Review: Tim Ho Wan, Chatswood

Is everyone still talking about Tim Ho Wan? It feels like the opening of a branch of the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in Sydney was all anyone (read – any food blogger) could talk about in April. Instagram abounded with glorious shots of their famous BBQ pork buns, and the prospect of waiting for up to four hours in the long queue wasn’t a deterrent at all.

I’ll admit that I fell prey to the hype. The Thursday before the Easter long weekend, K and I took the day off work to make it an extra long weekend. Ostensibly, the extra day was so that we could attend his cousin’s wedding in the late afternoon, but really, it was so that we could visit Tim Ho Wan in the morning before the wedding.

With a 10am opening time, K dropped me off at 9.30am so that I could start lining up while he looked for a carspace. We’d heard the horror stories about the queues so imagine my surprise when I found that I was sixth in line! I only had to wait half an hour until the restaurant opened and then managed to walk straight in for a table – so for those who are interested in visiting Tim Ho Wan without a queue, early in the morning on a weekday is definitely the way to go!

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Unlike most yumcha establishments where you expect to see old Chinese aunties pushing dim sum trolleys around the restaurant, Tim Ho Wan operates on an order form system. Simply choose what you want, pass your order form over to one of the many young wait staff, and sit back as you wait for your food to arrive.

Baked bun with BBQ pork, $6.80
Baked bun with BBQ pork, $6.80

A lot has been written about Tim Ho Wan’s famous Baked Buns with BBQ Pork. As the signature dish, you’ll often see three or four serves of these buns brought out to tables of diners. No one walks away without eating at least two of these buns!

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For all the hype though, how does it actually taste? It’s as good as you would expect. The top crust of the bun is slightly sweet, reminiscent of the Cantonese style pineapple buns. This enhances the smoky but sweet filling of the slow-roasted BBQ pork, making it a real sweet yet savoury treat. It’s so good that yes, we end up ordering another serve of the buns for takeaway as an afternoon treat!

Steamed egg cake, $5.50
Steamed egg cake, $5.50

Malay cake (ma lai go) was always one of my treats at yum cha when I was a kid. I’ve always loved the soft spongey texture with the brown sugar flavours in your mouth. Tim Ho Wan calls their ma lai go Steamed Egg Cake instead, which makes me think that they may have adapted the titles on their menu for a more Australian audience who aren’t familiar with this treat. Whatever the name of it, it was a real winner – almost as good as the ones I remember from my childhood. Soft, spongey, sweet, delectable.

Pork dumpling with shrimp, $7.20
Pork dumpling with shrimp, $7.20

I liked the inclusion of the goji berries on top of the Pork dumpling with shrimp (siu mai) – something a little bit unusual that you don’t always find with other dim sum restaurants. What I loved about these siu mai though, was the dedication to using quality produce, with the dumplings featuring huge whole chunks of fresh plump prawns. It certainly made a nice change to the nondescript pork and prawn mince that you normally get, where you wonder how much of what you’re eating is actually the real deal.

Pan-fried carrot cake, $6
Pan-fried carrot cake, $6

Surprisingly, the yum cha classic of the radish cake was called a Pan-fried carrot cake at Tim Ho Wan. Rest assured though – it’s certainly not made of carrots and is very much made of radish, or what some would know as Japanese daikon. While the radish cake was grilled beautifully, the mixture itself left a lot to be desired. Made up almost exclusively of grated radish (and slightly floury radish at that), it lacked the cornucopia of ingredients that marks an excellent radish cake – dried shrimp, lupcheong, shiitake mushrooms…there should have been a lot more to this radish cake. Alas!

Prawn dumpling, $7.80
Prawn dumpling, $7.80

Like the siu mai before it, the Prawn dumplings were absolutely chock-full with real chunks of prawn meat. There was no cheating by including bits of water chestnut or ginger in this dumpling mix! The only downside is that the skin was actually a bit too sticky as a result of having been over-steamed, meaning that the skin stuck to the bamboo steamer as you tried to pick up a dumpling. The structural integrity of the dumpling was less than ideal!

Glutinous rice in lotus leaf, $8.80
Glutinous rice in lotus leaf, $8.80

I absolutely adore lor mai gai – or as described in English Glutinous rice in lotus leaf. I remember my mother making lor mai gai when I was a child – making three or four dozen at a time to freeze for future meals, or to give away to friends or family. As I got older, I helped her with bits and pieces along the way but never learned how to make it from start to finish. I regret not having the opportunity to learn from her before she passed away, as I’ll have to cobble together tips from different recipes to come up with my own bastardised version now.

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As my mother always said though, it’s all about the ingredients. “Mine are a lot better than what you would find at yum cha,” she used to say. “They overload theirs with rice, but I only use enough to wrap up all my ingredients – lup cheong, chicken, mushrooms, cabbage, a quails egg.”

While Tim Ho Wan aren’t quite as generous with their ingredients as my mother used to be, their lor mei gei is still well worth ordering. The chicken pieces inside are deliciously braised and tender, and they’re generous in their serving size.

Vermicelli roll with shrimp, $7.80
Vermicelli roll with shrimp, $7.80

K and I finished the savoury component of our brunch with one of the more disappointing dishes of the meal – the Vermicelli roll with shrimp. Even though we were one of the first customers of the day, the edges of the vermicelli roll had somehow dried out, meaning it wasn’t as soft and slippery as it should be as parts of it were much too hard and chewy. I think this negative experience was an anomaly though – we’ve been back to Tim Ho Wan since this first visit, and the sesame vermicelli roll was excellent!

Mango sago pomelo, $6
Mango sago pomelo, $6

I insisted on ordering dessert even though K had reached his limits, claiming that I had ordered too much food. You always have dessert though right? We shared a mango sago pomelo – sweet with a slight tart tang. It’s quite a refreshing dessert that works quite well as a palate cleanser to finish off your meal.

Since that first visit, K and I have been back to Tim Ho Wan twice – once with friends, and once with a larger family group. Most of the dumplings and dim sum are superb, but I remained unimpressed with the radish cake, and don’t even get me started on how terrible the braised chicken feet were. If I can make one recommendation, it’s to order carefully when you go to Tim Ho Wan – not all dishes are created equal. Still, you can’t go past those BBQ pork buns – I’ll be back for those at least!

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