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FELL IN LOVE WITH FOOD & WINE

Dim Sum at Nom Wah Tea Parlor

August 24, 2014
The front window at Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Brunch at Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the oldest dim sum shop in Manhattan’s Chinatown 

On our way to the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the oldest dim sum restaurant in Chinatown, we walked through a maze of crowded streets on a Sunday morning until we reached #13 Doyers Street (one of the first three streets in Chinatown, along with Mott and Pell).

Legendary Doyers Street

Legendary Doyers Street

Only one block long, the peculiar street has a sharp 90° curve at its midpoint (called the “bloody angle”) and runs between Pell and Chatham Square (near the Bowery). Doyers Street appears to be pretty sedate—filled with an absurd number of barbershops and hair salons—but has a long, turbulent history. It was once the site of the Tong Gang wars that resulted in numerous shootings in the 20s and 30s. It was supposedly popular with gangs because of its obscuring angle, and its escape tunnels (one of which still exists) that connected buildings.

The street often serves as a backdrop in movies and TV shows because it is so reminiscent of old New York. Ting’s Gift Shop at the corner Pell has been there more than 50 years.

The backstory of Nom Wah

Chinese Immigrants from Canton brought the tradition of dim sum (consumed with tea) to the States. When Nom Wah Tea Parlor first opened in 1920, it was originally a bakery and tea parlor serving pastries, dim sum, and steamed buns.

In 1968, the owner lost the lease for the building at #15 and moved it to its present site next door. In 2010, Wally Tang, an octogenarian who had owned the business for more than 60 years and was an employee of the original owner handed the tea parlor over to his nephew, Wilson Tang.

The younger Tang updated the kitchen and brought his business and social media acumen to Nom Wah but has largely preserved the traditions and ambience of the historic tea parlor.

The setting

The one-room restaurant looks like a cross between a 50s luncheonette and a diner. Much of the décor (certainly the tin ceiling) looks older than that. Booths with red oilcloth seats line the perimeter of the room and the center is filled with gray Formica-topped tables and metal chairs. At one end of the room, there is also a counter with stools.

The lively dining room

The lively dining room

The tiled floor is so old that my husband changed seats when he felt his banquette leaning forward toward the other side of the booth. On our table were a bunch of plastic bottles with Chinese sauces and condiments.

Picnic-style condiment tray

Picnic-style condiment tray

On a Sunday morning at 11AM, the place was filled with a mix of families and younger people. Strikingly, unlike many Dim Sum restaurants in the area, few among them were Chinese. With legions of recommendations and followers on Yelp, Twitter and Facebook, it’s not surprising that the place draws a cult-like following with diners and devotees even coming from beyond the boroughs.

Nom Wah on Yelp (Screenshot)

Nom Wah on Yelp (Screenshot)

The menu

Dim sum is traditionally served on steam-heated carts but at Nom Wah, everything is served à la minute (to order), brought out in small baskets or mismatched dishes from the kitchen. The bilingual, tourist-friendly menu has pictures of each of the offerings along with their number and price.

A vintage dish that reminded me of Chinese dinners with my parents

A vintage dish that reminded me of Chinese restaurant dinners with my parents

An order sheet and pencil are left on each table so diners can mark off the dishes they want to order, by number. As soon as you finish a dish, the empty plate is efficiently whisked off the table to make room for more.

Another thing that sets the tea parlor apart from many other dim sum restaurants is that the menu of small plates is served all day long. It’s fun to go with as many people as possible so you savor different tastes. These are some of the wonderful dishes we tried:

Pork Sui Mai 烧卖 Minced pork, mushrooms and shrimp steamed in a wonton wrapper

Pork Sui Mai 烧卖 Minced pork, mushrooms and shrimp steamed in a wonton wrapper

Shrimp Sui Mai 虾烧卖 Minced shrimp steamed in a wonton wrapper

Shrimp Sui Mai 虾烧卖
Minced shrimp steamed in a wonton wrapper

Sticky Rice In Lotus Leaf 珍珠鸡 Steamed rice mixed with chicken, wrapped in a bamboo leaf

Sticky Rice In Lotus Leaf 珍珠鸡
Steamed rice mixed with Chinese sausage, wrapped in a bamboo leaf

House Special Roast Pork Bun 本楼叉烧包 Steamed wheat flour bun filled with pork and caramelized onions

A signature dish: House Special Roast Pork Bun 本楼叉烧包
Steamed wheat flour bun filled with pork and sweet caramelized onions

“The Original” Egg Roll 本樓香酥春卷 Chicken and mixed vegetables rolled in an egg crepe and fried

“The Original” Egg Roll 本樓香酥春卷
Chicken and mixed vegetables rolled in an egg crepe and fried

Shrimp Rice Roll 虾肠 Steamed rice flour noodle with shrimp drizzled with sweet soy sauce; gluten free

Shrimp Rice Roll 虾肠
Steamed rice flour noodle with shrimp drizzled with sweet soy sauce; gluten free

Shrimp & Snow Pea Leaf Dumpling 豆苗饺 Minced shrimp, snow pea leaf greens in a homemade open faced wheat wrapper

Shrimp & Snow Pea Leaf Dumpling 豆苗饺
Minced shrimp, snow pea leaf greens in a homemade open faced wheat wrapper

Unfortunately, we forgot to order the almond dessert cookies, which are baked according to the same recipe that was used 96 years ago. My husband, who specializes in faint praise, recounted all the wonderful dishes and said, “There is nothing I didn’t like.”

I thought it was the best dim sum I ever had in my life. When the waiter tallied our bill, it added up to $38 (before the tip) for three hearty eaters, quite a value. By the time we were ready to leave, it was no surprise that a line had begun assembling on Doyers Street in front of the shop.

Crowd assembling outside the tea parlor

Crowd assembling outside the tea parlor


IF YOU GO

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

13 Doyers Street, (Chinatown) New York

Hours: Sunday to Thursday 10:30AM to 9PM, Friday and Saturday 10:30AM to 10PM

Tips

  • Try to arrive before noon to beat the crowds.
  • Since the room can be energetic, ask for a booth.
  • Order the fragrant Chrysanthemum Tea for $1.50 per person.
  • The delicious pork buns are available in quantity for take-out.
  • Live in Philly? Rumor has it that Nom Wah may be coming to you.

Interested in learning more about Nom Wah?

NY Times Review of Nom Wah Tea Parlor

New York’s Oldest Dim Sum Restaurant Just Might Be The Future of Dumplings


You Tube Video on the history of Doyers Street


[A version of this article appeared in the Chicago Tribune on September 25, 2014.]

  • Reply
    Marilyn Jones
    August 24, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    While working in Manhattan I ate in Chinatown many times. I wish I would have known about this great restaurant. Everything looks so good! I enjoyed the history you presented too.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      August 24, 2014 at 10:13 pm

      Hope you get there someday, Marilyn. My guess is that it will be there for another 96 years:-)

  • Reply
    Mike
    August 25, 2014 at 2:57 am

    There are days where I feel like I could pork buns alllll day long, Irene! Duck sauce? Seriously? Send me a bottle of that please! 🙂

  • Reply
    Michele Peterson ( A Taste for Travel)
    August 25, 2014 at 9:03 am

    Yum post! That Shrimp & Snow Pea Leaf Dumpling looks delicious! Dim Sum is one of the dishes I miss the most when I’m in Mexico. I’ve never seen a jar of Duck Sauce but it looks worth a try.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      August 25, 2014 at 9:21 am

      It’s a sweet sauce that is very popular with Chinese cuisine.

  • Reply
    Muza-chan
    August 25, 2014 at 9:20 am

    Looks delicous….

  • Reply
    Donna Janke
    August 25, 2014 at 9:34 am

    This post has my mouth watering for dim sum. I liked hearing about the history of Nom Wah Tea Parlor as well as seeing the pictures of the food (more mouth watering). Love the tin ceiling.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      August 25, 2014 at 9:55 am

      I thought the history was almost as interesting as the food, Donna.

  • Reply
    Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru
    August 25, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    What a find! $38 for three? Unheard of in New York. Yum, yum, we’ll make sure we visit when next in NYC.

  • Reply
    santafetraveler
    August 25, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    That post made me hungry! I spent so much time in China Town growing up and there are so many great restaurants there. Nostalgia!

  • Reply
    Suzanne Stavert
    August 25, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    LOVED THIS POST! So delicious! I could smell it here in California. I will file this post in my NY Restaurant file. We will be going in a few months. Thank you! Great photos!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      August 25, 2014 at 1:00 pm

      You’ll love walking through the surrounding streets as well. They are so interesting.

  • Reply
    The Gypsynesters
    August 25, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    Wow, don’t know how we haven’t heard of this! We love Dim Sum and look for it almost every time we are in New York. We will be stopping here next time, thanks.

  • Reply
    noel
    August 25, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    I’m a dim sum fanatic and i love original places like this and they serve all day, that’s a bonus….you’ve picked all of my favorites minus the egg roll, yummy!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      August 25, 2014 at 5:47 pm

      The egg roll had the lightest crust I ever tasted. There was also fried egg inside. A tiny bit greasy but great in small doses:-)

  • Reply
    Leigh
    August 25, 2014 at 11:18 pm

    Great mouthwatering photos and a reminder to me to try more Chinese food. Calgary has a decent sized Chinatown so you’ve motivated me to search for Dim Sum – especially with fall coming and more time.

  • Reply
    Suzanne Fluhr
    August 26, 2014 at 2:08 am

    We’ve always been told that the best places to eat in Chinatown (any Chinatown) is where the clientele are all Chinese. I’m not sure I agree. Those might be the most authentic, but one is often made to feel that they’d rather not have to deal with gringos and often not even the menu is in English and the dim sum cart ladies are cranky. And, I don’t like to look at chicken feet next to my sui mai. I like the concept of this place better—-and yes, I’m now starving too.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      August 26, 2014 at 9:37 am

      Two different experiences but I’d probably enjoy both!

  • Reply
    Ann Cochran
    August 26, 2014 at 11:08 am

    I’ll never forget a comment made by the husband (who wrote extensively for Gourmet) of a Chinese wife who is a well respected Chinese cookbook author. He said that her attitude was, “what do they know?” Meaning, don’t assume that just because you see a lot of Asians in an Asian restaurant it is some kind of validation. Also, and I hate to admit it, we Americans don’t necessarily appreciate the same things as the ethnic group the restaurant’s food represents.

  • Reply
    Carole Terwilliger Meyers
    August 26, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    Loved your photos and description! I wish I could run out right now to Nom Wah for dim sum, but I’m in San Francisco area. When you’re in my area, check out these dim sum spots, http://weekendadventuresupdate.blogspot.com/search/label/dim%20sum

  • Reply
    Sand In My Suitcase
    August 26, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    Oh we love dim sum! Nom Wah looks like a great spot. We have many great Chinese restaurants here in Vancouver – it’s just too bad for us that many are in the Richmond suburb, which is a bit of a drive for us, so we don’t tend to satisfy our Chinese fix…

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      August 26, 2014 at 5:24 pm

      I’ve visited Richmond. That’s a real mecca for dim sum~

  • Reply
    Neva @ Retire for the Fun of it
    August 27, 2014 at 1:35 am

    Those dishes are so delicate and enticing. We have loved the food in a few China Towns, but when my cousin’s Chinese wife made us lunch I really appreciated the love that went into the meal.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      August 27, 2014 at 7:59 am

      It’s always nice to know or meet someone who knows the foods and culture you’re experiencing, and can serve as a guide…in your case, serve as a host!

  • Reply
    Shelley
    August 27, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    Mmm those photos look so tasty! Next time in NYC we’ll have to try dim sum at the Nom Wah Tea Parlor. We’re going on our first visit to Hong Kong in a couple weeks and I’m looking forward to trying it there.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      August 27, 2014 at 9:00 pm

      Many Chinese restaurants in NYC are described as Hong Kong-style. How lucky to be able to visit the source!:-)

  • Reply
    Doreen Pendgracs
    August 27, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    You’re making my mouth water, Irene!

    Isn’t it amazing how … No matter where you go, you’re likely to find a pretty darn good Chinese resto? Looks like you’ve found a gem.

  • Reply
    Michelle
    August 27, 2014 at 11:28 pm

    Looks like fun and the food looks great you have succeeded in making me hungry. I have a feeling that $38 in NYC is a bargain in any restaurant!

  • Reply
    Jackie Smith
    September 20, 2014 at 11:21 am

    This is our kind of place and a ‘keeper’ of a post! Thanks for a great tip, Irene.

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