by Jean and Peter Richards
When we are in France we do not usually navigate gastronomically by the stars — we prefer family-owned bistros which have old-fashioned food to the inventif establishments which usually garner les etoiles.
But Hong Kong was different — when we heard that Tim Ho Wan, a notably unpretentious place, with tables packed closely together was the cheapest one-star Michelin restaurant in the world.
Waits, sometimes hours long, in front of 2-8 Kwong Wa Street in the Mong Kok district of Kowloon don’t deter fans eager for succulent prawn dumplings in translucent skins and the best pork bao in town at prices so low that a fine meal for two can be had for less than 10 euros.
Cognoscenti show up, grab a number from a lectern outside, check the posting on the door for the last number called, calculate the wait and slip away confident that they will get back in time.
Others huddle on the sidewalk sandwiched between the steamy storefront windows and motorbikes parked on the street waiting for the elegantly black suited maitre’d in cat’s eye glasses to step out and bark their number. They rush to join others at tables for six already savoring Shanghai style dumplings with cabbage, steamed chicken feet, pan fried turnip cake, beefballs with bean curd or rice noodle rolls stuffed with pig’s liver or prawn.
But, it is the golden domed pork bao (char siu) that is the most popular item — not the ubiquitous cloud-like doughy bao with a dollop of pork inside that can be found anywhere — but cake-like golden domes sprinkled with sugar and generously stuffed with caramelized pork. One Euro and 28 centimes buys two of these memorable treats.
Mak Pui Gor is no stranger to Michelin stars. He was dim sum chef at Lung King Heen in the Four Seasons Hotel which boasted three before he struck out on his own. Some were aghast that the venerable Paris-based Guide could stoop to such a pedestrian level when it awarded Tim Ho Wan one star in 2010. This year his new branch in Sham Shui Po has received a star, too.
We arrived at Tim Ho Wan after a stroll through the nearby Ladies’ Market of cheap knockoffs, just after three when only 15 people were clustered outside. With Number 144 and an English menu translation in hand we waited as the maitre d’ periodically barked to keep interlopers from blocking the front of adjoining shops and Japanese tourists photographed each other in front of the red Michelin sticker prominently displayed on the door.
Forty minutes later we were ushered to seats at the end of a table where others were well into their meals. We had hardly ordered when dishes appeared — a steamer of prawn dumplings, plates of spareribs and pig liver in rice noodle, dumplings and the glorious bao all served with the earthy, deep red Pu Erh — the fermented tea prized by Chinese for its digestive properties. A half hour later, the bill of HK$78 (7€16) happily paid, our only regret was that we had not thought to order another round of the bao to take away.
Copyright © 2011 Jean and Peter Richards