Tim Ho Wan: A Star Rises in Hong Kong

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.

Tim Ho Wan

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.

Star rating is proudly displayed on door

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.

Perfect steamed prawn dumplings

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.

Pig's liver wrapped in luscious rice noodles

Copyright © 2011 Jean and Peter Richards

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About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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