The problem with visiting the world’s cheapest Michelin starred restaurant is that it brings that scorch-marks-on-credit-card experience of fine dining in most international cities into teeth-scrapingly sharp context.
Not that you can’t dine out in superlative restaurants in London or New York for a relative song – it’s just that you have to go for the set menu option at lunchtime, or the grisly-sounding “pre-theatre” menu, staged at times so unfashionable even Prince Edward wouldn’t show his face. Plus something is always taken away from the experience of dining at Le Gavroche or Wiltons if you choose these frugal dining options, surrounded as you inevitably are by Sunday Telegraph voucher-saving retirees from Lancashire and oily-haired food bloggers who couldn’t procure a proper freebie from the restaurant’s PR girl. Frankly, this soggy array, sprinkled throughout dining rooms at 6.05pm on a midweek night, ruins the decor and the service. It doesn’t matter how much the Savoy recently spent on their refurb: if you’re in the pre-theatre penitentiary then the atmosphere of the dining room still has a strangely starchy Puritanism to it – like Stockhausen breaking wind during a Wagner recital.
Tim Ho Wan – surrounded by suicidal minicab drivers, cracked concrete tower blocks, chaotic fruit and veg stands and peripatetic shower curtain ring salesman, in the heart of Hong Kong’s Kowloon district – has none of this restaurant social apartheid. It doesn’t matter who you are: plutocrat, pensioner or on parole, you take a ticket and you wait. And wait. And wait…
This fulcrum of egalitarian eating is no visual treat. Cramped and scruffy, with flyers on the walls, taciturn waitresses and a capacity of no more than 40, Tim Ho Wan’s wipe-clean surfaces and bilious hubbub of chatter shouldn’t stand out from any of the other hundreds of dim sum canteens around Kowloon. Yet the restaurant’s owner, Mak Pui Gor, holds an accolade that sent ripples around the fine dining world: in 2011 it was awarded a coveted Michelin star.
Formerly the dim sum director of the three-star Lung King Heen in the Four Seasons, Mak Pui Gor opened up Tim Ho Wan (the name means “Add Good Luck” in Cantonese) as a personal project to cook his favourite dim sum dishes at affordable prices from a kitchen roughly the size of a bus shelter. And affordable, as I found out from reading the yellow paper menu, really does mean affordable.
I feasted on beef balls and radish cake, cha siu bao, crunchy pork buns glazed with crystallised sugar, prawn and coriander dumplings wrapped in thin pastry, tangy turnip cake, and fabulously crispy and flaky spring rolls with beef, mushroom and satay sauce. All this, washed down with about a litre of oolong tea, came to a grand total of 160 Hong Kong dollars. That’s cheap in whatever currency you’re converting it into. In British terms, it’s about £13 – and, well, I’ve spent more than that at McDonalds.
I didn’t want to linger. Partly because the seats are so uncomfortable, but mostly out of guilt. I was told that my wait of “only” 75 minutes was relatively painless. On weekends the queues outside can be up to four hours long.
And that’s what happens when you commit to delivering the bizarre, recondite and insane combination of spectacular food with “found behind the sofa in spare change” prices. Is it worth the wait? I would say undoubtedly so, even if you’re not an insufferable food nerd like me. The reason: because waiting outside Tim Ho Wan forces you to experience Hong Kong from a vantage point beyond five-star hotel balconies and business class lounges. For here lies this strange land in all its bilious, clanking, mercantile, zesty, whiffy glory. The social segregation of London restaurant bookings are a world away here. This is dining with real diversity – Socialist scoffing, if you will. Tim Ho Wan is a restaurant where the enticing flavours of Hong Kong’s food seep into and enhance every mouthful of the chaotic, Panglosian eating experience. And I still had change for the metro home.
Tim Ho Wan, Shop 8, 2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok, Kowloon
00852 2332 2896