Is Tim Ho Wan worth lining up for?

Posted at 06/04/14 10:29 AM

Customers line up for a table at Tim Ho Wan. Photo by Vladimir Bunoan for ABS-CBNnews.com

MANILA – Filipinos lined up for hours just to get a table at the SM Megamall outlet of Hong Kong’s critically acclaimed Tim Ho Wan restaurant when it opened its doors to the public last May 20.

After two weeks, the lines have not disappeared. The website Manila Coconuts estimated that customers have to wait between 30 minutes and one hour on average and “longer on peak periods.”

But lining up for a taste of Tim Ho Wan’s dim sum specialties is not a uniquely Filipino phenomenon.

Billed as the “cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world” when it opened as a 24-seater hole-in-the-wall dimsum place in Mongkok, Hong Kong by Mak Pui Gor, a former dimsum chef at Lung King Heen at the Four Seasons Hotel – it won the coveted star in 2009 – Tim Ho Wan also continues to attract hordes of hungry customers in the former British colony, as well as in Singapore.

But is it worth the wait?

This writer queued for a little over 30 minutes when we checked out Tim Ho Wan for late lunch last Saturday. We managed to get seated ahead of a larger group because 1) we didn’t mind having a table outside the restaurant; and 2) we agreed to a table for two even if we were three.

The jampacked indoor dining area of Tim Ho Wan. Photo by Vladimir Bunoan for ABS-CBNnews.com

Those waiting in line are given a copy of the paper menu, which also doubles as a place mat, so they can already decide on what to order.

The waiting time would probably be a lot shorter had the restaurant been bigger. Tim Ho Wan at the ground floor of the mall’s SM Mega Fashion Hall is considerably smaller than, say, Vikings or even Lugang Café. Yet despite the size, it does have a lot of wait staff, who were quick to take orders and remove used plates. And the food arrived rather fast, such that our little table for two was quickly filled with our orders.

An order by the way has three pieces, which makes sharing easy for our table of three.

The menu of Tim Ho Wan is also quite small, limited to mostly dim sum and other short-order dishes. But it’s also very affordable with nothing priced above P200. (Still those who have tried Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong pointed out that the Manila prices are already slightly higher. For instance, the restaurant’s prized pork buns are sold for P145 here but only HK$18 in Hong Kong or around P105.)

Baked Bun with BBQ Pork. Photo by Vladimir Bunoan for ABS-CBNnews.com

But that P40 price difference doesn’t matter much since even at P145, the Baked Bun with BBQ Pork certainly lived up to the hype. Other restaurants here have their version of this dish but Tim Ho Wan’s baked bun was on a different level. It looked deceptively Spartan: three pieces of light yellow buns that turned out to be delicately soft with a light crisp and a sweet, milky taste. Inside, the steaming hot pork was tender, still sweet but wrapped in a deep smoky flavor. We were stunned by the amazing texture – the bun in particular – and immediately ordered for another one.

The pork bun is among the four signature dishes billed as Tim Ho Wan’s "Four Heavenly Kings," which truly works as a complete meal.

Pan-Fried Carrot Cake. Photo by Vladimir Bunoan for ABS-CBNnews.com

The Pan-Fried Carrot Cake (P145) was properly firm yet still soft but nothing extraordinary, although my companions remarked that a little chili helped improve the flavor.

Vermicelli Roll with Pig’s Liver. Photo by Vladimir Bunoan for ABS-CBNnews.com

I was more impressed with the Vermicelli Roll with Pig’s Liver (P150) although I understand that liver is not exactly a popular and is more of an acquired taste. But this dish was a showcase for the overall clean taste of Tim Ho Wan’s dishes and certainly will be appreciated by those who like liver’s offal taste.

The unassuming Steamed Egg Cake (P85) looked like an old-fashioned dessert; its brown color reminded us of puto Binan and there were also similarities in taste. But the cake was lusciously soft and in my opinion is as impressive as the pork buns. I’d line up again for these two dishes.

We also ordered the Beef Ball with Beancurd Skin (P120), which was quite filling; as was the Glutinous Rice in Lotus Leaf (P190), popularly known as machang, which was very tasty.

Glutinous Rice in Lotus Leaf. Photo by Vladimir Bunoan for ABS-CBNnews.com

The rest of the dishes should be familiar to fans of Chinese dim sum and I have heard very positive comments about the Prawn Dumpling (P160) – “Their Hakaw is one of the best I've tasted. It has a thin and chewy wrapper and the fresh-tasting plump shrimps are imported from Vietnam,” wrote blogger Anton Diaz of Our Awesome Planet.

Other dim sum treats on offer include the Pork Dumpling, Spinach Dumpling with Shrimp and Pork Rib with Black Bean Sauce. We were disappointed that the chicken feet in abalone sauce isn’t served here.

Tim Ho Wan Manila also serves congee and two rice toppings (beef and fried egg for P180, and chicken, sausage and mushroom for P170), served in those stainless steel containers commonly used in Hong Kong eateries.

Tonic Medlar and Osmanthus Cake. Photo by Vladimir Bunoan for ABS-CBNnews.com

For dessert, we opted for the Tonic Medlar and Osmanthus Cake (P70), which turned out to be a Jello-like dessert that supposedly aids in digestion. It’s interesting and not too sweet but we regretted not opting for the Mango Pomelo Sago, which we’re familiar with.

All in all, Tim Ho Wan is definitely a worthy addition to the fast-food style Chinese eateries in Manila. By no means is this a special occasion restaurant despite the Michelin seal. The pricing suggests that veteran restaurateur Ricky Dee, whose earlier ventures included the food court staple Chin’s Express, wanted a brand that will have mass acceptance.

He certainly has a hit with this import, which is definitely less risky compared to the sprawling Todd English Food Hall

Already, Tim Ho Wan is constructing an outlet in Glorietta 3 in Makati. Expect to line up there too when it opens.

G/F, SM Mega Fashion Hall
SM Megamall, Mandaluyong City