Throwback Thursday – Dim Sum Nirvana at Tim Ho Wan

Seeing as it’s Thanksgiving back in America, I thought I’d focus this Throwback Thursday on food. If you’ve read mostly any post on my blog, you know that one of the things I love most about traveling is the vast variety of foods I consume on the road. From still-bloody tuna sashimi in Japan to fiercely spicy curry in Indonesia to macarons fresh from La Duree in Paris, some of my most memorable moments involve scarfing down some delicious food.

Two of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, independent of country, price range, and style of cuisine, were definitely the meals I ate at Tim Ho Wan, a tiny dim sum restaurant hidden in the streets of Mong Kok in Hong Kong. I consider the two totally equal highlights of my trip to be bungy-jumping and eating at Tim Ho Wan. That should give you an idea of just how delicious this food is.

The pictures, as glossy and huge as they are, don't do the real thing justice.
The pictures, as glossy and huge as they are, don’t do the real thing justice.

Dim sum’s a style of cuisine popular in China and Hong Kong and it simply entails that food is usually served in small wooden steamer baskets. It’s a great way to share food among lots of people, because everything is already split up into smaller, individual portions when it arrives on your table. (But it’s great even if you often travel alone, like I do…it just means that you get three or four bites of something, instead of only one.)

A typical dim sum spread.
A typical dim sum spread.

Naturally there are hundreds of dim sum restaurants in Hong Kong, and Tim Ho Wan’s four locations make up the barest fraction. (Its original location is in Mong Kok, but as of September 2013, three other outposts have opened in Tai Kok Tsui, Central, and Sham Shui Po.) For two important reasons, though, Tim Ho Wan stands head and shoulders above many of the other dim sum joints in Hong Kong.

Michelin Starred, and for good reason.
Michelin Starred, and for good reason.

First, it’s got a Michelin Star. Now I’m the first to argue that some of the best food on the planet can be found at restaurants where the cooks haven’t even ever heard of Michelin Stars, but I’ll also never turn down an opportunity to eat somewhere that’s earned that honor.

Second, Tim Ho Wan is unbelievably dirt-cheap. And I don’t mean “cheap for an internationally recognized, Michelin Star-earning restaurant.” So long as you’ve got the equivalent of at least ten USD to spend on a meal, you will eat like royalty at Tim Ho Wan. My first meal ended up costing just under five USD; my second, during which I stuffed myself to an inhuman level, totaled eleven dollars.

The May 2012 menu of Tim Ho Wan. Prices are in HKD. (At the current exchange rate, 1 HKD equals about 0.15 USD.)
The May 2012 menu of Tim Ho Wan. Prices are in HKD. (At the current exchange rate, 1 HKD equals about 0.15 USD.)

That combination of notoriety and accessibility, though, means that everybody and their mother wants to eat there. (At least at the flagship location in Mong Kok; I can’t speak to the other locations.) Reservations aren’t taken, which means you can wait for hours on end with other hungry foodies. The first time I went, I was told by the hostess that I was customer number 86…and that I’d be better off coming back two or three hours later.

The hungry masses.
The hungry masses.
Tim Ho Wan probably seats about twenty-five people, max.
Tim Ho Wan probably seats about twenty-five people, max.

Each time customers emerged from the tiny restaurant within, the next few groups in line would eagerly crowd around the hostess’s stand. If you weren’t there when your number was called, too bad for you. The wait and hullaballoo is well worth it, and the table turnover time isn’t too bad, either.

That’s due in part to the fact that you have to fill out your order sheet before you even sit down. For Americans who are accustomed to perusing menus filled with pictures for fifteen minutes before ordering, the experience can be strange, but the system makes sense for a restaurant with a small dining room, small kitchen, and small staff. There’s no time for people who spend fifteen minutes deciding which dessert they want.

My choices for my second Tim Ho Wan meal.
My choices for my second Tim Ho Wan meal.

My first meal at Tim Ho Wan was nothing short of incredible. I think I may have even made a few noises inappropriate enough to make the Chinese granny next to me shoot a few disbelieving glances my way. I was too busy entering culinary nirvana to care. So mouthwatering was my lunch that I was back in line the next morning at 8:30 (the restaurant doesn’t open until 10:00 a.m.) to partake in a second round, this time for a whole different set of dishes.

"The early bird gets the worm" is definitely a proverb that rings true for Tim Ho Wan diners. It's worth the wait.
“The early bird gets the worm” is definitely a proverb that rings true for Tim Ho Wan diners. It’s worth the wait.

Here’s a full rundown of all the food I ate across those two meals. Yes, I ate everything by myself. Hopefully someday soon I make it back to Hong Kong…when I do, dim sum at Tim Ho Wan will have the top spot on my list of must-eat foods.

Steamed shrimp dumplings (shu mai) with minced pork.
Steamed shrimp dumplings (shu mai) with minced pork.
They were hot, juicy, and bursting with flavor.
They were hot, juicy, and bursting with flavor.
Vermicelli skin stuffed with ground beef. A little bit sweet, a little bit salty, and so long as you don't mind the  slippery texture of the vermicelli skin, entirely delicious.
Vermicelli skin stuffed with ground beef. A little bit sweet, a little bit salty, and so long as you don’t mind the slippery texture of the vermicelli skin, entirely delicious.
Steamed chiu chow dumplings, filled with ground pork, shrimp, celery, water chestnuts, and a whole host of other ingredients.
Steamed chiu chow dumplings, filled with ground pork, shrimp, celery, water chestnuts, and a whole host of other ingredients. They were good, but I prefer my dumplings’ coating to be fluffy dough.
Steamed ha jiao (minced shrimp) dumplings.
Steamed ha jiao (minced shrimp) dumplings.
Sweet chestnut and pumpkin cream soup.
Sweet chestnut and pumpkin cream soup.
It's served piping hot. I don't know if I've enjoyed burning the roof of my mouth more.
It’s served piping hot. I don’t know if I’ve ever enjoyed burning the roof of my mouth more.
Tonic medlar and petal cake. I have no idea what this was, and I loved that it was served with a plastic fork. Tim Ho Wan balks the typical "Michelin Star" expectations.
Tonic medlar and petal cake. I have no idea what this was, and I loved that it was served with a plastic fork. Tim Ho Wan balks the typical “Michelin Star” expectations.
Tim Ho Wan's pièce de résistance: char siu bao, or fried dumplings filled with an incredible barbecue sauce and pork.
Tim Ho Wan’s pièce de résistance: char siu bao, or fried dumplings filled with an incredible barbecue sauce and pork. These are what made the restaurant famous.
This was the only dish that I ordered for both meals. It's seriously incredibly. There's a slightly crunchy sprinkling of sugar on top. The dough's thin crust contrasts with the fluffy interior. And the slightly sweet char siu sauce inside is the stuff of the gods. I still dream about these bao.
This was the only dish that I ordered for both meals. It’s nothing short of incredible. There’s a slightly crunchy sprinkling of sugar on top. The dough’s thin crust contrasts with the fluffy interior. And the slightly sweet char siu sauce inside is the stuff of the gods. I still dream about these bao.

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