Places that Matter

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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Nom Wah Tea Parlor, exterior, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Nom Wah Tea Parlor, exterior, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Nom Wah Tea Parlor, interior, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Nom Wah Tea Parlor, interior, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Nom Wah Tea Parlor, interior, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Nom Wah Tea Parlor on Doyers Street bend, photo by Molly Garfinkel
New York City's oldest dim sum restaurant
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In 1962, The New York Times’ Craig Claiborne wrote a feature on eating in Manhattan’s Chinatown in which he suggested that, “the best tea lunch places rarely seem to be built on ground level. (The Nom Wah Tea Parlor at 13 Doyers Street is an exception.)” It should be noted that despite its eye-level location, Nom Wah hardly benefits from high visibility. Situated right on Doyers Street’s acute curve, the restaurant is barely discernable from either end of the short, narrow road. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Pell, Mott and Bayard may have been the main streets of nascent the Chinese enclave, but Doyers Street was at the center of the drama. The winding warren was known as “Bloody Angle,” because local tongs, or gangs, frequently took advantage of the site’s ambushability, as well as its secret access points leading to a still extant network of underground escape tunnels. While veritable massacres were staged in the street, Doyers also served as Chinatown’s theater district. From 1893 to 1912, the street was home to both the Chinese Concert Company and the first Chinese language theater in New York.

As of 2011, the action-packed tong and troupe days are long gone, but Nom Wah Tea Parlor, New York City’s oldest dim sum restaurant, is still serving the same fare from the same storefront that it has occupied for the last ninety years. But to say that Nom Wah has become a feature in the local landscape may overstate its physical presence on the now-sleepy block. Perhaps this why it has managed to maintain its position as the darling of Chinatown’s dumpling scene for so long. The street’s somnolence permeates the café’s interior, where customers find repast and respite from the bustle of the Bowery, and Chinatown’s other adjacent market streets.

While Nom Wah has perfected the art of low key, they have by no means mellowed under the radar. Intrepid Uptown food columnists have been encouraging their American audiences to partake of Nom Wah’s “hot hors d’oeuvres” and “Chinese appetizers” since well before the Asian Fusion frenzy. And although the owner recently renovated the kitchen, Nom Wah has not become an ersatz version of itself. Long-time neighborhood residents still recognize the food, the furnishings, and most importantly, the family, whose Chinatown roots are firmly entrenched in their ground-level eatery. 

A family by the name of Choy opened Nom Wah Tea Parlor at 13-15 Doyers Street in 1920, four years before the Johnson-Reed Act curtailed the flow of Asian immigrants into the United States. Approximately two decades later, sixteen year-old Wally Tang managed to enter the country from Canton, perhaps as a beneficiary of the just-repealed Chinese Exclusion Act. He began working for the Choys immediately upon his arrival, and was promoted to manager of Nom Wah by age twenty.

In the beginning, Nom Wah was primarily a bakery that operated out of the 15 Doyers Street storefront. Tea was always sold from 13 Doyers, but Nom Wah and the Choys were famous for their Chinese pastries, including almond cookies and moon cakes filled with lotus or red bean paste. Moon cakes are traditionally eaten during the autumn Moon Festival, which, according to folktales, celebrates the Moon Fairy, who shares her lunar lodgings with a wood cutter and a jade rabbit. The festival takes place during the full moon, which symbolizes family unity and togetherness. Personal-sized moon cakes come in hundreds of varieties, but are usually very sweet and square in shape.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, much of Nom Wah’s business came from the bakery. The tea and dim sum, a pairing long ago considered taboo but ultimately adopted wholeheartedly by southern Chinese, were secondary. But as Chinese in America were cut off from their families during much of the early twentieth century, the demand for Nom Wah’s dim sum and tea increased. Chinese immigrants from along the east coast traveled to Doyers Street to procure Nom Wah’s traditional edibles.

After they lost their lease on number 15 Doyers Street in 1968, the Choys swung the bakery around the fulcrum of the 13 Doyers Street teashop to number 11 Doyers, where it was reborn as a dedicated dim sum kitchen. In 1974 Wally Tang purchased the restaurant from the Choys, and in the intervening years, Nom Wah’s dim sum offerings have satisfied locals and tourists alike. They are especially known for their shrimp and snow-pea-leaf pouches and roast pork buns.

In 2010, a short sixty years after he began working at Nom Wah, Wally Tang passed the restaurant to his nephew, Wilson Tang, who, at age thirty -two, is getting a late start at this branch of the family business. Wilson says, “I come from a family of all entrepreneurs; everyone owns something. My uncle Wally owned this restaurant and my dad owns a restaurant supply business in Chinatown.” Another uncle has a chain of cosmetic stores, and a fourth owns a dumpling wholesale factory. So it is no surprise that Wilson decided to take over the restaurant in November of last year. As he notes, “It’s kind of in my blood line that I should do something like this on my own.” And Wilson is hardly a novice. After earning a degree in finance and working for several years in the cutthroat banking world, the he decided to try his hand at baking. He moved to San Francisco to learn the art, upon returning to New York, established his own bakery in his father’s Allen Street building. There he sold coffee, tea, baked goods and small rice dishes. He was twenty-four at the time.

His blood may have told him one thing, but he wasn’t yet convinced. After a few years with the bakery, Wilson decided to return to finance, as he says, “I thought that maybe I missed something.” He was certainly surviving by working at the bakery all day, every day, but he was hardly living. So he went back to the corporate world with the intention of fulfilling a few personal goals, which he did. When the opportunity to take over the tea parlor arose in 2010, he knew it was the right time.

And the circumstances were right, too. Wally Tang owns the building, so Wilson pays rent to a landlord who is unlikely to try to renegotiate lease terms, even if Chinatown’s real estate values are skyrocketing. His uncle also managed to make many loyal friends during the preceding half-century.

However, when Wally hit retirement age about two decades ago, the restaurant became more of a social club than a dining establishment. Wilson says that there was always a card game in session, during which his uncle “would smoke, make tea, serve food if he liked, and not serve food if he liked.” For the last fifteen years, Nom Wah’s income came from periodically serving as a movie set, not from serving dim sum, which seems to have occurred even more sporadically. The kitchen was open, but the steady stream of people coming through the doors were there to say hello to Wally and perhaps have a pot of tea. If a very close friend stopped by, the two frequently went out to get food from somewhere else and brought it back to eat.

Like the menu, the interior décor was classic mid-century, and in dire need of revivification. But Wally made Wilson promise that he would not overhaul the restaurant.  Ultimately these parameters may have made Wilson’s life a little easier. The formulas were already in place; it was just a matter of bringing them back to the fore. So Wilson gutted the kitchen and installed all new cooking equipment. He repainted the dining room walls, patched some holes in the floors, added four new light fixtures and all of the tables received cloths. Everything else is exactly the way his uncle left it. Wilson says that Wally is relieved to see how little was altered, “because sixty years of his life was in here. So he was very happy and proud that I didn’t mess it up.” The floors, the tin ceiling and the booths are original, and the hearty glass counter is ninety years old. “It’s a piece of New York history. You don’t see stores like this anymore, that have such great details that you just can’t duplicate.”

The most drastic change is the printed menu, which offers more or less the same items as before, but now everything is a la carte. In the past, waitresses maneuvered carts of oval plates, each containing approximately three delicate dim sum pouches, around the tables and the mirrored floor-to-ceiling columns. Customers picked the plates they wanted as the waitresses circulated through the dining room. At the end of the meal, the empty dishes were tallied, and the bill generated from that number. Now everything is made to order, although it made the same way as it always was.

Thus, there has been no real shake up in the still-quiet café. Wilson has only really thrust the historic restaurant into the twenty-first century by undertaking a multi-pronged internet campaign that includes a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account. One regular, who last came to call while the kitchen was undergoing renovations, remarked with relief, “I found out about what you were doing on Facebook, which was a shock in itself.” Perhaps a mark of how well Wilson has maintained the Nom Wah zeitgeist is the fact that the biggest point of contention amongst regulars are the new red and white checkered table clothes. “They get mixed reviews. Some people think it’s cute, but some really hate it.” Characteristically, he says he’s in no rush to decide whether or not he’ll keep the plastic-coated linens.

The only element in limbo seems to be the tea service. Wilson says that the tea is now playing a small role, but he suggests that it was always complimentary to the food that they served. It cut the grease, lowered cholesterol, and happily, prolonged the gathering in question. Currently Nom Wah offers over fifteen types of tea; some of them are middle grade, but some of it is the really good stuff, whose merits are sought by afficianados. Wilson is considering offering a stand-alone tea menu, but it won’t include anything too revolutionary. “I’m more like a classical guy,” he says, “I want to keep it classic and old-school.”