Michelin-Star Meal on a Dime: Eating at Tim Ho Wan
World-renowned as the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant, Tim Ho Wan is famous for its baked BBQ pork buns. This Hong Kong dim sum spot’s most famous dish only costs under $3, and is truly one of the most amazing things we’ve ever eaten. In fact, we loved Tim Ho Wan so much that we dined here on two consecutive days during one visit to Hong Kong.
Before we dig into the menu, let’s start with some background about Tim Ho Wan. The dim sum restaurant was started by Chef Mak Kwai Pui of the prestigious three-star Michelin restaurant Lung King Heen in Hong Kong’s Four Seasons Hotel, together with Chef Leung Fai Keung. They opened Tim Ho Wan as a tiny and humble dim sum restaurant–something of a working class answer to Hong Kong’s hoity haute cuisine scene. A year later, the duo earn one Michelin star for Tim Ho Wan. From that, the sensation of “the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant” was born, and with it, additional branches of Tim Ho Wan.
Note that per the 2018 Michelin Guide, the only Tim Ho Wan location that received a Michelin star was the Sham Shui Po branch. There are a few other locations in Hong Kong (and for Americans, one in New York City), but none of these made the list. The North Point location did receive the lesser Bib Gourmand distinction, which is good, but it’s no star. In other words, skip the other locations and make the trek to Sham Shui Po. (You might see other posts that recommend going to the original branch in Mongkok, but that branch closed years ago.)
The good news is that, unlike many popular hole-in-the-wall spots in Hong Kong, eating at Tim Ho Wan is pretty straightforward. There are no real quirks to speak of, and the setting is not even remotely intimidating. To the contrary, the “OG” Tim Ho Wan location is in a blue collar neighborhood in a very unassuming storefront.
Although you’ll surely encounter plenty of tourists eager to score a Michelin-starred meal on a dime, we’ve found that over half the patrons on our visits are just locals grabbing their regular breakfast. (Your mileage may vary if you show up later in the day–we’ve always done breakfast.)
Basically, the process is as simple as lining up outside the restaurant, and being directed inside as soon as the restaurant opened. Our first visit to Tim Ho Wan, we arrived around 30 minutes before the restaurant opened and were maybe 20 people back in the line.
The next morning, we again returned to Tim Wo Han. Not because we were obsessed with their baked BBQ pork buns (although we were), but because the Selgas were now with us and our original plan was to do this meal with them. We had been a bit impetuous the previous day.
This time, we arrived 45 minutes before opening, and were the very first people to arrive. Within 5 minutes of us showing up, a couple of other parties arrived. Numerous other groups arrived before opening, but on both mornings, the restaurant did not fill up completely until around 5 minutes after opening. That means for a brief window, there would’ve been no wait.
For what it’s worth, we visited on two weekdays during a moderately busy travel season in Hong Kong. How day of the week impacts crowds at Tim Ho Wan is beyond the scope of this post, but I’d hazard a guess that what we experienced was pretty average in terms of crowds.
We went early because we had read that crowds get progressively larger later in the day, and we wanted to avoid that. (Plus, what better way to start the day than with dim sum?!) We’d recommend doing breakfast if you can to err on the side of caution. Arriving in time for the restaurant’s 9 a.m. opening time should be easy thanks to jet lag! Stories of 2+ hour lines and a ticketing system later in the day are not uncommon.
Here’s another picture of those glorious baked BBQ pork buns:
The baked BBQ pork bun is the show-stopper at Tim Ho Wan. These are what put–and keep–the restaurant on the map. The bun itself is amazing: simultaneously fluffy, light, and with an ever-so-slight exterior crunch for texture. The flavor of the bun is surprisingly sweet, a perfect contrast to the savory barbecued pork inside.
These buns are perfection. One of the best things I’ve ever eaten, and for only a few dollars! Eat these right away when they’re delivered to your table; a warm baked BBQ pork bun for Tim Ho Wan’s is about the epitome of culinary bliss. I’m literally salivating as I write this–these buns are the real deal.
After being blown away by these buns on our first visit to Tim Ho Wan, we decided to order more buns–plus an assortment of other items we hadn’t tried–on day two. We still spent under $25 for the two of us, but spending over $10 at Tim Ho Wan’s is a pretty herculean task.
There was actually a bit of confusion that required the assistance of multiple servers, as each person at our table ordered 2 servings of pork buns (6 buns per person, total). Apparently, this was an uncommonly large number of pork buns, and they explained to us several times that each order had 3 baked BBQ pork buns.
Each time, we politely explained that’s what we wanted. They laughed after bringing them all out and covering our table in buns. Given that this is a pretty popular tourist spot, I suspect they see glutinous Americans with some regularity, but maybe we pushed the envelope on that.
Over the course of these two days, we tried nearly everything on Tim Ho Wan’s menu. This was no simple task, as it’s a pretty big menu. Even trying everything over the course of two days, I don’t think the four of us spent more than $70–and remember that we ordered a lot of pork buns.
I’m going to quickly run through some of the other things we tried, with cursory descriptions and thoughts on each item:
Here are the shrimp dumplings.
I enjoyed these. They weren’t the most flavorful, but the skin was perfectly-prepared (that’d be a trend to our meals) and they were good-enough.
These were steamed beef balls with bean curd skin–basically, meatballs.
I really liked these. As compared to the other dishes in this section, they had a good amount of flavor and were hearty. I’d order these again.
Above is the black bean spare ribs.
These were really good. The meat was tender and sparingly seasoned, with the black beans providing an interesting twist. The only downside was the minuscule pieces of bone that were easy to miss and made them tedious to eat.
Above are the vegetable dumplings.
These were fine. Not particularly noteworthy, but a well-prepared take on veggie dumplings.
The rice noodle roll had come recommended to us, but I could not get past the slimy texture here.
I’m normally not bothered by this time of thing, but I could barely stomach this. I truly don’t know why, but it was the least palatable dish for me.
Above is the pork pastry.
This was light and airy, with a nice texture on the outside and good flavor on the inside. It was a bit too light on filling, though, and in the inevitable comparisons to the BBQ pork bun, the pork pastry does not hold up well.
These are the turnip cakes, which we ordered mostly out of intrigue.
I believe these were filled with pork sausage, but if so, it was an incredibly meager amount. These were the blandest thing we tried, which is likely why there’s the accompanying sauce (it didn’t do much).
Above are steam pork dumplings with shrimp.
This was another dumpling that was pretty good; a nuanced flavor, perfect preparation, and cheap price made them winners.
You’ll notice that none of the above descriptions and menu item reviews are particularly glowing.
To be perfectly honest, beyond the baked BBQ pork buns, nothing on the menu was all that impressive. Some things were good to very good, but there’s no way this would be a Michelin-starred restaurant, or even a Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant, were it not for those sweet and savory baked BBQ pork buns.
You’ll want to try a couple other items for the sake of variety, but I’d recommend doing two orders of the baked BBQ pork buns and have those be the focus of your meal. Anything else should be an afterthought, just as it is on Tim Ho Wan’s menu.
With that said, the baked BBQ pork buns absolutely live up to the hype, and are worth the wait–no matter how long that wait. I’d go to pretty great lengths to have these again, and they make Tim Ho Wan’s a must-do when visiting Hong Kong. For those who are not food snobs or wouldn’t normally feel comfortable in a Michelin, this is the perfect ‘gateway’ into the high end culinary scene, as restaurants don’t get much more approachable than Tim Ho Wan’s. Do not miss the chance to eat here.
Check out the Hong Kong category to see what else we’ve done in Hong Kong! If you’re visiting Hong Kong, we recommend using the Lonely Planet Hong Kong Guidebook.
Have you dined at Tim Ho Wan’s? What did you think of the baked BBQ pork buns? Did you try anything else that you really liked? Have any other favorite (cheap) dim sum spots in Hong Kong? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!
Used to make pineapple buns very often! Soft tender buns with a biscuit crustheavenly!
I’ve been lucky enough to go to Tim Ho Wan a couple of times, and while the pork buns are absolutely amazing, the steamed rice with pork and squid is what I’ve been dreaming about since. I also remember really enjoying the beef rice noodle roll (it is a bit of an odd texture if you’re not used to eating them), bean curd beef balls, and chicken feet.