HONG KONG: 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, which is 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 7:00 am 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 flavour,” 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 recognised 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 HK$30 to HK$60.
Tim Ho Wan is famous for its steamed dumplings and its barbecue pork bun, all staple dim sum selections, while Pang's Kitchen serves home-style renditions of Cantonese cuisine with specialties including baked fish intestines in a clay pot and seasonal snake soup.
However, the guide is not without its critics, who question whether the most deserving eateries have been recognised or if the food quality of Hong Kong's cheaper restaurants can compare to ones in Europe despite the price difference.
“I've eaten at the one-star Benoit in Paris, and it's on another level, in terms of quality of food, service and ambience, to Tim Ho Wan,” wrote the South China Morning Post's food and wine editor, Susan Jung, soon after the 2013 guide was launched in December.
The Michelin guide has for more than a century recommended restaurants throughout Europe and now covers 23 countries across three continents.
It gives one star for “a very good restaurant in its category”, two for “excellent cooking, worth a detour”, and the top three stars for “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. Hong Kong has four three-star restaurants.
“After our restaurant got one Michelin star, we have seen a lot more people come in, not just people from Southeast Asia, but people from Europe and the US have also increased,” Patty Ho said.
Ho Hung Kee has braved the city's notoriously high rents to open a second branch in a gleaming shopping mall to handle the influx of customers who discovered the restaurant through the guidebook. The new branch offers a wider selection but at the same price range.
"We hope that by increasing the selection, customers will spend more," she said.