Where: 85 Fourth Avenue, New York, NY 10003
Crowd: Young, pork bun-lovin’ foodies
Vibe: Dim sum house for a new generation
Standout dish: Baked roast pork bun
I arrive at Union Square on the N with no local train in sight. My always-prompt dinner date is already at Tim Ho Wan, so I decide to speed-walk to 10th Street instead of waiting. As I rush down Fourth Avenue, I keep trying to remember what used to be in the space. I went to college in the neighborhood, but right now, the name escapes me. It’s not all that important though, considering my current goal is Michelin-starred dim sum.
I get to the corner of 10th and 4th short of breath, but just on time. As we work our way to the hostess, my friend goes “Do you remember when this used to be Spice?” That’s it! The space has gone from serving mediocre Thai food to pork buns with a cult-like following, which is quite the upgrade. Unfortunately, there’s heavy congestion near the hostess desk and it takes a few minutes to check in because she’s also running guests to their tables. Considering the huge buzz and long lines — this is the first US location of the famed Hong Kong eatery, after all — I thought there would be more staff.
We’re seated at a two-top in the middle of the room. Decor-wise, Tim Ho Wan is nothing like the giant dim sum palaces in Chinatown — no large round tables or, more importantly, rolling carts. The space is heavy on light wood with a stretch of bright red banquette seating in the back with some gold decor right above.
To order, we write on a paper menu that’s dropped off at the table as soon as we sit down. The first thing we do is check off one plate of the baked roast pork buns. I had these years ago in Hong Kong and hope they live up to my memories. My friend remarks that prices are definitely higher than usual for dim sum — items average to $4.50 each, which brings our tab to the 50 dollar mark. Expensive by Chinatown standards, but definitely a steal when you consider how much a Michelin meal typically sets you back.
A server picks up our order sheet and walks away, only to return in a few minutes with bad news — they’re out of the chicken feet and turnip cake, two of our favorite dim sum staples. We’re a little bummed, but look on the bright side — at least it wasn’t the pork buns!
Our tea arrives, but we get distracted by a server who is parading around the room with a giant platter of pork buns. Our eyes follow as he drops them off at tables all around us — some diners have literally ordered a plate per person, which on second thought, is a smart move. Luckily, we’re part of this round and a trio of golden-brown buns, piping hot from the oven, land in between us. They’re every bit as good as the ones in HK. The topping is crumbly and flaky, the bread is soft and the meaty filling isn’t overwhelming sweet. I’m in pork bun heaven.
The other dishes come at a fast and furious pace: sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf, two steamed rice rolls (one roast pork, one shrimp), the only-available-in-NYC French toast and vegetarian spring rolls, followed by steamed egg cake, spare ribs, shrimp dumplings and finally shu mai. Our tiny table is too packed to fit them all so servers make room by stacking baskets on top of each other. The rice rolls and dumplings are visibly smaller than the ones we get in Chinatown, but what they lack in size, they make up for in quality. Exquisitely thin and nearly translucent wrappers hold meat that’s steamed just right.
The only category that fell flat for us was desserts. Unfortunately, the egg cake was dry and didn’t have much flavor, but it was still miles better than the French toast, which was almost too soggy and greasy to stomach.
It doesn’t take us long to fill up, but we do pretty well for two people, finishing all but two dumplings and a few ribs. It’s still early, so we decide to make up for the mediocre dessert by popping over to Momofuku Milk Bar for a sweet nitecap.
Disclaimer: VIVA was a guest of Tim Ho Wan, however opinions and comments made by the writer remain unbiased and independent.
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