Celebrated dim sum chain Tim Ho Wan brings a taste of southern China to Honolulu
By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 14, 2018
I fell hopelessly in love with dim sum a decade ago when I was stranded in Guangzhou, China — the mecca of this celebrated style of southern Chinese cuisine.
Unable to get a flight out of the country during a winter storm, I holed up in a hotel room devoid of heat or hot water. Few places in the city had heating, except for the restaurant next door — an oasis of warmth generated by steaming dim sum, hot pots of tea and a crush of diners.
Dim sum didn’t exactly save my life, but it did raise my core temperature and tickled my fancy.
The literal translation of the Cantonese phrase dim sum is “little hearts,” which perfectly reflects the affection many have for this unique dining experience. Throughout the meal, bite-sized dishes ranging from savory steamed buns to delectable glutinous rice cakes are delivered to diners upon bamboo steam baskets or small plates at breakneck speed. Due to the size of the dishes, diners can sample a wide variety of southern China’s most beloved foods.
While many restaurants both in and outside of China have dim sum on offer, among the most famous purveyors is Hong Kong’s Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wan.
American dim sum devotees need not book a trip to Hong Kong to sample the chain’s much-lauded take on this Chinese classic. That’s because Tim Ho Wan has now landed stateside, with a newly opened second location in Honolulu’s Royal Hawaiian Center. (The first is in New York City.)
The credo of Tim Ho Wan’s founders is to offer diners five-star hotel-quality dim sum at an affordable price. Whether they’ve succeeded in that pricing scheme at the Waikiki Beach location is a matter of perspective, as each serving ranges from $4.50 to $5.75 — a bit higher than the going rate for dim sum in Honolulu’s Chinatown.
Diners can observe the dim sum “specialists” as they prepare each dish from scratch, thanks to the restaurant’s open-concept design.
Dim sum dishes fall into a handful of categories: steamed buns, dumplings, rice rolls, sweets and everything else.
My favorite dim sum dish is har gow, or steamed shrimp dumplings ($5.25 for four). Each dumpling contains a complete, immaculately fresh shrimp encased in an opaque rice wrapper. The dumpling wrappers at Tim Ho Wan are the most delicate I’ve had at a dim sum restaurant.
Shrimp serves as the base for several other must-try dishes. For a little veggie twist on the classic har gow, try gow choi gau, or steamed shrimp and chive dumplings ($5.50 for three). The shu mai, another variety of traditional Chinese dumplings, offers a foray into the realm of surf-and-turf by featuring both steamed pork and shrimp ($5.25 for four).
Tim Ho Wan serves up more than just dumplings. If you’re looking for some crunch, bak fa zeen yeung kei ji, or deep-fried eggplant filled with shrimp ($5.25 for three), features thick medallions of Asian eggplant covered with a whipped shrimp melange, fried to a delicious crisp. Also on offer is a blanched lettuce dish ($4.50) — which I did not order but is extremely popular in China.
The restaurant’s unique take on a dim sum standard is the char siu bao, or baked barbecue pork buns ($5.75 for three). In China, these buns (made with rice flour and stuffed with barbecued shredded pork in sweet sauce) are usually steamed, as ovens are not as commonly used in Chinese cuisine. However, the chefs of Tim Ho Wan have chosen to bake the buns, giving this venerable Cantonese dish a unique and crispy exterior.
No dim sum outing would be complete without a plate of chicken feet ($4.50) — if for no other reason than that a dim sum restaurant is one of the few locations where one can order this unusual cut of meat. Tim Ho Wan’s chicken feet are braised in sauce made of abalone, a type of sea snail prized in Cantonese cuisine. As the feet are steamed instead of fried, the flesh was more firm, and the abalone made for a fresher, lighter taste.
A full meal for two at Tim Ho Wan will run about $20 to $25 per person. However, the quality and freshness of the ingredients make the dim sum here superior to anything you’d find elsewhere in Honolulu.
Luckily, visiting Tim Ho Wan to carry on a love affair with dim sum is a lot simpler than being stranded in China in the middle of winter.
Tim Ho Wan
Location: Inside the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, 2233 Kalakaua Ave., Ste. B303, Honolulu, Hawaii.
Hours: Open seven days a week, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Prices: $4.50-$5.75 per dish. Parking ramp validation with meal.
Directions: To enter the ramp, take Royal Hawaiian Avenue toward the beach, which turns into the entrance to Sheraton Waikiki. Entry into the ramp is on the right, just after you pass a busy pedestrian crosswalk.
Information: (808) 888-6088. timhowanusa.com