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Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Yum cha in Hong Kong: Tim Ho Wan and Lin Heung Tea House

Steamed sponge cake and buns at Lin Heung Tea House, Hong Kong

Where is the best yum cha in Hong Kong? For many, the answer is immediate: Tim Ho Wan. This small and non-assuming yum cha house shot to fame in 2010 when it was awarded a coveted Michelin star. Owner Mak Kwai Pui had credentials behind him. He was the ex-head dim sum chef at the Four Season's hotel restaurant Lung King Heen. He opened the first Tim Ho Wan restaurant in 2009. Suddenly it was heralded as the cheapest Michelin-star restaurant in the world.

Today there are five Tim Ho Wan outlets spread across Hong Kong and a further four in Singapore. The queues are relentless at all of them. There are no bookings. You'll have to turn up and just join the queue.

One Michelin star yum cha at Tim Ho Wan, Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong
Tables and chairs inside Tim Ho Wan at Sham Shui Po

Sometimes you'll get lucky, and if you arrive outside of peak hours you'll be able to walk straight in. After a day of shopping in Sham Shui Po we realised that the original Tim Ho Wan outlet was only a few blocks away and managed to walk straight in at 3pm. We'd only eaten a few hours ago and we weren't hungry, but facts like that would always be irrelevant on this holiday eating-fest.

Har gow prawn dumplings at the Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wan, Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong
Har gow prawn dumplings HK$25 / AU$3.60

For most Australians, yum cha is all about the mad chaos of yum cha trolleys circling the dining room. In Hong Kong however, these are seen as gauche and old-fashioned, with the majority using a la carte menus instead. This means your food is cooked to order as and when you require. It also means less heartache as you wait for the har gow trolley to finally appear.

Our har gow order is the first to arrive, plump pleated purses cloaked in steam. The skins are thin and slightly sticky. The prawns are fat and chunky in size.

Pork liver and pork stomach siu mai at the Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wan, Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong
Pork liver and pork stomach siu mai HK$25 / AU$3.60

Did you know that slices of pork liver on pork mince are the original siu mai, a small side dish served with tea? Tim Ho Wan is one of the few yum cha houses in Hong Kong to still serve this old-style dim sum. It's rustic in appearance but there's a deft elegance to its flavour, the sweet softness of the pork amplified by the thin slice of liver and the tenderly simmered pork stomach.

The famous baked barbecue pork bun at the Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wan, Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong
Baked barbecue pork bun HK$18 / AU$2.60

But the most famous dish at Tim Ho Wan has to be their baked barbecue pork buns. They arrive as a trio although one could easily be tempted to polish off all three. It's a polo or pineapple bun,  a sweet yeasted bun covered in a sugary crust.

Inside the bun you'll find a filling of chopped char siu pork in a sweet and sticky sauce. And the verdict? It's kinda incredible actually. I had expected to be disappointed after all the hype, but there's a magnificence about the fluffy bun, the juicy roast pork, and the distinct crunch of buttery sugar that combines and contrasts all at the same time.

The price is pretty stupefying too. It's less than 90c per bun. I should have ordered and eaten three.

Inside the baked barbecue pork bun at the Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wan, Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong
Inside the baked barbecue pork bun

Lin Heung Tea House

Entrance to Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Lin Heung Tea House

But if I were to name my favourite place for yum cha in Hong Kong, it would have to be Lin Heung. This old skool tea house dates back to 1928 and it ended up being my most memorable Hong Kong highlight of our trip.

Tea, dim sum and newspapers at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Tea, dim sum and newspapers 

It's important to remember that yum cha wasn't always the convivial weekend catch-up we associate with it today. Yum cha in its original form was about tea and a small snack for breakfast, usually eaten very early in the morning by workers before they started their day. Lin Heung maintains this traditional clientele. Sure the place gets crowded with Lonely Planet-reading tourists by midday, but if you arrive at 7.30am like we did, you'll find yourself immersed in a room full of Hong Kong locals, mostly men, and the majority aged over forty.

Noone's here for conversation. Noone's here to cluck over the grandkids. It's about tea. A snack or two. And reading the newspaper. 

Rinsing tea pots and cups with hot water at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Rinsing our tea pots and cups with hot water

Tea is fundamental to the experience. Choose your brew and watch the entire ritual unfurl. The tea man on the floor will rinse your tea pots and cups with hot water, a courtesy to make sure everything is clean and sanitised.

First tea flush at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Doing the first flush 

He'll then do a first flush of your tea, a rapid pouring of hot water over your tea leaves to "shock" them open. The water is poured out and then a second pot of water is poured to begin your first brew.

Pouring tea at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Pouring tea from our "cup-pot"

I loved the guy in charge of tea the morning we dined. He was old, wizened and looked like he'd worked here for half his life. His uniform - marked with his own employee number - was well-worn and weathered. He was quiet, patient and ever-observant, immediately alert to any tea pot that required refilling no matter where it was in the cavernous dining room. And that kettle was the biggest I'd seen. It must have weighed several kilos but he poured the  boiling water with grace, never spilling a drop.

Yum cha trolley at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Yum cha trolley

Lin Heung still uses yum cha trolleys, seen as old-fashioned in Hong Kong. The women in charge of the yum cha trolleys have been here forever too. Pig Flyin' recognised almost all of them. They're notoriously surly too, easily frustrated by questions and exasperated by tourists who don't understand Chinese. They're here to dispense dumplings as fast as they can, with a barking efficiency that is as amusing as it is petrifying.

Bamboo steamer baskets with dumplings at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Bamboo baskets filled with dumplings

Fish ball dumplings at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Fish ball dumplings 鯪魚球

Unless you're in a group of six people, chances are you'll find yourself parked at a table that instantly becomes communal. Every seat is money and so we had our breakfast with a mix of senior citizens, none of whom paid us much attention.

Pork stomach siu mai at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Pork stomach siu mai 豬肚燒賣

We ordered far more food than any other gathering. Most patrons will languidly snack on one or two steamer baskets as they sip their tea and read the paper. We stood out in our voracious appetite for breakfast.

We feasted on hearty mounds of fish ball dumplings, traditional siu mai topped with pork stomach, and the more recognisable wrapped siu mai, called dry siu mai here because it's steamed in a basket on paper, not sitting in a dish moistened with water.

Dry siu mai at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Dry siu mai 牛肉乾蒸燒賣

Dim sum on the yum cha trolley at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Waiting for more dim sum from the approaching yum cha trolley

The yum cha trolleys do circuits of the room but once demand outpaces supply, diners have no qualms in chasing after trolley in pursuit of dishes. It's quite a sight watching a mob of hungry diners urgently waving dockets in the face of the trolley lady. Occasionally people will queue at the kitchen door, and we watched some dishes get depleted before they'd even moved two feet from the kitchen.

Fish maw with chicken at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Fish maw with chicken

Rustic is the name of the game here. That means dishes of fish maw (the fish's air bladder) braised until soft and slippery, cooked with chunks of chicken and Chinese shiitake mushroom.

Rice noodles with pork liver at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Ju cheung fun rice noodles with pork liver 黃沙豬潤腸

And forget about cheung fun rice noodles with prawns or beef. Here the most prized variation is the one served with pork liver, another textural contrast of silky rice noodles wrapped around earthy hunks of pork liver.

Towers of bamboo steamers on the yum cha trolley at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Towers of bamboo steamers on the yum cha trolley

Fried fish cake with pork rind wrapped in Chinese cabbage at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Fried fish cake with pork rind wrapped in Chinese cabbage

We pick our way through thick slabs of fried fish cake, wrapped up with pork rind and held together with soft steamed leaves of Chinese cabbage.

Beef offal with puffed pork rind at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Beef offal with puffed pork rind 牛雜豬皮

And I'm loving the beef offal here too, resplendent in its golden hue, that's been slow-cooked to a melting tenderness.

Yum cha trolley getting refills from the kitchen at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Yum cha trolley getting refills from the kitchen

Steamed dumplings in bamboo baskets on the yum cha trolley at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Steamed dumplings in bamboo baskets

Duck feet with pomelo skin at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Duck feet with pomelo skin 柚皮炆鴨掌

Yum cha ain't complete without a steamer of chicken feet, I say, but here we get to upgrade to a basket filled with duck feet. The slender claws aren't as fatty as chicken feet but they've soaked up the soy sauce just the same. It's served with pomelo skin, the thick pith soaked, fried and then braised in soy liquid. The skin changes so it becomes more like a sponge, soaking up all the braising liquid and imparting a faint citrusy tang.

Steamed pork meatballs with quail egg at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Steamed pork meatball with quail egg 鵪鶉蛋燒賣

Steamed pork meatballs are dressed up with quail eggs and we also relish a soup dumpling, a kind of Cantonese precursor to Shanghainese xiao long bao.

Soup dumpling in broth at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Soup dumpling in broth

The dumpling is huge, packed with pork mince and a pocket full of soup. The clear broth is wondrous too, sweet and fragrant with a nourishing feel.

Pork inside the soup dumpling at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Pork inside the soup dumpling

Yum cha trolley at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Is it dessert time already?

Deep fried egg crullers at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Deep fried egg crullers 蛋散

I may have exhibited crazy eyes at the sight of these deep fried egg crullers. They're light, soft and airy with a crisp edge and a slight eggy-ness. A drizzle of honey adds a touch of sweetness.

Steamed sponge cakes and buns at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Steamed sponge cakes and buns

I braved the crowds to score ourselves a serve of mah lai goh, or Malay steamed sponge cake.

Mah lai goh steamed sponge cakes at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Mah lai goh steamed sponge cake 馬拉糕

It's a dish my grandma used to make, and with that first bite of fluffy steamed cake, I'm whisked back to my childhood.

Yum cha docket under the glass at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
Yum cha docket kept underneath the glass = no risk of tea spillage on the docket!

I could have spent hours here watching the locals pass through. It's one of the few places that resonated as such a unique Hong Kong experience. I was mesmerised by everything, from the crotchety yum cha trolley ladies, to the dockets kept under the glass tabletop to protect it from tea spillage, to the hardworking tea pot man. I loved that everyone had their heads buried in newspapers, that the room was loud and chaotic, and that every table was communal.

Our yum cha ended up at H$260 or AU$36 between three people. Bargain.

If you go to Hong Kong, make this the top of your list. And get there early. It's worth it. 

View into the kitchen at Lin Heung Tea House in Central, Hong Kong
View into the narrow kitchen

The usual crowd at Lin Heung Tea House in Hong Kong - men with newspapers
Forget Instagram - everyone at Lin Heung is staring into their newspaper

Yum cha crowd with newspapers at Lin Heung Tea House in Hong Kong
Yum cha crowd with newspapers

Giant kettles of boiling water for refilling tea pots at Lin Heung Tea House in Hong Kong
Giant kettles of boiling water for refilling tea

Lin Heung Tea House
160-164 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2544 4556

Opening hours:
Yum cha daily 6am - 3.30pm
Dinner 6pm - 11pm

Tim Ho Wan
Ground floor, 9-11 Fuk Wing Street, Sham Shui Po, Kowloon, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2788 1226
Open daily 8am - 9.30pm 

Also at:
Hong Kong station - Shop 12A, Podium Level 1, IFC Mall, Central, Hong Kong
Open daily 9am - 9pm

North Point - Shop B, C & D at Sea View Building, 2-8 Wharf Road, Hong Kong
Open daily 10am - 9.30pm

Mong Kok - Shop G72A and C, Ground floor, Olympian City 2, 18 Hoi Ting Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong
Open daily 10am - 9.30pm

Tseung Kwan O - Shop 49, Ground floor, Popcorn 2, 9 Tong Chun Street, New Territories, Hong Kong
Open daily 10am - 9.30pm

>> Read the next Hong Kong post: Roast goose and suckling pig - three places to get them
<< Read the first Hong Kong post: Ronin modern Japanese seafood

Related Grab Your Fork posts:
Hong Kong - Ronin - modern Japanese seafood
Hong Kong - Wet markets and street markets in Central district
35 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 7/02/2014 11:02:00 pm


  • At 7/02/2014 11:10 pm, Anonymous Minh said…

    Helen, as always love your attention to all the small details!! Killing me, I'm dying for a trip back to HK now.

  • At 7/02/2014 11:24 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I went to Lin Heung a few years ago and didn't like it but I've really learnt to appreciate rustic and traditional food so I'm dying to visit again, especially after your post!

  • At 7/03/2014 12:06 am, Anonymous ragingyoghurt said…

    truly exceptional photos! i have immense dumpling envy! (especially for that immense soup dumpling.)

  • At 7/03/2014 12:15 am, Blogger Vivian - vxdollface said…

    Craving dim sim now! I love the extensive variety of dim sim in HK.. mm

  • At 7/03/2014 12:56 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    demand outpaces supply*

  • At 7/03/2014 1:25 am, Blogger Sherrie @ Crystal Noir said…

    Wish they had those BBQ buns in Sydney for yum cha!

  • At 7/03/2014 6:21 am, Blogger Ramen Raff said…

    Love the old skool yum cha in HK! But that Tim Ho Wan bbq pork was all kinds of awesome! I remember queueing up for it for 1 hr plus on its first few months of opening. It was insane but worth the wait.

  • At 7/03/2014 9:44 am, Anonymous john | heneedsfood said…

    We walked straight into Tim ho Wan as well, the one at HK Station. I love your shots of the old dude at the tea place. I can only see myself spilling that tea all over the table with those awkward cup-pots!

  • At 7/03/2014 9:57 am, Anonymous chocolatesuze said…

    ooh i haven't had mah lai goh in ages!

  • At 7/03/2014 10:54 am, Blogger Jacq said…

    I loved the Tim Ho Wan pork buns and wouldn't hesitate to eat a whole plate! Need to check out that old skool yum cha next time I'm in HK

  • At 7/03/2014 12:11 pm, Anonymous Berny @ I Only Eat Desserts said…

    Once you go yumcha in HK you can't go back -esp if it's Tim Ho Wan ;) Pork buns were my fav too and I was so shocked at how cheap everything was. $14 AUD for lunch and dinner (love takeaway haha)

  • At 7/03/2014 12:24 pm, Anonymous Alice said…

    On my foodie bucket list. Always has been, but I'm craving yum cha, especially now. Including a trip to HK & my fave eating spots too! Yum :)

  • At 7/03/2014 2:14 pm, Blogger Von said…

    I visited Tim Ho Wan for the first time this year, and was a little disappointed because I thought it'd be amazing (with all the hype around it!). I did quite like the pork buns though- they were so soft and delicate! :) I love yum cha in HK (so much more than in Australia)- there's always so much more variety and creative dishes that you just can't get in Sydney!

  • At 7/03/2014 3:24 pm, Blogger Cassie | Journey From Within said…

    OMG those mah lai go shots!! looks so good to eat right now with the steam!! :D

  • At 7/03/2014 4:25 pm, Anonymous ChopinandMysaucepan said…

    Dear Helen,

    Birdcages hanging from the ceiling, who would have noticed that!

  • At 7/03/2014 5:25 pm, Anonymous Olivia @ mademoiselleinsydney said…

    Wow!!! I have never seen steamed buns with a sugary crust!!!!!! These look awesome! (plus, BBQ pork have always been my favourite). It's thoughtful they clean your cups :)
    The Deep fried egg crullers are also something I've never seen... :) They look good!

  • At 7/03/2014 8:27 pm, Anonymous Tina@foodboozeshoes said…

    Would love to go to both of these... Good to know there are that many Tim Ho Wan now.

  • At 7/03/2014 8:37 pm, Anonymous Lorinda said…

    I love how many offal dim sums they have on offer at Lin Heung! I am definitely going to be paying them a visit next time I am in HK. Great post!

  • At 7/04/2014 12:07 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    OH MY! When I was in HK, I passed by this place a million times and I still didn't get the chance to have yum cha there. I must go back when I visit HK.

  • At 7/04/2014 10:48 am, Blogger Irene said…

    Tim ho wan's pork buns... Now that even you've said they're worth the hype and incredible, I may need to head over to hk soon!

  • At 7/04/2014 12:27 pm, Anonymous Steph (What the Fork Should I Eat? said…

    I gotta go Tim Ho Wan, everytime I go back visit relatives, I haven't got myself to go.
    Gotta get my ass there this year when I go HK for sure!
    I still wonder, how good can Yum Cha get, it is sooooo popular! haha..

  • At 7/04/2014 5:00 pm, Blogger Unknown said…

    Dear Hellen,

    how beautiful is this post?
    I loved it...I felt like I was there with you.
    I didn't know Chinese eat that much offal an stuff like that. I learnt so much reading your post and I wish I could go soon to Hong Kong to see this "magic" place.

    The only thing that makes me disappointed is that I am GF, so I will never able to enjoy such a delicious meal :( That's a shame!

    I just opened my little blog (www.ontheflavorroad.com) and if you could just find the time to come and say hallo you'd make me happy :)!

    Thank you Hellen for this wonderful post! I'll follow you :*


  • At 7/04/2014 6:16 pm, Blogger Sarah said…

    Love the contrast between the two yum cha places! I love our photos of Lin Heung Tea House, especially the black and white ones - so evocative. I hope I can make it to Hong Kong one day to experience it!

  • At 7/04/2014 7:40 pm, Blogger CQUEK said…

    yum cha my favourite.. all the delicious bun, yummy!

  • At 7/05/2014 9:43 pm, Anonymous gastronomous anonymous said…

    lin heung is definitely one of my favourites! its so rare to find old school dim sum places now. i do like the bbq pork bun at tim ho wan!

  • At 7/05/2014 10:00 pm, Anonymous Gourmet Getaways said…

    In this digital age, trad Chinese cooking is a treasure find! Thanks for showing us there's still something to look forward to when one wants to try authentic, non-fusion cuisine!

    Gourmet Getaways

  • At 7/05/2014 11:04 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I can't believe my relatives in HK have not told me about Lin Heung! Must try it next time I'm back. I wish we had the same range and prices here too.

  • At 7/06/2014 9:01 pm, Anonymous Michael @ I'm Still Hungry said…

    Oh my God it's Tim Ho Wan. Heard way too much about this place. Way. Too. Much.

    Fantastic that I'm going to HK at the end of the year to try it out. Anticipation could not be higher.

  • At 7/07/2014 8:56 am, Blogger MAB vs Food said…

    Love how cheap yum cha is in HK. And those BBQ pork buns from Tim Ho Wan, just amazing!

  • At 7/07/2014 11:16 am, Anonymous Martine @ Chompchomp said…

    All your HK posts are making me want to go back soon! I might be hitting you up for tips before I do!

  • At 7/08/2014 1:26 am, Anonymous Sara | Belly Rumbles said…

    Awesome photos Helen. Cheap and tasty yum cha served with tea excellence and trolly 'dolly' snarling attitude. Love it!!

  • At 7/09/2014 9:29 pm, Anonymous Trisha said…

    I can't even fathom how much stomach space I'll need to fit in all that yum cha fair from HK. I'll most probably eat everything!

  • At 7/20/2014 11:36 pm, Anonymous Amanda @ Gourmanda said…

    I had the best intentions to make it to Tim Ho Wan on my last trip but didn't manage to...that pineapple bun with char siu looks incredible too!

    It's kind of baffling how cheap yumcha is in Hong Kong. If you ordered the same amount here in Australia, you'd be paying $36 per person, not $36 for three people!

  • At 11/06/2014 10:41 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Wish no more!


  • At 10/05/2015 7:03 pm, Blogger CQUEK said…

    Reading all your HKG post.


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