Faced with a re-timed flight on a recent trip and no ability to make the originally booked connection in Hong Kong I was faced with a conundrum. Yeah, I could just sit in the lounge and pass the roughly 8 hours but, well, that’s not really my style. At the same time, it was relatively early on a Sunday morning when we landed and I wasn’t sure what would be open or what we’d see. Still, the opportunity to get out and stretch our legs a bit, and maybe even to see a smidge of Hong Kong was too great a draw to resist. Besides, it was a Sunday morning when we landed. Why not head in to town and grab some dim sum?
Our flight landed and we headed up to the lounge for a quick shower before brunch. Little did I know that after passing through transit security at Hong Kong’s airport getting out is nearly impossible. We were passed off to several different agents before facing down a reasonably stern young woman who insisted that leaving the terminal was impossible. Why? Because they’d have to write down the reason we left. I insisted that brunch was a valid reason but they balked. Eventually I dropped in the line that I "didn’t appreciate being held hostage" and that seemed to grease the wheels. We were quickly escorted to the correct elevators and back down to the arrivals level where we were deposited in the immigration line. Rather frustrating but a small price to pay for what we were about to experience.
I had previously turned to a buddy of mine, Ray, who lives in Hong Kong these days for recommendations on easily accessible dim sum for such a trip. He gave me two options, one up-scale and one decidedly not. We chose the latter and were well rewarded. Tim Ho Wan started as a hole in the wall shop in the Mong Kok neighborhood of Kowloon. It also happens to be the cheapest one-starred Michelin restaurant in the world. Alas, getting up to the Mong Kok branch was not going to happen but Tim Ho Wan is now a franchise operation with a number of branches around town, including one in the terminal where the Hong Kong Express train lets out on Hong Kong Island. Delicious, cheap and convenient…sign me up!
Tim Ho Wan opens at 9am. We arrived at 9:10am and got the last two seats for the opening round. When we left 45 minutes later the wait appeared to be about 90 minutes and growing. Apparently this is not uncommon. As I read reviews prior to our visit one of the common refrains was that the wait was several hours. That wasn’t going to work with our schedule. To say that we got lucky with being seated when we were is quite the understatement.
But enough about getting a table…on to the food!
There are only about 30 items on the menu, split amongst steamed, fried rice and vermicelli. Heck, there actually is a menu. That’s not what I’m used to in the dim sum world but not to fret; the ability to see all the offers and plan a strategy rather than just ordering one of everything which walked by on a cart was most helpful in avoiding that ridiculously over-stuffed feeling which often comes from dim sum dining (or is that just me?!?). Fortunately they also have menus in English which meant we were good to go in ordering.
We had shrimp and pork shu mai, beef balls and what I think were spinach and garlic dumplings. They were all ridiculously good.
And then we moved on to the most glorious of delicacies, the one thing that Tim Ho Wan does differently from everyone else: the baked pork bun.
I’ve had pork buns many, many times in many different countries. But they’ve never been baked. I have no idea what possessed Tim Ho Wan’s chefs to decide that baking rather than steaming was worth trying. Nor do I know what made them think that a bit of sugar on the outside to sweeten the dough was appropriate. All I know is that I am in love.
So. Ridiculously. Good.
The dough is a little bit flaky and, as noted above, slightly sweet. Neither takes away from the BBQ pork flavor. I think that not having the doughy, fluffy wrapper made the meat taste even better. Or at least made it easier to actually taste the meat rather than the dough. They were, quite seriously, probably the best dim sum I’ve ever had.
Alas, I have but one stomach to give for my travels. And I had to leave a little bit of room to try the Thai A380 First Class menu later that afternoon. Rough life, huh?
We headed out from the restaurant, having spent around $20 (I think that the return fares on the HK Express train were more than the food!) and having eaten probably the best dim sum I’ll ever have. Though I will always wonder if the original location is markedly different than this branch, other than in atmosphere. It is hard to say that any meal is worth a 3 hour wait. I’m not entirely certain that this would be the one to convince me otherwise. But it was damn good and a great first stop in our quick layover tour of Hong Kong.
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Will try out this place when we visit HKG, if you flying in SFO we might have a Dim Sum Do with the local.
You can find baked bbq pork buns in almost any dim sum place in California
Damn you! Every time we tried going it was a 2+ hour wait. And we were going at off peak times or after 3! Def looks good!
Classic stop in HKG. I agree that the baked pork buns are unique. I’ve heard them described as heavenly and cannnot disagree with that assessment. Different than any other pork bun I have eaten, baked or steamed.
I usually hit up the Mong Kok location but good to know that the location on the Island is eually good.
I have an 8 hour layover in HKG in 2 weeks and was planning to do the same thing, but in Mong Kok. Glad to know there’s an option in Central and that I can wait indoors! Did you have time to do anything else or did you have to go right back to the airport after eating?
We had a 30 minute or so wait when we went to Tim Ho Wan. But then, we got there a little late. We tried quite a lot, and our total was also around $20, but we raised it with another order of the pork buns that we brought with us to the airport to eat while waiting for our flight 🙂
As helixcardinal mentioned, you can find baked pork buns everywhere in the US in most Chinatown bakeries. Also, there’s another one star Michelin rated dim sum restaurant that most people don’t try. It’s called One Dim Sum in Prince Edward. Try that next time, just as cheap. 🙂
I’m hungry after reading this…
You can find the same thing in NY 🙂
Baked pork bun is actually pretty standard stuff…but I am sure this is one of the better ones. We’ll have to do dim sum one day in NYC.
Chinese-American here. Tim Ho Wan’s take on char siu bao is completely different than what you typically find at a dim sum restaurant or a Chinese bakery. The dim sum version of char siu bao is fluffy and white (1), either shaped like a bun or sort of triangle-shaped at the top with the char siu peeking out. At a bakery, it’s not as fluffy and is more like regular bread with a lightly glazed, brown top (2).
Tim Ho Wan’s version is basically like a very light/delicate “pineapple bread” (popular style of bread at Chinese bakeries that has a crispy/crumbly, cracked top that looks like a pineapple – but doesn’t actually have any) with a hot, savory char siu filling. I had it last month and it was unlike any char siu bao I’ve ever had and I’ve been eating it since I was a little kid.
I really thought Tim Ho Wan was going to be overrated because of all the reviews, but it is absolutely as good as all the reviews say it is. They’ve got multiple locations and I heard some locations are better than others, but I went to the one in IFC as well and it was fantastic.
@oneeyejack – we ate there, but didn’t realize it was michelin rated…we had a 1+ hour at 2pm. But yes, it was amazingly good. Silly me thinking that dim sum was that different. I will say that the dimsum of my youth was much better and probably closer to what it is still in Asia. Too many years removed and the lack of passion by the folks making it nowadays in NYC and what not i guess.
Making me hungry :(.
Great story, and headed to HKG in a few weeks. What was your friend’s upscale recommendation?
to the comments that you can find the same in NY re CSB, this really is totally different. overall, Tim Ho Wan really is that good. and cheap. i went to the first one in Mong Kok when there was only one during June 2010 and there was a growing line that started at least an hour before opening at 10 am. my favorite is the “glutinous dumplings.”
the original location has maybe enough seats for ~25 people or so… but apparently they are moving to Olympic to a larger location (quick google search).
i’ve been the MK location 3x and to the IFC location 1x, and thought the quality at IFC was on par with the original location.
as for menus, i’ve been to HK dim sum outlets that use scantron ordering forms. carts are seen less and less now.
in boston you can find the same “pineapple” CSB topping here, granted it’s not as good as tim ho wan, but it’s the same concept and decent. i can get my fill instead of flying out to HK. 😉
We visited the Mongkok location last October on one afternoon around 2pm and it was about an hour and a half wait, but again, well worth it – five dishes for about US$12. The very small establishment seats 32 (I counted) and you’re really packed in there with whoever else is at your table. Definitely was fun to try and a good story to tell.
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