In 1950, a 16-year old Chinese immigrant named Wally Tang was hired by the Choys. Energetic and resourceful, Wally intended to make the most of the opportunity his first job presented, and dedicated himself to learning every aspect of the business, quickly working his way up from the most menial chores to running the kitchen. A mere four years later, he was overseeing the entire restaurant at twenty years of age.
In 1968, Nom Wah lost its lease at 15 Doyers Street which just happened to be the bakery portion of the establishment. Fortunately, they were able to lease the property at 11 Doyers which in turn became the new kitchen, while the restaurant portion remained as it always had been.
In fact, the meandering thoroughfare, more alley than street, can almost be deemed serene by comparison.
Ordinarily, when I set about writing, I am decisive in regard to the direction I'd like to take the reader and shaping a story for me is usually a preconceived notion.
Even though my writing style may be quick and impulsive, rest assured that on some level of consciousness, the thought behind each and every word has been played out repeatedly in advance. Paragraphs come at me in waves; sometimes even while asleep, and typically, the story is written long before I ever set pen to paper.
You see, the subject of this review - Nom Wah Tea Parlor - is an interesting tale in and of itself, and that's before we even touch upon the food aspect of the establishment. Its setting is geographically steeped in history, and much of it leaning towards the macabre.
The ironic thing here is - that weaving both those elements together into an edible tale of fascination is usually where I excel - my niche, so to speak. And the historian in me would love to do so in immense detail, but if I were to embark upon that crusade, I fear we'd miss the point of this piece (which is a review) by getting lost in the backdrop.
That said, I am going to resist my urges and simply take you back a century or so to set the scene, and then relate my thoughts on a current visit to Nom Wah.
Above ground, was no less dangerous. Between 1900 and 1930, the Bloody Angle was the scene of numerous battles between rival Chinese Tong gangs. Shootings were a common occurrence, as were the use of hatchets. In fact, the use of these brutish weapons in cutting men down was so prevalent, that it propelled the term "hatchet men" into the English vocabulary.
As the violence above raged, the tunnels beneath the street became escape routes for murderers and gang members, and often enough, their shadowed entrances were to be the last light of day many would ever see as they met their demise within its darkened depths.
The sheer amount and nature of violence experienced within the diminutive span of Doyers Street defies imagination. To put it into perspective, in 1994 law enforcement officials pronounced that more people died violently at the "Bloody Angle" than at any other intersection in the United States. To further exemplify the horror of that statistic, consider the fact that one can traverse the entire angle in a mere twenty to thirty paces.
And upon this very angle, in the midst of this chaotic and volatile epoch, emerged a newcomer to the scene - Nom Wah Tea Parlor.
Under the Choys' guidance, Nom Wah continued to thrive as a bakery, specializing in a lotus paste and red bean filled pastry known as mooncakes. But beginning in the 1950's, and for the next four decades to follow, the bakery offered dim sum as well, almost as an afterthought.
Although Nom Wah Tea Parlor had been a staple in the community for more than half a century, the eighties took their toll on the historic eatery. A number of bakeries sprang up throughout the community and keeping up with the technology necessary to compete with them proved elusive. Also, the dynamics of the neighborhood was rapidly changing as Tang noticed his client base shifting more from that of a regular crowd towards a more tourist-oriented patron. Together, these factors spelled disaster and Nom Wah's pastry business entered a steady and definite decline.
The writing was on the wall and it was evident the bakery's days were numbered if something wasn't done to remedy the situation. And Tang did just that when he shifted his restaurant's focus from bakery to dim sum. It was a perfect fit for the growing tourist trade and the little restaurant forged ahead with a renewed vigor.
The establishment thrived for the next decade and business was steady. But as the new millennium progressed, Wally Tang just seemed to run out of gas.
By then in his seventies, his ambition waned and somehow just getting by became acceptable. His attention to detail became a bit slipshod and the restaurant was no longer the model of meticulous management it once was. They were even closed by the Health Department a couple of times for violations.
Fortunately, Wally still cared deeply for the establishment and recognized the root of the problem.
The younger Tang relished the opportunity and engaged it with a sense of urgency. He formulated a plan of attack that centered around his desire to bring the stagnating and struggling business into the 21st-century while maintaining its historical flavor. More importantly, he embraced the notion that the food itself could not play second fiddle to the historical backdrop, and would have to stand on its own merits to attract the type of crowds it once did. The wheels of change Wilson Tang set in motion accomplished all of the above.
From November 2010 through February 2011, Nom Wah Tea Parlor underwent drastic renovations, most of which occurred in the kitchen. Equipment which hadn't been replaced in over half a century, were updated with an eye towards the future. Tang also implemented sweeping changes in the menu and the manner in which his dim sum was to be served.
Gone were the metal dim sum carts pushed by women, as were the menu guessing games. Now, everything was to be prepared fresh and cooked to order, with nothing sitting around in a steamer box. This philosophy not only provides a higher quality of food, but ensures less waste, keeping prices affordable for the consumer.
Gone were the metal dim sum carts pushed by women, as were the menu guessing games.
There are fifty options on the paper bilingual menu, each with photos, descriptions and prices. The language barrier is no longer an issue, as you simply circle your desired menu items and before long, plates of food and steamer baskets arrive at your table.
I approached Nom Wah Tea Parlor and stood beneath its faded red sign; the red and white striped awning as I remembered it in so many decades of photographs.
And although I was pleased with the fact that the recent renovation did nothing to desecrate the historical impact of the building's facade, I was wholly unaware the visual eye candy that awaited me within.
Entering Nom Wah Tea Parlor is like exiting a time machine and stepping into a conglomeration of historical eras.
The tin ceiling is early 1900's.
A light blue wooden hutch with a number of shelves and drawers holds a variety of ancient tea boxes, teacups and tea pots, each stoically vying to tell the their version of what transpired in the Roaring Twenties.
There is a 1930's era counter set behind five stools, obviously of 1950's vintage. I can only imagine the tales bandied about between sips of tea while regulars sat atop these teal and stainless thrones.
The red vinyl booths and yellow walls provide a snapshot of the sixties and seventies, and by merely sitting here, one can almost sense the tumultuous winds that swept the nation during those decades of change.
Seated at one of these booths, I was immediately greeted by a waitress and a waiter. Though, the language barrier was obvious, both were friendly and attentive, and did their best to please. Besides, with the new "just circle your choices" style of menu, conversation was not necessary. In this case, words were overrated. Just chew.
I circled my choices and within minutes, plates were arriving hot and fresh.
First to arrive was the Fried Shrimp w/Bean Curd Skin and the "Original" Egg Roll.
The minced shrimp and celery inside the bean curd skin was moist and delicious, while texturally pleasing. In fact, the more it cooled, the crunchier it became and the more I liked it.
As for the Original Egg Roll; well, it was unlike any that I've previously experienced, and in a good way!
Inside, was the typical chicken and vegetable mixture one would expect to find, but that's where the similarities ended.
The mixture is rolled in a egg crepe, covered in a homemade batter and then deep-fried.
Another item prepared differently at Nom Wah than at other venues is the Char Siu Bao, or Roast Pork Bun.
Others I've had elsewhere are more reminiscent of a pastry-like meat patty. These are puffy and white and nearly the size of a softball.
The steamed wheat flour bun was not quite as sweet as I anticipated; perhaps, almost bread-like in integrity. It was an impressive sight and although light and airy, there’s a lot of bun here, folks - maybe too much bun for my tastes.
Next to arrive was the Shrimp Sui Mai and the Shrimp & Snow Pea Leaf Dumplings.
The Sui Mai is minced shrimp within a wonton wrapper. It was delivered in a perfect presentation; steamy and firm, while eliciting a delicate flavor profile. I've had this type of dim sum elsewhere and the textural composition was but a single note.
Here, the variety in size of minced shrimp coupled with the firmness of the wonton, offered a pleasant and interesting mouth feel, albeit delicately flavored. The dish really sprung to life when dabbed with a blend of spicy mustard and duck sauce.
However, by far and away, the star of this show was the Shrimp & Snow Pea Leaf Dumpling. I declare it to be my hands down favorite dish on the menu and perhaps, the best in the city.
Tucked within a home-made open faced wheat wrapper, the minced shrimp bursts forth with a liveliness that is not fishy in any regard, while the snow pea leaf greens elevate the entire taste experience into the stratosphere and assert their dominance without overpowering. I am a lover of greens - broccoli rabe, chard, escarole, etc - and by far, the snow pea leaf green rivaled each. I declare, this is a must try for anyone visiting Nom Wah!
As I washed down the delicious offerings described above with a wonderful chrysanthemum tea, another item sat upon the table waiting to be tasted.
To be honest, I meant to circle the Rice Roll w/ Spare Ribs, but accidentally circled another item - a huge heaping of what appeared to be deep-fried salt and pepper pork chops. I offered no complaints because it was a mistake of my own doing.
Not really wanting to imbibe in another fried food, I thought I’d give it a complimentary try.
In retrospect, I must say that Nom Wah Tea Parlor has indeed regained its former glory. Wilson Tang has done a masterful job raising the quality of the food served and bringing the establishment into the modern era while keeping the ambiance of the past alive and well.
Sure, there are restaurants that may offer a fine dining experience that Nom Wah can’t match. Some are more elegant. Some trendier. Some may even be more superior in terms of flavor. But Nom Wah Tea Parlor is again clicking on all cylinders; serving incredibly tasty dishes at an affordable price within a historical atmosphere. It is the oldest and longest continuously operated dim sum restaurant in Chinatown and is a veritable trip through the best and the worst of the past century. That said, today Nom Wah offers up one of the most palatable values to be found in New York City and that alone should put it at the top of any foodie’s wish list.
13 Doyers Street, New York, NY 10013
Phone: (212) 962-6047
Monday: 10:30 AM - 9:00 PM
Tuesday: 10:30 AM - 9:00 PM
Wednesday: 10:30 AM - 9:00 PM
Thursday: 10:30 AM - 9:00 PM
Friday: 10:30 AM - 10:00 PM
Saturday: 10:30 AM - 10:00 PM
Sunday: 10:30 AM - 9:00 PM