The first time I visited Tim Ho Wan I was alone. The friendly bunch next to me was impressed by my ability to put away the pork buns.
Dear God, those pork buns! These are not the steamed white puffs that expand in the belly like thermal clouds over land on a hot day. No, these buns are baked, barely golden, and have a sweetness and crunch in the crust that, combined with the pork, is not a little reminiscent of biscuits and barbecue from a very different part of the world. They are delicious.
The beef balls are memorable, too. You can smell them before the lid of the steamer is removed, the orange zest and herbs coming through the bamboo slats. They have that bouncy toothfulness, but are still tender, the dimply pink surface and irregular shape a clue that these were made by hand.
Everything here is, and it says so at the top of the menu in a questionable translation that sounds like some kind of communist workers’ directive. “Do it ourselves. Make it at once”. What they mean is that everything at Tim Ho Wan is made on the premises and cooked to order, by chef Mak Pui Gor, who defected from the triple-starred Cantonese table Lung King Heen in the Four Seasons to set up shop across the harbor in Mongkok. In early 2010, his humble, cramped, dirt cheap dim sum canteen was awarded one star by the Michelin inspectors. It is reportedly the least expensive starred restaurant in the world.
The wait can be long. If they tell you it’s going to be two hours for a table, they aren’t kidding. Get your number then take a walk among the Mongkok masses. (This particular street has several shops for grown up boys, selling expensive model planes, giant Lego figures, motorcycle helmets, and one store called “Guns ‘n Guys”.) We found a bench and read the paper.
Finally seated, the plates and baskets started coming. I was worried it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered, that we had basically come to Mongkok to do the Sunday crossword. But then the pork buns arrived. (Have I mentioned the pork buns?)
We also loved the steamed shrimp dumplings (ha jiao), pearly bundles that looked plain but were not; the filling contained nothing but shrimp, but they were savory and aromatic, as though steamed with garlic, scallions and ginger. The turnip cakes were simple but satisfying. Vermicelli roll filled with pork slid through our chopsticks, and teo chew dumplings – another favorite – spilled their filling of peanuts and shrimp and greens, fresh and crunchy.
Thirty minutes later the pressure was on for us to leave. We paid the bill – $96 HK, or about $12 US. I thought about taking some pork buns to go (this was my last day in HK), but figured it was better to leave wanting more than to try and make it last.
Tim Ho Wan Shop 8, Kwong Wa Street 2-20, Mong Kok. Open 10am-10pm daily.