Affordable Michelin-starred dining: Tim Ho Wan

After watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi about a year ago, I’ve had a curiosity towards Michelin stars. Of course, being usually broke, I never really bothered to think about dining at a Michelin starred restaurant, but then this summer I came back to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong happens to have 70+ restaurants that made it into the Michelin Guide for 2016. One of these has been in the guide since 2010, and when it first made the guide, it was known as being the most affordable restaurant with a Michelin star. The restaurant is Tim Ho Wan, and they serve dimsum.

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Tim Ho Wan’s owner is Mak Kwai-pui, who came from a three-Michelin-starred restaurant. He decided to open his own restaurant— a humble 20 seater, self-described as a “hole-in-the-wall eatery”. The line-ups are usually crazy at Tim Ho Wan, but we went on a weekday (a Monday) at an awkward time (about 11AM), and we got seated right away when we got there.

When I asked my dad about Tim Ho Wan, he didn’t even know they had a Michelin star. Apparently, he’s been there quite a few times already simply because him and his sister liked having dim sum there due to its low price. He thought I was silly for being excited about it and wanting to make a special trip there.

Nonetheless, on a Monday, my boyfriend and I headed to Tim Ho Wan and ordered some dishes for our lunch. We got the shrimp rice rolls, hargow, siu mai, fried turnip cake, and of course, their most famous char siu bao. The menu wasn’t in English by the way, but the place mat had some pictures for me to order from.

The first to come was the rice rolls, and I thought it wasn’t bad. Not very special, but decent. I was underwhelmed. But then the rest of the food came and it honestly did taste very good. The hargow’s skin was very thin (albeit I found them to be a bit small overall), and its inside was perfect. The turnip cake was perfectly fried and we gobbled them up. The char siu bao came last, and it was really amazing. I’ve had knockoff versions of this kind of char siu bao in Vancouver, but they didn’t stand a chance against Tim Ho Wan’s. The top of the bun was crispy and broke away to a declious char siu center. The sweet and savory combo was well enveloped in this half-soft, half-crispy bun.

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To give you a sense of how much it costs, all our food came to a total of $115HKD. We both left feeling full.

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To get a Michelin star, your restaurant had to serve dishes that are considered to be the best in your category with consistent results. Well, that’s putting it in simple terms, since the process is actually a lot more tedious. I’m not exactly sure if I buy into the whole system, but I can’t say I’m not curious. I watched a documentary on Michelin stars following Jiro, and they put a lot of emphasis on anonymity on its food critics. One of the chefs described in the documentary, upon finding out he might lose a star for his restaurant, threatened to kill himself. He later did suicide over an unpleasant review on his establishment.

It’s mind-boggling to think about the chefs who eagerly/sleeplessly await for the next Michelin guide to be published. The consequences of losing/gaining a star was monumental. A three-starred restaurant held the meaning that it was worth a special visit to that country just to eat at that restaurant.

There’s other consequences of businesses gaining stars that are less explored. My dad told me that some restaurants that gained a star found their landlords raising their rent prices monumentally, knowing that the restaurant would be relucant to move since their address and flagship store was listed in the guide. As a result, some restaurants had to suck it up and pay the higher rent, driving some to wish they never made the guide in the first place.

That’s a lot of fuss to make over a star given out by a company who originally was only known to sell tires.

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