Nom Wah Tea Parlour
3 Doyers St, New York, NY 10013
Nom Wah is hidden in the nooks and crannies of New York’s Chinatown. Even after walking through these allies in daylight several times, I still get lost and rely on extra time to get me there. They boast to be Chinatown’s first dim sum parlour, opening in the 1920s.
Also, you’re not seeing things. This is what my great friend, who let me sleep on her couch for almost a month when I first got back to NYC, and I ordered. We were two girls with eyes much larger than our stomachs.
I always Yelp and Four Square a place before I go to it. I like to see what people order and what to avoid. Unfortunately, Nom Wah’s menu didn’t impress me and I almost regretted suggesting we meet there. Nevertheless, this was another NYC institution. The first dim sum parlour? 1920!? You bet I’m going there.
Dim sum was a weekend ritual for my family and equivalent to the standard brunch affair. Your eggs benedict to my ha gao. My fried gluttonous rice sesame ball to your chocolate chip pancakes.
The usual customers include two groups of people: retired grandparents or parents that drag their kids out early in the morning. More notably, the older folks only order one or two dishes and savour their food while reading the papers. They’re there every day that it is a second home. They refill their own teas, walk around like they own the place and bring red pockets during Chinese New Year for all the cart aunties and restaurant managers.
The table with growing children always orders multiple servings of the same popular dish to appease the children’s palette. (Mostly fried things, desserts and buns so that moms know their children are properly fed, even while playing on iPads or iPhones. They were gameboys in my days.)
So I know my dim sum and nothing freaks me out. Chicken feet, yes please. Beef tendon, the chewier the better. Tripe, oh my goodness double dish please! Curry cuttlefish aka mini squid? Good lord, this is everyone’s favourite dish!
I never found dim sum by the order to be stellar. I love the aunties pushing around their carts, coming by to say how cute the babies are or calling everyone “lang lui” (beautiful girl) or “lang zai” (handsome boy) as they take your order, mark it down on your sheet and either snip your food into bite size or give you an extra saucer of worcester sauce.
I got there for 7 p.m. and didn’t find it to be too busy. After arriving for 15 minutes, the place started to fill with large groups, mostly hipsters, tourists and a group that seemed to have finished a cross fit workout — all nice butts and stuff.
The recent renovations have the place looking like a 1920s diner. Red seated booths, plastic drinking cups, tiled floors-nothing spells dim sum place to me. There wasn’t a lady who offered me free tea and the table cloth wasn’t plastic. I didn’t have a mixture of hot sauce and mustard on a small dish, which is key to pairing with the skin of a ha gao.
They had the standard ha gao, siu mai, cha siu bao, fong zao. But no tripe or curry cuttle fish, my two favourites.
Our food arrives quickly and we dig in. I really wanted to give flack to this diner-esque place that bragged about being the first dim sum parlour in NYC, but I couldn’t. The food was decent and palatable enough for a repeat visit, especially when you need a dim sum fix.
To simplify things, here’s a list of what we ate and what I thought of it:
1) Fried Turnip Cakes
This was our first dish and it came with a tiny squeeze of hoisin sauce. The lazy susan full of sauces on our table didn’t have hoisin sauce, so I couldn’t really indulge in fully coating it with the sweet glaze. There was slices of turnip in it, which I liked. The pieces were large and meaty, but I would’ve preferred thinner slices that were fried to be more crispy. And the cake itself couldn’t have some dried shrimp bits and chinese sausage bits to enhance the flavour.
2) Bean Curd Skin
Mistakenly, the menu just lists this as bean curd skin, but in reality, it’s stuffed with pork and shrimp and some veggies like mushrooms and scallions. The three large pieces came garnished with scallions. I like the consistency of the skin with a salty viscous sauce on top, but some may find it too much like glue.
3) Siu Mai
Standard. Can’t really mess this one up. Had a piece and moved on. It’s like messing up a meatball if you do.
4) Fong Zao (chicken feet)
I enjoyed how they cut the chicken claw into separate pieces. This is easier to eat and much more graceful than gnawing at a whole claw. The flavours were good and steamed to where the bones could easily and masterfully be spat out by one’s mouth.
5) Shrimp and Pea Dumpling
I like this because it’s a classy version of the ha gao. It’s also a must order item, their menu says. The shrimp was seasoned to just the right amount and although it looks quite green, I couldn’t taste any peas. Slather with mustard, is my tip.
6) Cha Siu Bao (BBQ Pork Buns)
I also really enjoyed this. The huge bun was soft, the dough was sweet and the filling had some withered onions in it.
7) Pork Soup Dumplings
I don’t think there was soup in this, but it was very porky. It tasted greasy and meaty. Some worcester sauce and thin slices of ginger would’ve revived it in its cold tempered state. It would’ve been less greasy had we eaten it when it came steaming hot.
When you want to introduce friends who’ve never had dim sum before, this is a safe place. The menu is not too exotic and doesn’t have any Engrish typos that will scare first timers. The restaurant is clean and has a wait staff that speaks excellent English.
That being said, I wish this place was push cart style, accompanied by flamboyant aunties. I prefer push cart dim sum because that way, each steam basket is finished before it gets cold. Not all the dishes come at once and you order as you eat your way through. With the ordering system, I found our food to be cold within 10 minutes. We’re not slow eaters by any means, but when catching up over a meal, it’s hard not to let the food take its break. With dim sum items that can be greasy or have a saucey film on top, temperature is very vital to it’s taste.
Between the two of us, we paid $18 each. The prices are a little steep for dim sum (starting at $4 per dish), but their dishes are large in portion and the quality of the ingredients shows.