Tim Ho Wan and the rise of the BBQ bun

Wyatt Ong
Tim Ho Wan and the rise of the BBQ bun
The buns are the star offering, and the reason for that long, long line outside Tim Ho Wan. Check this out, and the rest of the offerings on the simple, straightforward menu

MANILA, Philippines – Its counterpart in Hong Kong has a Michelin star, but at Tim Ho Wan, there are no linen tablecloths or candles. Instead, there are buns, rolls, and dumplings – oh my. 

Think steam seen rising from every other table, exclamations of “Sarap!” (delicious), and everywhere, guests (including diners not from the media) whipping out their phones to snap a picture of the photogenic bun or dumpling.  

Such are the goings-on at Tim Ho Wan, whose first branch, a hole-in-the-wall in Mong Kok, Hong Kong, is described in its press release as the world’s “most affordable Michelin-star restaurant.” 

The Mong Kok branch has since been relocated to Olympian City, and there are 3 other branches in Hong Kong as well, plus 4 more in Singapore, according to its website. 

The dim sum restaurant, famous for those mysterious and wonderful baked barbecued pork buns, opened its first branch in Manila this past May, at the SM Mega Fashion Hall. More are scheduled to open in other large malls in the city in the coming months. 

At an event introducing the media to Michelin-starred chef Mak Kwai Pui, diners also got the chance to sample a few of the dishes on the roster. 

And now, the food: 

1. Baked buns with BBQ pork (P145 for 3 pieces, about US $3.31)

BEST-SELLER. These are the baked buns with BBQ pork. Photo by Rappler

By far, Tim Ho Wan is best known for the hallowed meaty buns. They are soft but firm on the outside; poking it with a knife releases a tiny flood of sauce, in which swim soft and savory pieces of barbecued pork. 

2. Pan fried carrot cake (P145, about US $3.31)

TEXTURED TREAT. The pan-fried carrot cake, or radish cake, as it's also known here. Photo by Rappler

Known to many dim sum lovers as radish cake, this is another oft-ordered item on dim sum menus. This one is a study in texture – from the bits inside to the smooth layer just under the crunchy exterior. 

3. Prawn dumpling (P160, about US $3.65)

BURSTING. Take a peek at the insides of the prawn dumpling. Photo by Rappler

Aside from the buns, most of the other items are dim sum favorites and the prawn dumpling (know to many as ha gaw) is one of them. 

Great ha gaw is characterized by the freshness and the firmness of the prawn – if it’s mushy, that’s not good – and the dumpling shouldn’t crumble to pieces when you bite into it, or leave a grainy aftertaste. This one was firm and juicy, not dry. 

4. Pork dumpling with shrimp (P150, about US $3.42)

CLASSIC. This is the pork dumpling with shrimp, known to many as siomai. Photo by Rappler

Another dim sum favorite – who doesn’t love siomai? Like the ha gaw, the one at Tim Ho Wan is dense and substantial. No mushiness here, and no bells and whistles either. It’s simple and classic, and you will want more. 

5. Dumpling teocheow style (P120, about US $2.74)

A HIT. Bite carefully, it's hot! Photo by Rappler

Biting into the translucent wrapper of this dumpling, quivering as you hold up with your chopsticks, releases strong, savory flavors from the combination of ingredients in the filling. There are 3 pieces to an order, and these dumplings are a little larger than the prawn dumpling. 

6 Wasabi salad prawn dumpling (P140, about US $3.20)

FRIED. This is nice, but not the highlight of the menu. Photo by Rappler

This is similar to the prawn dumpling, only fried, and with wasabi sauce ladled on top. Though nice, if you are dining alone or with a small group and have to decide which ones to order and which to skip, this would probably fall into the latter category.  

7 Glutinous rice with lotus leaf (P190, about US $4.34)

SHINING STAR. The glutinous rice is flavorful, and this portion size is generous. Photo by Rappler

Often, glutinous rice can be dry when served, as the rice absorbs the juices from the filling. But this effort from Tim Ho Wan shines – literally.

 

There are surprises within the initial surprise – make sure you inhale deeply when you unwrap the lotus leaves, and cut squarely into its heart to reveal the meats and mushrooms inside. 

 

Our server said that the best times to visit would be at 2-4 pm on weekdays, as the restaurant does not take reservations and people line up for around two hours, at times. There are also other options for rice toppings: rice with beef and fried egg (P180, about US $4.11) and rice with chicken, sausage and mushroom (P170, aboutUS $3.88). The steamed egg cake (P85, about US $1.94) and vermicelli roll with pig’s liver (P150, about US $3.42), which I was not able to sample, are part of what Tim Ho Wan calls their “Big 4 Heavenly Kings,” supposedly the highlight of the menu. The baked buns and the carrot cake round out these 4. 

Try not to order the sodas and go instead for the cold barley water (P50, about US $1.14) or a blazing hot jasmine or oolong tea (P60 per pot, about US $1.37). 

If you will be taking out the buns, eat them quickly – or reheat them using not the microwave, but an oven, using middle to low heat, for about 5 minutes. 

The buns themselves are not Chef Mak’s invention, but were a product of his own spin on the dish, after much development. And now having won so much recognition, the buns aren’t there only to satisfy diners and rack up orders. This is the new “it” dish, a way for Tim Ho Wan to anchor its place among the rest of the specialty food available here, something different to offer diners. 

And that’s great, given that other entrants have other hero items on their menus. Lugang, for example, located just a short distance away, long ago unveiled the xiao long bao (soup dumplings) as their specialty, as did competing restaurant Crystal Jade, along with hand-pulled noodles. And in a different category, Wee Nam Kee has made its place here with Hainan-style chicken as the star offering. 

ICONIC. Will these baked buns start a craze in the Philippines? Photo courtesy of Tim Ho Wan

Could the buns spark a new craze, like froyo or ramen, multiplying about town? Or will all the buzz specifically lock down on the ones by Tim Ho Wan, thanks to its association with the Michelin star and the award-winning artisan Chef Mak? Time will tell.

In any case, there’s always the option for evolution. According to Brian Chua, vice president of Corporate Development of Hersing Corporation, which brought Tim Ho Wan to Singapore, there are dishes custom-made for Singaporeans. Of those gems, here are two: dumplings in laksa sauce, and a yam dumpling stuffed with chili crab. Will a dim sum dish soon get a Pinoy spin?

It’s a possibility, and the signs are encouraging. When asked why chicken feet, another popular dim sum menu, is available in Hong Kong but not in Manila, this was Chua’s answer, “In the food and beverage industry, you don’t show all your cards.” 

Right now, the game – as well as the dim sum – is just heating up. Tim Ho Wan’s location, set firmly in the malls (the next one will open in Glorietta on September 15), as opposed to other standalone restaurants, is also likely to attract foot traffic from mall-goers enticed by the promise of a glistening vermicelli roll or piping hot ha gaw

The lines will be long, so your visit will depend on how badly you want those buns. Come early, not hungry, as you’ll be waiting for a while. Then as you queue, allow yourself to slowly anticipate that vital moment when a doomed bun meets your happy belly.  – Rappler.com

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