Mak Kwai Pui wasn’t surprised by the blocks-long line to enter his first American outpost of Tim Ho Wan. “In Singapore and Taiwan the waits were four hours,” he says. But he was impressed that they were willing to stand all day (and night) in the cold for one of the dining room’s sixty seats. Mak doesn’t have the patience. “Maybe for an iPhone I’d do it,” he jokes.
On this, his first trip to New York, Mak made time to tour the World Trade Center and visit the Statue of Liberty. However, rather than spend an afternoon wandering Central Park in its autumn glory, he stood at the entrance to take in the sight, then went straight back to work. After relocating last month, Mak had to wake himself up every hour to adjust to the jet lag, but now he’s up at 6 a.m. Then last Friday at 7 a.m., he was joined in the kitchen by Leung Fai Keung, the international dim sum emporium’s co-founder, as the two chefs prepped for breakfast service.
The full dim sum menu — baked barbecue pork buns, steamed pork dumplings with shrimp, chicken feet in abalone sauce — are available from morning through dinner service, as are new exclusive plates created just for the New York market.
“We created the deep-fried vegetable spring rolls and the French toast with custard to accommodate a bigger audience, because we know Americans don’t eat so much meat… but they love fried food,” he says. Still the chefs have created more than 200 dim sum dishes over their career and promise new plates will rotate through the menu over time.
Until the restaurant holds its grand opening at 3 p.m. on January 18, 2017, Tim Ho Wan will close daily from 3-5 p.m. That gives the cooks a chance to have a smoke break and for the servers to change shifts… but it will also help alleviate the crushing line at the door. Until Tim Ho Wan’s second Manhattan location opens — Hawaii comes first next summer, followed by Los Angeles — the wait for a table may not improve.
In Hong Kong, servers at the no-frills, cash only locations, that earned Tim Ho Wan its first Michelin star in 2009, drop dishes with little regard for pacing and pleasantries. Sticky-fingered customers are expected to make do cleaning their own chopsticks and wiping hands with tissues in lieu of napkins. However, in the East Village, staff put a premium on comfort. Diners linger over beer and wine in addition to hot and iced teas, and there’s no discouragement of patrons putting pencil to paper to order a few dishes at a time at their leisure.
On opening day, customers held court in plush booths for hours, stalling the line for one of the dining room’s precious seats.
“We intentionally hired a more diverse staff, and we didn’t want to be part of the Chinatown scene,” Mak says. Still it’s there in Chinatown that Mak has felt most at home during his trip to New York, which concludes this week. He quickly changed from a Midtown hotel to one on Chinatown’s border — there, he recruited an old friend to run the kitchen.
Mak also takes his meals in Chinatown, eating at a favorite dim sum parlor at least once a week, though he won’t say where. “I don’t want to help them advertise,” he says. “All you need to know is here it’s better.”