The Shabbyplace with a Michelin Star

The crowd outside.
The crowd outside.

Tim Ho Wan
Shop 8, 2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok, Hongkong (has since moved).

Shabbiness: 1 laowai

Food: 5 laowais

Mood: Swedish kebab joint

Concept: Queue from hell

Sooner or later, we were of course bound to end up here. As we approach, we see an intimidating line of laowai, mainlanders and locals, and we’re told we’ll need to wait for two hours for a table. We resolve to do so, as this just has to be experienced. Here’s why:


Tim Ho Wan is supposedly the world’s cheapest Michelin starred-cubbyhole, at last back in 2010, and that was of course something we’d have to do a bonus feature about: how shabby could this possibly be?

CIMG8950Not that shabby, is the answer, but it’s still very far from fancy-pants fusion molecular cuisine concept restaurants with snobbish dress codes (that’s another Michelin starred place in Hong Kong). The interior design in Tim Ho Wan, or rather the lack of it, do manage to be somewhat reminiscent of  swedish budget pizzerias and kebab joints, and this is indeed an achievement considering this restaurant is basically world famous and has a two hour waiting line.  There’s the classically tasteless plastic fake wooden walls, posters with pointless and unappealing pictures of random food that they probably don’t serve, and a cramped kitchen complete with dirty, moist windows and ancient smoke stains forming black patches in the roof.  It”s nowhere near mainland levels of shabbiness, but it does give off a cramped, impersonal and slightly decrepit feel that wouldn’t be out of place in the very shabbiest (comparatively speaking) swedish fast food joints.

CIMG8938The food, like most cantonese fair, looks extremely unappealing, like random grey, yellow and orange blotches of sticky goo and slimy white sheets. The actual taste, however, is more like how we assume divine nectar might taste in the garden of paradise. Okay, slight exaggeration maybe, but it is, as the chinese would say, 不错; not bad. At all. By any stretch of the imagination.

Fucking awesome.

The yellow:ish watery rice-pudding thing is interesting, but lacks a bit of zeist, it’d benefit from some more sugar or salt we feel. The large selection of various random steamed dough and meat buns are increasingly good as we work through it, with tasty soy, great consistency, savory  feel; there’s something interesting going on in our mouths with every bite. The sticky rice is absoutely amazing,  with nice texture and perfect temperature, the xiao long bao is a dream for anybody who enjoys their slimy dumplings (some of us doesn’t, but still has to confess the filling is semi-divine).

The amazing glaced pork bread buns.

The highlight is arguably a kind of (pardon us for not knowing the names of cantonese food) dough buns stuffed with fine pork in sweet glace, that are such a taste sensation that we’d have to spend two pages of word spam trying to find the right way to describe it.

In summary, Tim Ho Wan is a great food adventure in an impersonal and basic setting, the only thing really missing for it to be a true chinese shabbiness experience is the lack of miniscule footstools, screaming babies and badly edited Maoist propaganda posters. Like much of Hong Kong, it feels a little bit more western, and therefore less true. Yet, the food here is as amazingly cheap as it is good, worth both the long wait and a detour, deserving it’s Michelin star (though we know a few mainland eateries that would  as well, if it came down to food quality only, as it really should).

Lánzhōu Fēngwèi Niúròumiàn | 兰州风味牛肉面

Yieryi dajie 236  一二一大街 236

Shabbiness: 3 laowais

Food: 3 laowais

Mood: Zergling pit

Concept: Hajj fundraiser

This place’s strategic location just off the bridge from Wenlin jie makes it a favorite haunt of not only university students tired of inedible canteen food, but legions of kids from the nearby school(s), who descend on Lánzhōu Fēngwèi Niúròumiàn like a large scale zerling rush at lunchtime. (Consequently, this place might be better suited for a dinner time visit, though now that they have the barbecue grill open already at noon, it’s less of a dealbreaker). Among the many fans have always been a select part of this blog’s crew, though we’re slowly getting a little disillusioned regarding the food. There’s no question about the happy happy joy joy:ness of Lánzhōu Fēngwèi Niúròumiàn‘s crew, though; they’re basically the nicest guys in town, despite a sometimes insane workload, so we find ourselves returning over and over, hopefully financing the laoban’s future journey to Mecca.  It should be noted that while the crew are awesome dudes (and dudette), at least the laoban is also somewhat devout; don’t bring alcohol into his restaurant, and don’t photograph him (therefore, we have less pictures of the restaurant itself than normally when we do a review, go see it for yourselves instead).

“I’m a little teapot, short and stout…”

The cramped kitchen is remarkable for its blackened walls and lack of visible storage space; we’ve often wondered if they keep all the food ingredients in some magical muslim hammerspace. The previously epic windowlessness has been somewhat mitigated since they punched a hole to the kitchen through one of the interior walls, though this mostly serves to give you a better view of the horror inside. The eating area, however, is quite clean for being a hole-in-the-wall, with walls that you actually dare lean against and nice-looking wooden tables. (We should also mention the soy pots in low-quality plastic, who against all odds manages to be cute). The wall posters are the epically kitschy ones you see in all muslim restaurants; the exact same picture menu, a bird’s eye view of Mecca, and some  praying girls in hijab who looks rather drugged. It all serves to create a very genuine halal-hole-in-the-wall-feeling.

As for the food, the menu is nice andvaried, but we tend to find the dishes too oily and in some cases rather flavourless (though superior to the nearby university canteen food, of course). The big plate of Xinjiang chicken is always a treat if you’re a large group, though bony and rather non-laowai friendly, otherwise the homemade noodles are generally a better choice than the rice dishes, with a nice texture to them. The fried rice is also quite good, not oily at all, well seasoned, and cheap. The barbecue skewers are a good complement to most anything, never bony, rather big, and delicously seasoned, actually among the best we’ve had in Kunming. On a good day, the food here might deserve a better grade, but in general it’s solid but doesn’t stand out; some dishes might be welcome surprises, but others just rather tasteless and way too moist.

Go here to chat with the staff, have some meat skewers or noodles, but don’t expect anything out of the ordinary. The large customer base and good location does, however, make Lánzhōu Fēngwèi Niúròumiàn one of Kunming’s better people-watching spots.

The Truck Stop Restaurant That Was Actually Good

In the desert between Ürümqi and Kashgar

Shabbiness: 2 laowais

Food: 4 laowai

Mood: Lively

Concept: Communist caravanserai

We have earlier discussed the strange phenomenon of truck stop restaurants in China always being horrible to some degree. Yet, sooner or later, we were bound to come across one that was not bad, and we did – in the middle of the desert, of course. Literally. Around this place, for as long as the eye can see, is only endless, lifeless wasteland with scattered patches of dying grass. Yet the place itself is quite lively, at least when the long-distance buses drop by; full of people chatting, playing, eating, or just hanging around. We can imagine it has been like this for a very long time, just with the camels and horses gradually replaced by roaring metallic beasts, and adobe and brick caravanserais gradually turned into communist concrete. It didn’t look promising, for sure, though outdoor seating is always a plus. Amazingly though, all the chairs and tables match and are remarkably clean, almost shining, and the tableware also match, though it looks extremely 70’s (orange plastic, fuck yeah). Sure, the interior of the building looks like an abandoned mental hospital, but nobody ever sits inside anyhow (though our driver at one point disappears into the building for a suspiciously long time, despite the toilets being in a separate building outside. We have no idea what he’s doing).

Except for a quite nice outdoor seating, this place also has what might be the largest sign known to civilised man, so ridiculously overdone that it has to get bonus points just for the effort. As previously noted, the building itself is unremarkable, and the kitchen, whatever horrors might or might not be there, is hidden away deep inside it. One worrying sign, though, is the fact that the inbred-looking guy cleaning the toilets is a few moments later seen serving plates of watermelon to people. There is also a lot of cute uighur babies roaming about, which adds more to the atmosphere than the shabbiness, as there’s no sign that they’re even near the kitchen. All in all, this might be the cleanest and nicest chinese truck stop restaurant we’ve ever seen, and certainly so within Xinjiang itself – most similar places here are sheer horror, or at least depressing beyond belief. That being said, what we do get to see of the inside is…a different story, and that and the toilet guy does raise the shabbiness rating to two. The service is impersonal and extremely slow, though the watermelons are a nice touch (if you ignore for a moment who delivers them).

With this distinct lack of shabbiness in mind (there’s a few sheep in the vicinity, but no other animals in sight), we would ordinarly suspect the food to turn out to be utterly disappointing, but no, not here. We get a pot of good tea and a bowl of cold laghman noodles, over which is added a plate of random diced meat/vegetable stuff. And it’s quite tasty. The meat is not too laowai-friendly, but tender and warm, and the onions and the bell peppers have a nice and fresh taste and consistency, not oily or slimy. But especially the noodles themselves are a surprise, with a hearthiness you seldom find in boring Kunming varieties – just the kind of hearthiness one’d want in truck stop food. Despite slight stomach sickness and some initial reservations against uighur food, we leave this place feeling fulfilled, our taste buds pleased but not challenged, and travel onward to new culinary adventures and new confrontations with shabbiness, deeper into China’s vast western lands.

Chéngdū Dàn Dàn Miàn | 成都担担面

16 Cang Yuan Xiang 仓园巷Chéngdū Dàn Dàn Miàn

Shabbiness: 2 laowais

Food: 3 laowais

Mood: Cozy familial

Theme: Outdoor seating

The first of several small restaurants tucked away on an alley next to Green Lake Park, the staff here immediately and enthusiastically greets us in what little english they know, in stark contrast to the less-than-warm welcoming we got  at the Hēilóngjiāng  jiaozi place. We’re further treated to a somewhat lavish picture menu, and outdoor seating in the evening sun; though on metallic benches in that particulary shabby shade we’ll hereafter dub “eyesore blue”.

While the restaurant isn’t the cleanest on earth, windows provide full insight into the kitchen, so we can be assured there is nothing hideous going on inside. There is also evidence for at least some vague effort to spice up the place; a random painting hangs on the wall, and there’s a swiss looking clock that’s so marvelously random it’s awesome. Somehow, the apparent happiness of the staff also detracts from the feeling of shabbiness; in a really shabby place, we reason, the staff should be ugly, grumpy, indolent and boring, here they are the exact opposite. While the outdoor seating has to be considered the main bonus feature, the neon sign is another nice touch that we assume to be the staff’s pride and  joy. There’s also a screaming baby that’s occasionally carried into the kitchen to drool everywhere, a recurring theme from Hēilóngjiāng Jiǎozi Diàn. While it there added to the angst-inducing atmosphere, it mainly makes things even more familial and cozy here.

We’re recommended a dish, and order two more. They’re all savory and nicely spicey, though we’re a bit divided as to if there’s too much chili or not, and whether the mushrooms are overcooked. The meat-to-vegetables-ratio is surprisingly good, and the meat is mostly fillet, no fat and bones. We get the rice borderline cold however, which is deemed a major error, and in itself almost enough to lower the rating. Another issues is the fact that two of the dishes are clearly better than the third; even though shredded pork and green beans are supposed to be really good, we find ourselves having much of it left when the other food is long gone, so something must have been wrong with it (too little seasoning, maybe?). The food is enjoyable, but not exactly culinary delights, and the issue with the rice can’t be overlooked.

All in all, Chéngdū Dàn Dàn Miàn gets a disappointingly low grade on shabbiness; it’s more kitsch than genuine horror, and a place with outdoor seating on a terrace just can’t be considered that bad. (They even have matching plastic tableware with a red and black color scheme that almost makes it look like ceramics). The food rating is average; we’d go here again, but more because of the nice location and staff than any particular culinary pleasure.

Look how happy they are!

Hēilóngjiāng Jiǎozi Diàn | 黑龙江饺子店

261 Xuefu lu 学府路

Shabbiness: 1 laowai

Food: 4 laowais

Mood: No-nonsense

Concept: Fancy jiaozi

Because everything from a province named “Black dragon river” has to be considered cool, we were kind of enthusiastic about this place.  As we arrive, we’re promptly  informed that we can not get less than 10 jiaozi; we never get any explanation as to why. While not exactly unfriendly, the staff certainly does not go out of their way to make anybody feel at home; even the baby in the back of the room seem to feel the awkwardly loveless atmosphere, judging by the constant crying. The restaurant’s distinct lack of even the slightest form of decoration adds to this feeling, though something has to be said about the fact that the tables and the stools have a matching blue color, an eyesore though it may be.  Somehow, during the (extremely utilitarian, we assume) designing of this place, somebody must actually have had the freak thought that matching colors are nice. Another noteworthy touch is the alcohol shelf in the back; though it doesn’t do anything to detract from the clinically cold feeling,at least once could drink the pain away, like (we presume) they do all throughout the winter in Heilongjiang.

The liquor cabinet; a baby carriage in front.

The place is remarkably clean, which might not be so odd considering the whole hospital-feeling. (I’d be surprised if even cockroaches can stand the atmosphere here). Apart from the mind-numbing ugliness, there’s not much to be said about shabbiness here; even the kitchen seems (relatively, of course) clean. We all agreed, however, that the totally random container with eggs right besides the counter (see liquor-cabine-picture) had to be considered a bonus feature.

The food, as it turns out, isn’t bad at all. The fried jiaozi looks appetizing enough, are crisp and fresh, have the right relationship between meat and vegetables, and come with a nice garlic sauce. Though there is a somewhat “flowery” taste like sichuan pepper that we don’t really enjoy, all are agreed that this is some good jiaozi.

The final rating for Hēilóngjiāng Jiǎozi Diàn is actually very good in terms of the food, but as shabbiness go, we will undoubtedly encounter a horrifyingly vast amount of worse places.