The Hong Kong dim sum quest
Hong Kong dim sum is so plentiful it can be overwhelming to navigate all the different restaurants. So we asked around and decided to try these three places that locals absolutely swear by for flavor and for value for money. A belly full of dim sum can be had at an average of under HK$60 per person:
Tim Ho Wan
Tim Ho Wan is clearly a labor of love: owner Pui Gor, a chef at the Four Seasons Hotel's Michelin-starred restaurant Lung King Heen, went across the harbor to Mongkok to open this hole-in-the-wall eatery to serve five star dim sum to the masses.
After suffering through endless baskets of mediocre dim sum at a multitude of other establishments, eating at Tim Ho Wan reminded me a bit of when I got my first pair of glasses: everything that was blurry suddenly became sharp.
The atmosphere here is more brasserie than banquet hall, with dark wood-panelled walls and a very tightly-packed convivial dining area. Servers walk around with coffee pots full of tea, like in an American diner.
We started with two of the most popular dishes: pig liver cheung fun and cha siu baau. The cheung fun noodle was thin and wrapped around a firm strip of liver which was on the good side of gamey. The cha siu baau was a sweet pastry take on the traditional barbecue pork-stuffed buns. The bite-sized cha siu baau was like a miniature boh loh baau and it was one of the best I have ever had, but I have a sweet tooth and some of my dining companions did think it was too sweet.
Every dish at Tim Ho Wan is made to order. The classics, so commonly screwed up at other restaurants, are outstanding here. The beef meatballs were tender, meaty and resplendent with the aroma of dried mandarin peel and cilantro. The turnip pudding, which so often takes the form of a spongy, tasteless brick, was actually filled with slices of real turnip here -- the way it should be.
Forget Sunday dim sum in a giant banquet hall where aunties gather to out-brag one another about their childrens' grades and uncles fight for the bill to save face. Lam Kee is for serious eating.
After operating for three decades as a dai pai dong, Lam Kee moved indoors to the Tai Po public market a few years ago, but it hasn't sacrificed any of its street cred. The last time we visited, it was a Monday morning just before noon, and the air was filled with steam and the boisterous chatter of old folks from around the neighbourhood. Regulars wander in wearing "gaai fong chong" -- that literally means "neighborhood clothes" such as flip flops and a grubby t-shirt shirt, or whatever it is you were lounging in at home.
We sat down at a table with two poh-poh (old ladies) who were a bit surprised to see a couple of gweilos in their midst. One of the old women leaned over and told us, "This place is just as good as the big dim sum places, except it's cheap, and they don't even charge you for tea."
We were next to the restaurant's semi-open kitchen, where clouds of steam billowed up from big piles of bamboo baskets. Our siu mai arrived first and it straddled the line between firm and tender, with a balance of flavors between pork and shrimp. The haa gau, shrimp dumplings, were tiny with just a small piece of shrimp in each, but they tasted fresh and the wrapper was perfectly chewy. The robust black bean spare ribs was piping hot, wholesome and hit the spot on this chilly day. The meal's major disappointment was the cheung fun, which was overcooked and understuffed, with a rice noodle that was far too thick.
But the dish that truly summed up Lam Kee for me was the "chicken with random stuff," baby corn, taro, chicken and luncheon meat wrapped in tofu sheets -- an unlikely and unexpected mix of ingredients that somehow worked perfectly together.
Saam Hui Yaat
This isn't your grandmother's kind of dim sum, but only because this tiny dive on a grubby stretch of Sai Wan is frequented almost entirely by men: construction workers, schoolboys, and retirees who spend their days at the restaurant munching on dim sum, listening to the horseraces on portable radios.
The interior decor hasn't been touched since the 1960s -- parts of the green tile floor, metal fans, mismatched furniture, and altar is covered in permanent grease. When the waiter arrives with a bowl and hot water for us to rinse our dishes, teacup and chopsticks, it seems like less of a convention and more an actual necessity.
Decreptitude might be one byproduct of age, but experience is another, and Saam Hui Yaat's decades of operation have given it serious know-how in the kitchen. Dim sum is piled up in their baskets of different sizes in Saam Hui Yaat's steaming kitchen and each one retains traditional Hong Kong flavors. The Chiu Chow dumplings here are particularly good and I loved the oyster sauce pork, fresh bamboo and carrot wrapped in a thin tofu sheet. There are some other non-dim sum dishes here too, which are more substantial, such as the shrimp omelette with rice.
Tim Ho Wan: Shop 8, Taui Yuen Mansion Phase 2, 2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mongkok, Kowloon, tel +852 2332 2896
Lam Kee: Shop 8-9, 2/F, Tai Po Hui Market Cooked Food Centre, Tai Po Market, New Territories
Saam Hui Yaat: 11 Pok Fu Lam Road, Sai Ying Pun, Western District, tel +852 2547 3917