, vermicelli roll stuffed with pig’s liver, steamed spare ribs, hot sweet soup with taro and sago. And deep-fried glutinous dumplings because I felt like being a glutin.
Bang on 10am, the doors opened and everybody eagerly filed forward. The procession came to a grinding halt just as I arrived at the threshold. I was halted by the same person who’d taken my order, but just as it looked as though I was about to join the second sitting of the day, the waitress-turned-gatekeeper asked me: “How many?”
“One,” I replied.
“Ah! OK, OK … over there,” and she pointed to the vacant seat on a table shared by three young men, who turned out to be tourists from Thailand. The two women behind me in the queue, who I’d discovered were visitors from Shanghai, had missed out and had to wait 40 minutes before the first of the first sitting had finished eating and departed.
And so I was off with my new Thai friends on my left and a couple from Taiwan on my right.
Everybody seemed to be a tourist, keen to photograph the dishes as well as eat them, and everybody I spoke with had discovered the restaurant on the internet or in guidebooks.
The man responsible for all this culinary interest was right there in the heat of the kitchen. Owner-chef Mak Kwai Pui worked at the Michelin three-star restaurant in Hong Kong’s Four Seasons hotel as dim sum director before deciding to branch out on his own, so it was perhaps no accident that this modest dim sum place had garnered a star.
I guessed he was in his 30s. He sported a beaming smile and a hospitability to match by indicating (at the start of what would undoubtedly by a busy day) a willingness to talk to an Australian journalist who’d given absolutely no notice of his visit and wanted a few minutes of his time.
Sadly, Chef Mak’s English was almost non-existent, and with my totally non-existent Cantonese, it meant for a less-than-probing interview.
But I managed to deduce Mak had had the restaurant for two years; yes, he was surprised to get the Michelin nomination; yes, business had taken off since the news became public (Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen had eaten there, apparently); he usually served about 500 people a day; and no, no, no, his dim sum couldn’t be called the best in the world … but his steamed pork bun was pretty special.
The food started arriving and my eating companions and I tucked in, our cups of black tea continually topped up by the attentive waitress. I found I concurred with the steamed pork bun assessment (succulent, was the word I’d use) and all the other courses were delicious, too.
Whether the restaurant deserved its Michelin star over the countless other excellent dim sum restaurants in Hong Kong, I couldn’t say.
But I do know that I couldn’t manage all the courses I’d ordered. I took a tip from the table next to mine who’d ordered a doggy bag and asked for a container for my three vermicelli rolls stuffed with liver.
The bill? My meal cost a grand total of $HK68. About $8.55.
As I left, satiated, the crowds were milling around on the pavement. Queues sometimes took up to two hours to clear, I’d read, so I’d been lucky.
I also had a plane to catch in only a few hours and there was no way I was going to get hungry before then.
But who, in good conscience, could throw away Michelin-starred food?
My dilemma was solved when I came across a middle-aged man of ragged disposition pensively sitting in a park besides a couple of bags of what might have been his worldly possessions. I silently put the food next to him and he just as silently nodded his thanks.
Tim Ho Wan is located at 2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok, Hong Kong. Look for the queues.