After queuing on the street, diners are sat next to strangers in the cramped Hong Kong restaurant before rinsing their own cutlery. Welcome to the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred experience.
Ho Hung Kee (Ho Hung’s restaurant) was first awarded a coveted star in 2011 and on any given day is packed with local and foreign diners ordering bowls of wonton or fried flat noodles with beef for around HK$35 — less than US$5.
Wontons, a traditional dish served in Hong Kong and in China’s southeastern province of Guangdong, are similar to dumplings but their skin uses less dough, into which succulent shrimp and pork servings are wrapped.
Like hundreds of other Hong Kong “tea restaurants” or cha chaan teng in the Cantonese dialect, Ho Hung Kee also serves quick, simple dishes ranging from congee and fried rice to a selection of Western-style sandwiches.
Squeezing onto tables with strangers is a normal dining experience in the cramped restaurant that seats about 50, nestled between towers of retail in the teeming shopping district of Causeway Bay.
Chefs start from 7am to batter shrimp and wrap wontons for the roughly 1,000 customers served daily at the family-run restaurant, which began life as a humble street stall in the 1940s before it opened up as a full shop in 1964.
Patty Ho, the daughter-in-law of the restaurant’s founders and its current owner, said she has stuck to original recipes because she wants customers to experience a “traditional eating culture”.
“More modern restaurants have already changed the culture of making wontons, where they only use shrimp, but we have continued to use our original recipe which includes pork, which preserves the meaty flavor,” Ho told AFP.
She believes that staying true to tradition was one of the reasons Ho Hung Kee was awarded a star.
“They must have recognized our methods,” she said of the anonymous Michelin inspectors. “The fact that such a local shop was awarded a Michelin star, it is a recognition of Hong Kong’s dining culture.”
Taiwanese diner Jerry Lin, 55, arrived at the restaurant early to avoid the lunchtime crowds.
“I have tried other Michelin restaurants in Shanghai, but this is a restaurant that is very accessible for normal people, we really like it,” he said.
“The price is great for a Michelin-starred restaurant and the taste is really good,” 45-year-old Riamida Ichsami from Indonesia said, while waiting outside Ho Hung Kee with her family five minutes after it opened.
Michelin guide’s international director Michael Ellis said it was a surprise for diners to discover inexpensive starred restaurants in the Asian financial hub, which is better known for its courting of expensive luxury experiences.
“To have a one-star experience for around HK$50 is something unique to Hong Kong,” Ellis told AFP. “You do have, at extremely affordable prices, just some absolutely stunning food.
“Obviously it’s going to be cramped quarters, you’re going to be waiting in line, you’ll rinse your eating utensils with hot tea before you eat.”
Ellis was speaking after Michelin awarded 10 new restaurants with a one-star rating in the fifth edition of its guide for Hong Kong and Macau for 2013, where the cachet of the star continues to carry allure for diners.
Ho Hung Kee, along with dim sum restaurant Tim Ho Wan and Pang’s Kitchen, a new addition to the list, make up “the least expensive, most affordable starred experience” in the world, Ellis said, with dishes for as little as US$4 to US$8.