Thursday, 28 November 2013

Tim Ho Wan, Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong (Alissa and Don Eat Asia Day 4, Part 1)

Ask anyone who has been to Tim Ho Wan and they'll all tell you the same thing: Its all about those pork buns. Those amazing, incredible, delicious, salty-sweet, crispy, melt-in-your-mouth soft pork buns.

The story goes that chef Mak Kwai Pui decided to leave the life of high end dim sum at the Four Season's Lung Kee Heen in order to make dim sum in a more down to earth atmosphere. From a small hole-in-the-wall store in Mong Kok, word began to spread about Mak Kwai Pui's excellent dim sum – in particular his signature dish – a char siu bao that was baked instead of steamed, giving it a unique, deliciously sweet and crispy outer layer. With a signature dish so delicious, Tim Ho Wan defied the odds and gained a Michelin Star in spite of its modest appearance. Soon it would gain fame as the cheapest Michelin Starred restaurant in the world, causing an expansion to more branches within Hong Kong and, more recently, in Singapore too. The queues for Tim Ho Wan are legendarily long, with the original store's Michelin Star appeal and small size equating to 3 hour waits during peak!

The original store has now closed due to the ever-increasing rent in Hong Kong, but the second oldest in Sham Shui Po remains. As the only Tim Ho Wan branch that actually has a Michelin Star and with two 3-Star Michelin meals just behind us, it felt fitting to make the Sham Shui Po store our next port of call. Mind you we were still feeling rather full from Caprice, but those pork buns were calling...

After again taking a wrong turn out of the MTR and a very patient Alissa putting up with my freak out about going the wrong way and perhaps now having to queue for our dim sum, we corrected our course and were on the right path. From afar I saw the green sign hovering over the street and knew we'd found the Sham Shui Po store.

Perhaps because tourists now have much easier options such as at IFC in Central and because 8:30am is fairly early in the morning, we were able to get a table immediately upon arrival. The room seemed clean but very spartan especially after the opulence of Caprice, and the fluoro green uniform of the staff made them look like council workers rather than waitstaff. After a moment of confusion when we were given a Cantonese order form, our waitress gave us an English form which we dutifully filled in with our admittedly greedy order of tasty morsels.

First to arrive was one of Tim Ho Wan's signature dishes – chee cheong fun with pig's liver, seemingly a play on chee cheong meaning pig's intestines. Perhaps because we were still on the come down from the overeating of the previous night, Alissa found this dish a bit too rich for her liking, though we both agreed it was delicious. Good chee cheong fun should have a very silky texture, and this definitely was a success.

Next up was chicken feet. This is one of my favourite dim sum dishes, and having missed out on having it at Lin Heung Tea House I was glad to be able to order it. This was excellent chicken feet; black bean can be a subtle flavour that is easily overpowered by the other spices and yet this was very well balanced. There was a nice chilli kick that permeated the meat, something that is often lacking in other restaurants' preparation of the dish. Definitely up there with the best chicken feet I've eaten.

A dim sum restaurant can largely be judged on the quality of its har gao and siu mei, and Tim Ho Wan's were both excellent. The har gao was juicy, well formed and with that a perfectly cooked prawn texture.

The siu mei didn't look particularly special, but was a winner in terms of flavour. I felt the sui mei had a higher percentage of prawn to what is the usual, and the prawn and pork were mixed together so well I couldn't tell where the pork ended and the prawn began.

The Teochew-style dumpling was also very good, with the peanut bits giving it a a great contrast of soft chewiness and crunch. I don't order this enough to pass further judgment, but its made me a convert at least.

Next came the Lo Mai Gai – easily up there with the best I've eaten. Often times Lo Mai Gai can be very oily and almost too sticky, but in this case it was just right and very tasty.

Our second last dish was our dessert of Osmanthus Jelly, another famous dish of the restaurant's. Alissa by this stage was getting very full so I ended up eating most of it. This was an excellent, floral jelly. Too often I find Asian jellies used agar agar instead of gelatine and/or result in a consistency that is a much harder jelly than I usually prefer. This jelly had a nice wobble to it, and as someone who usually skips dessert for dim sum I was very glad we ordered it.

Perhaps they knew to save the best for last, as the last dish they brought out to us was our double serving of their famous Char Siu Bao (single serving pictured). As we were very full by this stage we were concerned we'd overordered, but we soon realised anyone can fit in an extra pork bun if its from Tim Ho Wan. Wow. Photographs and the hype cannot do these buns justice. Where to start? First you bite into a crispy, sweet outer layer that gives way to the softest bread you've ever eaten. Then the sweetness of the outer layer meets the salty-sweet barbecue pork filling and – to borrow a term often used by a good friend of mine – its orgasmic.

The Verdict: Exceptional
Considering our greed compelled us to over-order, the price for the meal still came in at around $25 – an absolute bargain for dim sum of this quality. For days after Alissa and I have been thinking abou those pork buns and even tried to get some before leaving Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the IFC store was not open in time for us, but it only gives us more reason to return again. This should definitely be added to everyone's 'must travel to eat' list.

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