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).

Zhào Xìng Yuán | 兆兴园

37 yong le lu 永乐路

Shabbiness: 2 laowais

Food: 5 laowais

Mood: Weirdly tranquil

Concept: Painfully small stools

We don’t have high expectations when we enter; the locale is just shabby enough to be mediocre, and the distinct lack of any kind of menu is always a headache for us laowais. But the ingredients lying about in plastic containers are surprisingly clean, though the meat does look a little off-putting. We ask for a menu and are pointed towards the few dishes pictured on posters on the wall; they don’t look too appetizing. So we do it the risky way, and point to stuff in the containers, then sit down at a table with miniscule wicker footstools and try to ignore the pain in our long, smooth legs. The tables are covered with the customary sheets of transparent plastic that always look completely horrible, yet in some unfathomable way are also an indication that this is to be considered a “quality” restaurant.

As it turns out, it is. The food is bordering on the fantastic. Though the beans are tasteless and way too oily, with a weird moisture that probably hails from a sewer somewhere,  the spring rolls with egg and mushrooms and some kind of sprouts are crisp and tasty, the mashed potatoes delicously seasoned and hearthy, and the meat is tender and laowai-friendly, no trace of fat or bones. It’s actually perfect, among the best meat we’ve had in Kunming; it comes in a savory sauce with a touch of ginger and just the right amount of oil. The rice takes its time to show up, but eventually arrives in a giant wooden bucket, carried in from an undisclosed location. And it’s warm.

The room itself has certainly seen better days, with bleached wall paintings whose like we haven’t seen since the Truck Stop in the Middle of Nowhere. The kitchen is definitely dirty, complete with shabby wall tiles that have almost fallen off. Yet this restaurant has a uniform and thought-out design, with fake mud brick walls, red lamps and paper cutouts hanging from the roof, and matching flowery covers on all the miniscule stools. As to why they insist on using such spartan seatings in a room that could easily have accommodated entire sofas, nobody knows.

When we arrive, Zhào Xìng Yuán is almost empty, but a few people soon arrives from the nearby Chuang Ku Art Compound, apparently aware that this place is great. After a while, most of the (enormous) staff sits down to eat, accompanied by strange moments of eerie silence where only the klicking of chopsticks is heard. It’s not exactly depressing, just…calm, and soon enough someone begans chatting in the usual, absurdly loud chinese style. Everything is back to normal. But we’re full of great food.