Caught in Time | Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Dim sum is one of those things that I always want to eat, but rarely do. Chinese restaurants in New York City with dim sum are madhouses on weekend mornings (when dim sum is typically served in the States), and it’s best to go with a big group in order to maximize pushcart access and dumpling variety. But rallying a bunch of my hungover, bacon, egg, and cheese-craving friends for anything but an American-style brunch early on a Sunday morning is never an easy task.

Thankfully, a friend of mine recently recommended Nom Wah Tea Parlor, where it’s totally acceptable to eat dim sum anytime, regardless of the day of the week or who’s coming along. Though new to me, Nom Wah is the oldest dim sum restaurant in the city and a New York City institution. It opened at 15 Doyers St. as a bakery and tea parlor in 1920, but lost its lease in 1968 and was forced to move into the building next door. It has been at 13 Doyers ever since.

Below: Pell St & Doyers Street circa 1901.

The dining room appears unchanged since the move, which, of course, is a major factor in Nom Wah’s appeal. Although it’s sparse and tidy, everything about the interior is straight out of the 1960’s, and entering the restaurant feels like stepping into another era. Even the lighting fixtures and big, aluminum fans in every corner are original. The fans are also essential during the summer, as Nom Wah’s loyalty to its history extends to a lack of air conditioning.

I know that one of the best parts dim sum is the fact that you can just grab steam trays off carts as they pass by, without necessarily knowing what’s in them. It’s an adventure and I’m sure some diners are disappointed by Nom Wah’s made-to-order menu. I don’t care. Everything comes out of the kitchen hot, fast, and, for the most part, delicious.

Har Gao, formerly my favorite dim sum dish, was quickly forgotten once I tried Nom Wah’s Shrimp & Snow Pea Leaf Dumpling. These tender, little, open-faced pouches of minced shrimp and snow pea leaves are simple, but best described as crack-like. Equally addictive is the Rice Roll with Fried Dough, which is essentially a cruller wrapped in a wide rice noodle served with sweet soy sauce (SeriousEats has a great slideshow of these and other dumplings being made at Nom Wah). I dare you to say no to a savory noodle donut.

The last time I was at Nom Wah, our group of five made the mistake of ordering a House Special Roast Pork bun for everyone at the table. Each bun was about as big as my head and could have been an insanely cheap meal in itself at $1.50. It’s actually pretty easy to order way too much of everything at Nom Wah, but even after going overboard by about seven dishes during a recent visit, the bill only ended up being twenty bucks a person. I’ve been twice in one week, and I keep finding myself concocting excuses to wander over to Doyers (one of the tiniest, most hidden streets in Manhattan). It seems as though I’ve got some lost time to make up for, but hopefully Nom Wah will be around for at least another hundred years. –KATE DULIN

Further Reading: Nom Wah in The New York Times.

Food Images via Eric Isaac.

Comments on “Caught in Time | Nom Wah Tea Parlor

    Yknot on August 30, 2012 9:38 AM:

    Nom. Nom NOM!

    vanderleun on August 30, 2012 11:50 AM:

    Well, even though it is just past eight in the morning out here I now know I’m driving seven miles across Seattle for dim sum lunch in the south end.

    Rodrigo on August 30, 2012 12:41 PM:

    Finally something on ACL I can say I’ve also experienced! No Amalfi Coast, but Nom Wah is still pretty damn good. Glad to see you enioyed it as well.

    mat on August 30, 2012 1:39 PM:

    we don’t seem to do this stuff so much over hear, proper have to travel for it

    Mod Betty / on August 30, 2012 3:11 PM:

    Mmm. no wonder the word NOM is in their name, I’m hungry just looking at those photos – thanks for the tip!

    Will on August 30, 2012 6:34 PM:

    Places that never change are the most magical ones of all!

    lodi on August 31, 2012 5:08 AM:

    no chinese person would be caught dead there, unless they were a hipster or “foodie” who has no idea what new york dim sum is about- probably the same sort of chinese who goes have a pork bun at david chang’s and thinks it is spectacular. the only thing nom wah is good for is nostalgia.

    Mike V. on August 31, 2012 10:37 AM:

    ^ You’re comparing this place to momofuku, then saying it’s nothing but nostalgia?
    Which is it?

    They love what they do and they do it fresh every day. These old dim sum places to me can now be considered American comfort food. Nothing wrong with that..

    Jacob on August 31, 2012 9:53 PM:

    Place looks amazing. Funny that you call it ‘dim sum’ though. In Australia, we refer to the meal/style of serving as ‘Yum Cha’ and just the dumplings as ‘dim sum’.

    Perhaps someone can give me some clarification on this?

    Andrew Scharf on September 2, 2012 3:35 AM:

    Excellent article.

    When I lived in the city, I used to frequent this place quite often. The place as you mention holds great allure and the food is simple and well made. The area around where the tea parlor is situated is classic Chinatown, NYC.

    If you remember Woody Allen’s film, Alice was shot around the corner.

    Herr Doktor on September 2, 2012 6:10 PM:

    Nom Wah was the last Chinese restaurant my wife and I ate at before we moved to Santa Fe, NM. Great, old timey atmosphere. I’d stay away from the fried stuff though.

    cicatrixes on September 3, 2012 8:30 AM:

    Jacob: “Dim Sum” refers to the style of preparation of food: in small portions – not just limited to dumplings per se, while “Yum Cha” refers to the intent or act of consuming tea with Dim Sum.

    Both terms can be used interchangeably, and most Chinese waiters / restaurants will understand your request, even though the terms are actually in Cantonese, and not Mandarin.

    Hope that helps!

    Michael Shane on September 11, 2012 9:32 AM:

    I LOVE this place. My friend from Paper Mag introduced me to it earlier in the year; and I’m always down for Dim Sum so if you need someone to go, just let me know!

    kok on September 11, 2012 3:11 PM:

    nice blog, nicer still to see a mention of these “invisible” Asian-americans, who were very much part of the American west as any “Cowboy”.
    yum cha literally means to drink tea, while dim sum is a little bit of heart. Tea houses can be found all over China which are variously meeting places where people are served tea, and very little else.
    Dim sum as the mainstay of service with tea is uniquely Cantonese tradition introduced in old Canton – now Guang zhou.

    Thom on September 12, 2012 3:23 AM:

    All the more reason to return to New York. London is crying out for dim sum (and a single decent izakaya).

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