Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong. (Photos by the author)
Whether you're a slow-food advocate or a fast-food junkie, the search for the perfect bite never ceases. Say what you will about the Michelin Guide, it manages to showcase some of the best and most consistent restaurants in the world. The simplicity of Momofuku Ko's fixtures highlights its simple, clean menu. The skins of Din Tai Fung's xiaolongbao have the perfect texture. The seasonal rustic flair of VAU sets the right tone for a day's exploration of Berlin's street art.
But not all of the guide's entries fall under the umbrella of haute cuisine. One entry from Hong Kong stands out: It's a chain of simple dim sum rooms. I visited Tim Ho Wan, the world's cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant, and found that its regulars don't even care that their daily morning meals are considered to be some of the best food in the world.
Tim Ho Wan was opened by a former dim sum master of Hong Kong's Four Seasons Hotel. He left the fussy settings of grand banquet halls to focus on the essentials that make simple fare delicious, serving up the basics with exquisite skill. His business has expanded to several branches, and three out of five of his locations in Hong Kong are the cheapest restaurants to be awarded Michelin stars.
The unassuming entrance
My preferred branch is in the blue-collar district of Sham Shui Po, where decades-old printing presses are found alongside messy garages. I was in the same neighbourhood a few months ago to visit the local headquarters of a pseudo-Christian cult with a violent agenda. It was lunch hour, and the roughest cha chaan teng were the busiest joints, mainstays for those who worked with their hands. Tim Ho Wan's low-key fixtures blended in perfectly; even its own sign was blocked by a staircase. By the entrance was an altar for Guanyin, set beside a water cooler for the unfortunate, hungry souls who line up outside for hours on end.
A 20-minute subway ride brought me to Tim Ho Wan ["Add Good Luck" in Cantonese], and I managed to snag one of the last two open seats, joining a table with a grinny old man clutching a cane and a middle-aged woman with spiked hair. A few families of tourists from Mainland China had tables to themselves, but nearly everyone else was a septuagenarian sitting alone at a shared table. The establishment had little pizzazz, the waitresses had the charm of disgruntled ogresses and the cashier was rude.
Aproned waitresses were on autopilot and one slipped me her half-page menu, zipped off, and returned with a pot of hot tea that I could use to rinse my utensils – a local custom, and something that many Chinese restaurants expect patrons to do in Hong Kong. Grinny Old Man was a regular and didn't have to place an order; the staff knew what he wanted for breakfast every day. I ticked off a few things on my ordering sheet, including the house specialty, and one of the staff snatched it from me without exchanging a word.
Dim sum served up by this team of chefs is so popular that, at its peak, the wait for seating can be three hours long, with crowds clamouring at the door, held back by one woman armed with a headset microphone so she always has the loudest voice in any spat. Ask her how long the wait is and she will bark out an answer that makes you feel six inches tall.
My sticky rice came with lap cheong, shiitake mushrooms and shredded chicken as filling, wrapped in a lotus leaf and steamed. Another waitress slid a plate of vermicelli rolls stuffed with pig-liver slices next to me, completely taking over my dining space. Grinny Old Man and I jabbered as we dug into our meals, but his responses didn't follow any rhyme or reason. I caught a waitress laughing, breaking character. Then she brought my tonic medlar and osmanthus cakes, leaves and petals and wolfberries encased in amber gelatin, just a hint of sweetness peeking through. I sipped tea between mouthfuls, and brown sauce dribbled onto Grinny Old Man's shirt as he wolfed down beef bits on rice.
Tonic medlar and osmanthus cake
A few minutes later, the house special arrived: fist-sized steamed buns packed with red-braised pork, with a sweet crunchy top. This wasn't the average cha siu bao; a flaky brown glaze set it apart from its starchy cousins. The bun and its crunch melted in my mouth, meshing with the sugars and proteins encased within, sweet and savoury sauces flowing together for the perfect Cantonese dining experience. Two more buns were on my platter. I wanted to share one with the old man. He rubbed his stomach and grinned again. When a waitress swept by to clear my plates, she asked, "You realise that he can't hear anything, right?"
"Dim sum" has two literal interpretations: a bit of heart, offered by the chef; and touching the heart, gently, of the diner. The best dim sum does both. Even though the bowls and chopsticks were plastic, and the waitresses communicated through a series of undecipherable grunts, every bite was made with pure dedication. A jar of soy sauce sat on every table out of habit instead of necessity. The bond between cook and consumer was forged by an unspoken agreement that was issued in the kitchen and acknowledged in the crammed dining room: This is how we serve it, and we know it's perfect, so don't change anything and don't fuck it up.
Not one of my pork buns, but the slightly squashed one I photographed.
Tim Ho Wan stands as an anomaly. Hong Kong is cluttered with rampant consumerism, and the concept of returning to the basics isn't popular. The race in the dining scene is upward, to craft elaborate, decadent, luxurious dishes, like MasterChef on steroids. Local foodies flocked to see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire for its Capitol dining scenes. Visiting hip, new restaurants to write clueless food reviews on a local website is a popular hobby. The only three-Michelin-star Italian restaurant outside of Italy is here, and some of the best sushi masters beyond Japan's borders call Hong Kong their home. Even celebrity chefs are capitalising on the trend: Gordon Ramsay came in for the inauguration of his new restaurant, tossing verbal barbs at Jamie Oliver, whose new venture had opened its doors a month and a half ago.
Rice and flour are cheap, as are offal, pork loin, ground beef, mushrooms and the small collection of other ingredients that are used in Tim Ho Wan's kitchen. The same raw materials are utilised by other restaurants, but a single dish elsewhere could cost more than an entire meal at Tim Ho Wan. General wisdom says that restaurant bills aren't just about food prices and fixed overhead costs, but also the skill level of the chefs behind the dishes that are served. Tim Ho Wan shatters that convention because it serves first class food at working class prices. That they are known as the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world is a nice shtick that puts customers in seats for a first experience (even if the wait is hellish).
When asked why they never raise their prices, the cashier said, “These are gai fong ga [literally 'prices for neighbours' in Cantonese]. We would rather close our doors or move before we charge more.” That claim was backed up last year: Tim Ho Wan's first location was shut down because of a rent hike, even though they could have kept the legendary spot open by charging a premium for their food. "If our prices go up, we'll feel like we're losing our regulars." It sounded like a cloying PR line, but the people around me were retirees. Eating there was a routine, not a treat.
Free-flowing pu'erh tea, fermented in Yunnan for several years before reaching my table, cost 15p. The rest of the food was £5.50, but I ordered enough to feed two or three people.
On my way out, the cashier let me peek into the shoebox kitchen. “Just for a few seconds,” she said, “and then you need to get out of here.” Steamer cages were stacked ten or 15 high, everything made fresh upon order. The chefs were almost in a flow state; to them, I didn't exist. Every ounce of focus was on food prep, and the kitchen's heart never stopped beating.
The food was solid, but the downside was its safety. Everything on the menu was far from being innovative or exciting. Many people are drawn in to try it because of the buzz, but aren't wowed by the experience. The staff's attitude doesn't help. Are the long waits that start at lunch time and last till closing justified? Most Hongkongers don't think so.
Nonetheless, two days later, I was back in line for those sweet braised pork buns.
New addictions are hard to shake.
More stories about food: