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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.