Tim Ho Wan | Westgate

Let me ask you guys this.

What are some of the greatest affordable restaurants and eateries you’ve dined in?

Crystal Jade? Sure, the dim sum is absolutely sumptuous, not to mention the Chinese dining at Crystal Jade Palace – superb! But it’s not great.

The Soup Spoon? They’ve got some very good soups – the Velvety Mushroom Stroganoff is great, but the rest are quite average, to be honest.

I’m always on the lookout for affordable restaurants that serve great food. What do I mean? Well, it’s simple, really. You know Disney-Pixar’s Ratatouille, when one bite of Remy’s cooking creates fireworks? Yeah, that. Yes, I’m talking about food that stirs up something within – not vomit, by the way – soul food, meals that you remember for the rest of your life just because. Anyone can spend a million bucks at Copenhagen’s Noma or London’s Dinner By Heston Blumenthal, but can you find great eateries for the common man? That’s the challenge, and I suppose that’s what food bloggers try to sieve out, even if their opinions are sometimes skewed.

Is it possible? Sure, it is. I once flew to Hong Kong to eat at two restaurants. True enough, it was a stopover, but I purposely chose a whole day’s layover in order to fit these eateries in. Ah, such is the burden of someone on a limited budget who loves food. I visited Australia Dairy Company and Tim Ho Wan Mongkok, the only one awarded the Michelin star. I had very high expectations, and as far as I’m concerned, these places met them.

Okay, no one is probably going to believe me about Australia Dairy Company but I really have no complaints about the service. I accept it as the way things are operated there, and as part of the authentic Hong Kong experience. Plus, the people who served me were really nice, and I spoke Mandarin which, according to some Singaporean reviews, irk them.

Anyway, as you know, Tim Ho Wan is transitioning from a Hong Kong exclusive to a budding chain with Asia-Pacific ambitions (word on the street is that they’re bound for Australia next). With restaurants in this class, there are economies of scale to be had with expansion. But expansion can be cold and cruel. In a second, the wanderlust of gastronomy can be mercilessly replaced by the mechanical and systematic supply chain management. Words like “central kitchen” and “branches” can be frightening words for discerning individuals like yourself.

“Everything is imported from Hong Kong, so it’s as original as it’s going to be”, they assure us. But those who’ve dined in Mongkok before know the truth. With food, there are so many variables that can affect flavor. In Japan, the water’s very metallic and thin, which offers an added dimension when we have ramen. In Hong Kong, the water’s a little more saline, so and so forth.

And that’s what I mean – you accept that the variables are different, and you appreciate it for what it can be. After all, if all we can do is say, “it’s not as good as the one in Japan, et cetera”, then there’s no value in all this.

Personally, I’ve eaten at Tim Ho Wan several times in Singapore, and I have to say, while some dishes, like the Cheong Fun, are generally foolproof, the Baked Bun with BBQ Pork’s consistency is an issue. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s good, and sometimes, it’s only decent. On this occasion, it was nearly perfect. There was a fragility in the crust that betrayed its aesthetics – firm enough to hold its velvety contents, but delicate enough on the bite, the right balance between sweet and savory.

On the other hand, the Shrimp Dumpling was simply unmemorable, but so are the ones in Hong Kong. This Cantonese dim sum staple is simply not its strongest suit. For more impressive morsels, look to Crystal Jade instead.

Oh, as for the above dish, my mom ordered it. I didn’t touch it because I don’t do century eggs, ever.

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