Jennifer Lieu with a char siu bao ($5.75 for three) from Tim Ho Wan. This is baked with a sweet crust, like pineapple bao.

Chinee like me: Dinner at Tim Ho Wan Waikiki

The Hawaii Chinese Dinner Society searches for the dim sum of all things
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Non-Chinese readers may not know this, but when Chinese people criticize you, they’re not doing it to bring you down, but because they want you to succeed. Why do you think the Tiger Mom exists? They’re pushing their kids to be hyper-achieving, musically talented professionals that they can be proud of.

Thus when Will Chen yells at me that I’m the “worst Chinese ever,” I know he’s lovingly encouraging me to learn my culture and Mandarin beyond “delicious” and “I have no friends.”

Keep this in mind when I talk about the newest dim sum restaurant on the scene, Tim Ho Wan, which opened in Waikiki last week in Royal Hawaiian Center. This is the 46th restaurant in the dim sum empire, which originated in Hong Kong as "the world's cheapest Michelin-star restaurant." 

I had gone on grand opening day, which featured the original chefs, Mak Kwai Pui and Leung Fai Keung, so of course the dumplings were cooked to perfection with thin delicate skins and fillings that popped with freshness. Now the challenge begins, as the restaurant waits for their look fun machine and the kitchen strives to replicate Mak and Leung’s work.

Like the other restaurants, you can't make reservations, so be prepared to stand in line. Tip: Go for dinner, as the line seems to be much quicker then. Most people associate dim sum with lunch, so that’s when you’ll find a longer wait. 

I returned with the Hawaii Chinese Dinner Society to taste as much as we could. Being Chinese, we went in knowing we’d be picking things apart, but being reasonable, we understood that the restaurant has only been open a week and is still short-staffed. Here are a few things we ate, and we tried almost everything but the chow mein and the jook (and the look funn and mochi rice, since those aren’t available yet).

The siu mai ($5.25) are filled with pork and shrimp, and we liked that you can see those chunks of whole shrimp sticking out. 
Har gow ($5.25), the shrimp dumpling standard by which all dim sum restaurants are judged. The wrappers are thicker than on opening day but the flavor is good.
Chive and shrimp dumpling ($5). These need more shrimp for flavor since each bite is mostly chives. 
Braised chicken feet in abalone sauce ($4.50). Wilbur Wong had been to Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong and noted that the chicken feet there were tough — that may be a style of cooking chicken feet there, as I had HK coworkers who ate their chicken feet that way. Here, the feet are the same: they aren't fall-off-the-bone tender like other dim sum restaurants. It's important to note that they're served in abalone sauce, not just any kind of gravy, and that sauce is delicious (as are the peanuts).
Steamed rice with chicken ($5.25). This was a simple dish of just rice and chicken, with hints of ginger. But beyond that, it wasn't flavored, so we think you need to add shoyu to taste. Or that fab abalone sauce. It took a while for us to figure out, but those squiggly things are mushrooms.
Deep fried mochi dumplings filled with pork and dried shrimp ($4.75). We weren't sure why they were white, as these are usually golden brown, but they tasted fine. We joked that the oil in the kitchen must be clean and new, unlike the Chinatown restaurants, which is why they aren't brown. Just kidding!
Pan fried turnip cake ($4.75) was a little too soft so it was hard to pick up with our chopsticks. We did like that the radish is rated a little more coarsely, so it provided texture.
Non-Chinese people have no idea why we eat blanched lettuce ($4.50), but it's usually a side dish boiled in oil and water, then flavored with sesame oil, oyster sauce and/or shoyu. This wasn't served with the sesame oil or oyster sauce, so we doused it in shoyu. You probably don't need to order this unless you have a vegetarian in the group.
Osmanthus jelly ($4.50) with goji berries is a nice, light way to end the meal. Osmanthus is a sweet-smelling and tasting flower used in tea. When I first ate it, it was easy to pick up with chopsticks; the second time, it kept breaking. So you may need a fork.
The steamed egg cake ($4.75) was one of our favorite things, as it was light and airy but had a more intense brown sugar flavor. 

Across the board, we agreed that the flavors and textures weren’t bold like the Chinese food we are used to — they were soft, almost too delicate, as if to cater to Japanese tastes. When the flavor was more pronounced, it tended to be sweet, which is often more for Western tastes. But being located in Waikiki, they’re not catering to Chinese people, but to tourists and the occasional local. If you’re Chinese and looking for Chinese food, you naturally go to Chinatown. If you’re Chinese and you happen to be in Waikiki, you might go to Tim Ho Wan. Wilbur Wong, the only one of us to have eaten at the original Tim Ho Wan, noted that the style at this Waikiki spot was a little closer to Hong Kong quality than the kind of dim sum we're used to, which is something to consider.

You know this because there's no English yellow mustard offered as a condiment. You can use the chili sauce and the housemade shoyu instead, and that shoyu is actually really good, even without a spicy partner.

The prices are higher than dim sum in Chinatown, but considering the Waikiki premium, they aren’t that bad. We paid $33 per person, and part of that was buying pots of premium chrysanthemum tea ($5.50 each), which is something we did balk at even though it admittedly was good. The service was also good, and even better if you speak Chinese. The consensus was that no one’s mind was blown, but the food was adequate enough that we’d all be willing to go back to try it again once all the menu items are available, and the kinks are worked out. We hope they succeed.

Tim Ho Wan
Royal Hawaiian Center
2233 Kalakaua Ave, Suite B303