What Does Michelin-Starred Dim Sum Taste Like?
Tim Ho Wan opens at the Royal Hawaiian Center.
A basket of har gow and steamed shrimp-and-chive dumplings from Tim Ho Wan, which opened in April at the Royal Hawaiian Center.
Photos: Aaron K. Yoshino
I am fifth-generation Chinese in Hawai‘i which, when asked, I say makes me just Chinese enough to order dim sum. It’s one of my favorite things to eat. I can’t tell you exactly what the most authentic char siu bao or siu mai should look like, but I have ordered the steamer baskets of treats in almost every city I’ve visited—from Montreal to Boston.
So, the idea of a Michelin-starred version of what many consider to be budget bites was intriguing. Tim Ho Wan opened in Hong Kong in 2009 and quickly gained recognition as the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world, until a stall in Singapore with a $1.42 chicken and rice dish scored its own star in 2016. Still, when Tim Ho Wan opened its first U.S. location in lower Manhattan in New York in 2016, diners waited for hours for a chance to try it.
The 46th Tim Ho Wan opened in the Royal Hawaiian Center with a lion dance, Chinese beauty queens and a line of people already waiting to get in. Unlike other dim sum places where the cooks are either hidden in the kitchen or are rolling dumplings at the table next to you, Tim Ho Wan’s kitchen is open with a window where passersby can watch the chefs at work.
From left, co-executive chefs and co-founders Leung Fai Keung and Mak Kwai Pui, outside the Hong Kong chain’s newest location in Waikīkī.
You can watch workers make the restaurant’s special dim sum through a window into the kitchen.
The entire menu fits on a single placemat. Twenty-eight items are available to order, no carts here, with traditional dim sum favorites including siu mai, har gow, look funn, turnip cake, spareribs and chicken feet. There is only one type of noodle, pan-fried, and four sweets to finish the meal. Prices are high for local dim sum standards, ranging from $4.50 for blanched lettuce to $5.75 for three char siu bao. The difference, according to the media kit, is quality.
You can taste it. A basket of har gow and steamed shrimp-and-chive dumplings arrived first with translucent wrappers showcasing the green chives and chunks of shrimp inside. My absolute favorite dim sum dish, har gow or shrimp dumplings, is my benchmark for any restaurant. Tim Ho Wan’s version looks smaller, but it’s because the wrappers are thinner, not because the filling was lacking. The sticky wrapper (don’t try to move the dumplings around too much, they’ll stick) had great texture and held together nicely from bite to bite. Inside, we found fresh, large pieces of shrimp nicely cooked without the sometimes pasty filling you’ll find around lesser grades of shrimp. HONOLULU’s digital media manager and I, the two full Chinese reps on staff, ate several rounds. The shrimp-and-chive dumplings carried a bright, fresh chive flavor with a significant chunk of shrimp inside.
Two standout dishes at Tim Ho Wan: the har gow (left) and char siu bao.
Next up was one of Tim Ho Wan’s signature dishes, the char siu bao. Smaller baked rolls look more like a dessert bun than the bread-forward pork buns most are used to. “Most barbecue pork buns are steamed in Guangdong (south China), but we prefer to bake it for a more aromatic taste,” says co-executive chef and co-founder Mak Kwai Pui in Cantonese, while taking a break from making siu mai by hand in front of a crowd of media cameras. The lightly sweet, slightly crunchy top yields to a thin layer of bread encasing thin slices of pork, not a hash of fatty char siu leftovers, tossed in a savory sauce. The ratio of bread-to-meat was unusual for our local crew, but well balanced.
The egg-white-and-shrimp eggroll was a bit greasy but crispy and flavorful. The sweet osmanthus jelly—osmanthus is a shrub often used for tea—with goji berries had a light floral flavor with the sweetness of goji berries. (How do you describe goji berries? Our table team decided, it tastes like goji berries.) Our HONOLULU tea connoisseur, digital media manager Diane Lee, was quick to note that Tim Ho Wan offered not just oolong tea, one of the most affordable, but also chrysanthemum, jasmine and the house pu-erh tea. We tried the pu-erh, which was strong but smooth. Lee was happy to see that we didn’t have to avoid tea leaves floating in our cups. The restaurant strains them out.
From left, a spring roll, char siu bao and sweet osmanthus jelly.
The look funn wasn’t available at the media showing—the machines to make the noodles are still on the way. The people handling the press said it should be here soon.
The restaurant has about 20 tables for four, a little more than half inside and the rest in an outside, covered lānai. There are high chairs available, but you won’t find hot mustard next to the house-blend shoyu. Reservations are not taken, so expect a line. One more note, Tim Ho Wan serves dim sum until 10 p.m. Most other Chinese restaurants shut down dim sum service after lunch.
Tim Ho Wan did deliver on fresh, premium dim sum at affordable prices, when compared to the new world of $10 a basket dim sum at other Waikīkī restaurants. For my regular dim sum fix, I’ll stick to Chinatown. But Tim Ho Wan is a quality dim sum adventure that won’t send my parents into sticker shock.
Royal Hawaiian Center, 2233 Kalākaua Ave., Level 3 in Building B, suite B303. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. (808) 888-6088, timhowan.com