206 Bourke Street Melbourne, Victoria 3000
|Opening hours||Daily 10am-10pm|
|Features||Cheap Eats, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
Peering through the marketing lens, this is Australia's fifth and the world's umpteenth branch of Hong Kong's dim sum hero dubbed the "world's cheapest Michelin starred restaurant".
But drop the PR-tinted glasses and this isn't what you expect a Michelin restaurant to look like. Consider it instead like a shiny machine, one whose function is to convert pork buns into cold hard cash through a sort of diner photosynthesis. It might better form your expectations.
Backstory for those who missed the deluge of press: chef Mak Kwai Pui's 20-seater dim sum restaurant became a global phenomenon in 2009, when the Michelin Guide to Hong Kong gave it a star. In came a Singapore group known for their steroidal growth strategies and franchises fringed with massive queues quickly enveloped Asia, Sydney and, coming soon, Manhattan.
The space itself is nothing if not a monument to function, designed to get as many humans in (but mostly out) as fast as possible. Blondwood tables are Tetris-ed together in a glass terrarium, lit as if for interrogation. The perfume of the former retail space is a haunting aroma of flat-pack furniture.
No licence means it's Chinese tea only and help, summoned by call buttons, comes in the form of waiters as ruthlessly efficient as they are aloof - trained as if to prepare us for a future when robots will rule the floors.
You'll appreciate the mechanics when standing in the line, that's a guarantee. Even when you bust an office early mark to arrive at 5.44pm, the queue is 20 deep. It's here you fill out tick-a-box menus – 25 of Tim Ho Wan's greatest hits – which are cross checked and switched for the bill as soon as you sit. Feel the romance!
You'll order the pork buns. That's a given. And the trio of spherical baked-not-steamed pastries with a sugar-coated shell can be addictive. When perfectly golden (we've had mixed results), the glaze provides audible crackle and the buttery dough, united with a sweeter version of the sticky barbecue pork that fills normal char siu bao, is the right kind of wrong.
Other headliners known as the "heavenly kings" are good, if less essential. The cheung fan filled with pig's liver (those broad rice noodles named for intestines and resembling stuffed squid) are a typical flubbery battle with a subtle iron-rich kick. Pan-fried turnip cake is basically a soft hash brown with a parsnip-like funk. The egg cake is a fat, light and steamy cloud of dark sugary sponge - our pick for dessert over the luminous mango sago that's a gel-ball filled soup in the flavour of tropical fruit bingo.
Arguments for experiencing the Tim Ho Wan way: the flaky spring rolls filled with a light prawn and egg white mousse are like eating crisp clouds. Bok choy hearts come with a sweet-salty and earthy liquor, like a mushroomy masterstock, instead of your heavy slick of oyster sauce. Pork spare ribs get an equally bright saucing – nubs of tender-yet-resistant meat in a black bean sauce with a boozy waft reminiscent of rice wine.
Chicken feet – always a divider – skip the frying stage for a straight slow braise in abalone sauce, leaving them disturbingly intact. Still, the taste is all haunting anise and the tendons are suitably soft.
Staunch points for ordering the fish maw – that spongy fish offal that cooks as you imagine rice packing beads would, with a similarly neutral taste. Sadly ours is a sloppy mess topped with very firm prawn farce.
And there's the rub: if you're going to queue to eat somewhere that's got all the personality of a vending machine, you at least expect consistency.
Our har gao (prawn dumplings), siu mai (here topped with a goji berry) and the vegetarian dumplings exhibit excellent folding work and fresh fillings but ours are bouncy firm, squishy skinned and lack for the flavoursome crunch of coriander root, ginger or garlic.
See also a great lump of rice with lap cheong, chicken and shiitake served mysteriously in a metal can, along with a pleasant congee that's been outclassed by Lawyers Guns and Money.
You can file it under good, not great. Walk, don't run.
Pro tip Usually we'd push for group dining but duos push quickest through the queue.
Go-to dish The crisp-shelled pork buns ($7.80).
Like this Get your luxe cha on at Spice Temple, Thu-Sun, Crown Entertainment Complex, Southbank.