When Tim Ho Wan opened its first North American location, in New York’s East Village, the lines to get in stretched down the street, even in the bone-chilling December weather. Guests were quoted three-hour wait times, and waitstaff were designated just to manage the crowds from rioting. All of this, for some dumplings.
Well, not just any dumplings. Tim Ho Wan, which bills itself as “dim sum specialists,” is widely known as the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant. Founded in Hong Kong in 2009, the restaurant has proved extremely popular, and now operates 45 locations across Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Macau, and Australia. Plans for another US location, in Hawaii, are already underway.
While many dim sum restaurants start serving it very early in the morning stop by mid-afternoon, Tim Ho Wan serves it all day and into the night, a pleasant change of pace for nine-to-fivers who might have a hankering for barbecued pork buns for dinner. Unlike some of New York’s more cavernous dim sum parlors in Chinatown and Flushing, the room at Tim Ho Wan seats only 60, with a handful of standing-only bar settings, and a blond-wood-and-natural-light aesthetic that wouldn’t look out of place in hipper neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The fact that nothing on the menu costs more than $6—combined with the unlikely prestige from the blessing of the Michelin committee—are further incentives for the crowds.
The chain didn’t change much of their menu to accommodate American palates: Signature items like the custard-topped pork buns (more on those in a minute) and steamed rice rolls appear in virtually the same incarnation here as they do at the Hong Kong flagship. Founding chefs Mak Kwai Pui and Leung Fai Keung did add two new only-in-New-York items to the menu that aren’t available elsewhere: deep-fried spring rolls and French toast with custard were designed to cater to vegetarians. But dim sum staples like chicken feet in abalone sauce and pan-fried turnip cakes remain.
I stopped by the restaurant during the relatively slow period between lunch and the dinner rush (relatively being the operative word—every seat was filled, but the line wasn’t physically out the door) for a glimpse into the inner workings of the kitchen. There are no roving dumpling carts at Tim Ho Wan. Diners fill out a checklist of items they’d like, and the kitchen cooks everything to order. Although we weren’t able to see the prep area where thousands of dumplings are folded early each morning, we were given access to the upstairs kitchen, which is chock-full of steamers, ovens and fryers, where thousands of dumplings, buns, rolls and rice bowls are cooked every day. It’s hot, damp, and crowded back there, with the scent of barbecued pork and fresh steamed shrimp perfuming the air—exactly how a dim sum restaurant should be. Here’s a look behind the scenes.
Steamed Rice Roll
These slippery steamed rolls start as a rice flour batter, which is poured out over a reuseable cloth, placed in a large rectangular steamer, and covered to cook for a few short minutes. When the batter is set into a thin, translucent sheet, the cook carefully peels it off the cloth and onto a clean countertop, where it’s dotted with a thin line of shrimp and chives, barbecued pork, or minced beef. The cook then rolls the sheet around the filling to form a neat tube, before slicing the rolls into four-inch pieces and stacking them into a pyramid that will get doused with soy sauce tableside.
Pan-Fried Turnip Cake
Shredded turnip is mixed with flour and freeze-dried shrimp and minced pork to form a thick “cake” that chills overnight. Once set, it’s cut into individual squares and griddled on both sides, creating a burnished outer shell that gives way to a dense, chewy interior.
Baked BBQ Pork Bun
One of Tim Ho Wan’s most beloved items, these pork buns are housed in a yeasted dough that’s made in-house daily. Each bun is topped with a swirl of proprietary sweet custard, then baked off, creating a sweet, crispy crust that shatters beneath the pressure of your chopsticks (or fingertips) when you break into them. The restaurant goes through over 1000 of these a day.
A steamed Malaysian-style snack enhanced with brightly yolked eggs. The batter is whipped to aerate it before being steamed, giving the finished product a light, spongy texture. There’s a touch of sugar in the batter, and some people choose to save this for dessert.
Steamed Pork Dumplings with Shrimp (Siu Mai)
The filling here is a mixture of both pork and shrimp, housed in a wrapper made in-house that’s tinged yellow from the addition of eggs. They’re left unsealed and topped with an individual goji berry, which is said to aid circulation.
Steamed Shrimp Dumplings
Tim Ho Wan gives all of the shrimp in their dumplings an ice bath “spa treatment” so they maintain an extra-firm, springy texture. The filling here is entirely shrimp, encased in a translucent dumpling wrapper that’s made in-house.
Steamed Tofu Stuffed with Fish Cake
Fish cakes made of ground pollock are nestled into a rectangular slab of tofu and topped with a mild black bean sauce.
Braised Chicken Feet with Abalone Sauce and Peanut
The Tim Ho Wan version of this dim sum staple has less soy sauce and cornstarch than some Chinatown versions, and a deeper, more herbal flavor from the sauce.
French Toast with Custard and Vegetarian Spring Rolls
Both of these deep-fried items are exclusive to the New York location. The French Toast features a layer of bright yellow egg custard filling sandwiched between two pieces of springy white bread; while the spring rolls have a mushroom-bamboo filling.