It took three visits and lots of waiting before I got in— and I didn’t even score a seat. I arrived a half hour before the restaurant opened, at 9:30 a.m., to find the line already extending down 10th Street toward 3rd Avenue. About twenty people were ahead of me, but as I stood nervously waiting, the line grew in the middle as clumps of diners arrived and took their positions with friends who had been saving places. By the time customers were guided inside at precisely at 10 a.m., I learned I would have to wait for a second seating.
Communal dining, even at four-tops, is the rule at most dim sum establishments, a policy more recently adopted by bistros with communal tables. I asked the greeter if I could take the empty seat at a table for four occupied by three diners. She said no, but offered the bar, where I could stand and eat since there are no stools. I readily accepted the arrangement, since it allowed me to peer into the kitchen.
The interior looks very different from the dim sum palaces of Chinatown, Sunset Park, and Flushing. Square tables dominate a room flooded with light, minimally decorated with wooden lattices that divide the main dining room from a smaller side room adorned with stylized dragon medallions. A kitchen that wraps around the main room — largely invisible to most diners — accommodates eight white-coated cooks who worked rapidly, with steely concentration.
The menu is a check-off grid of dim sum listing over twenty varieties, categorized by steamed, pan-fried, baked, deep-fried, and blanched selections, in addition to rice rolls and congee. Portions and prices from $3.75 to $5.50 a plate are comparable to those at local dim sum spots, if a bit more expensive. This made me wonder: How does a business with far fewer seats afford high rents and staff, especially when dim sum is so labor-intensive? (Maybe a price hike looms in the near future.)
I checked off my order and looked on as it was assembled. Giant floppy sheets of what would become noodles were quickly made into steamed shrimp rice rolls. The noodles were thick and opalescent, yet shrimp were smaller than those at Joy Luck Palace or Royal Seafood, both on Mott Street. Nevertheless, these rolls are definitely worth ordering.
Not so the char siu bao, baked pork buns sometimes called Chinese hamburgers. I’d heard a woman in front of me in line raving about them, but when the trio arrived they were smallish, dusted on top with lots of granulated sugar — too sweet by a country kilometer.
I tried to order chicken feet in abalone sauce, but my waitress told me the kitchen had run out. At least they were on the menu. I feared the restaurant would omit things like chicken feet — thought to be unappealing to Western diners, as they had reportedly done with some liver-bearing dim sum sold by the chain in Asia.
The best thing I ate was deep-fried eggplant filled with shrimp, the crisp-skinned purple vegetable presented in three thick slices, each topped with a rubbery shrimp ball. It was pure deliciousness. Steamed beef ball in bean curd skin dressed in a translucent gravy was also appealing. Har gow — shrimp dumplings in the shape of a frilled bonnet —were standard issue.
While I’d gone to Tim Ho Wan with skepticism, I learned that it was on par with dim sum destinations around the city, with some dishes better, others not quite so good. With so many visitors already, why do long waits persist? Diners want to taste for themselves how an import with accolades compares to local fare. Culinary curiosity paired with diners’ quest for value is a powerful force.