Tuesday, March 1, 2011

New Nom Wah

After reading about the renovation of the 90-year-old Nom Wah Tea Parlor on Chinatown's Doyers Street, I went in for a meal with great trepidation. How many times have we seen the character of a beloved, decades-old restaurant destroyed by new owners in their zeal for wealth, acclaim, and the chance to civilize a piece of the city's untamed soul?

I am very happy to say this is not the case at the newly reopened Nom Wah.

Wilson Tang, nephew of long-time owner Wally Tang, has achieved what few, if any, young New York restaurateurs scarcely dare to envision--the faithful updating of a landmark that not only preserves the soul of the place, but provides a fresh atmosphere in which that soul can expand.

What was recently a haphazard space, where bags of rice slumped on the floor and flies buzzed in the air, now makes sense. The tables, chairs, and booths seem to be the same as before--still patched and listing--but they are orderly.

The china dishes aren't the old dishes, but they look like they could be--and not like new dishes trying to look old. The tables are covered with plastic red and white checkerboard cloths that you'll remember always having been there, even though they weren't. The same plants stand in their pots, only now they've been watered and stand taller.

The tea tins that for eons stood stacked on shelves are still there, but now they've been dusted and shined. The walls have been painted and decorated with framed newspaper and magazine clippings, along with photos, from the restaurant's history. There are no hipster faux-Asian posters on the walls.

It's all a warm, and better lighted, embrace of everything that came before. Even their Facebook page celebrates the place and its history.

The waitresses are Chinese and speak little English. Many of them are well past 25 years old. None of them are blonde girls from Wisconsin in ironic leg warmers, and none are mustachioed Williamsburg guys in ironic Charlie Chan t-shirts.

As for the food, I don't really care about food, but I can tell you that I ate it, enjoyed it, and didn't feel ripped off by the price. The menu exhibits no pretensions about being "artisanal" and makes no boasts about creating "exciting riffs" on the classics. These are the actual classics. A spring roll is just a spring roll--it's not Pistachio-Infused, "Hand-Rolled," nor Stuffed with Fresh Maine Lobster and Duck Confit, and it certainly isn't Drizzled with anything citrusy, truffly, or olive oily.

Nom Wah's authentically welcoming (and affordable) atmosphere attracts a diverse clientele. I saw many tables full of young and old Chinese people, a large African-American family, a couple of white Midwesty tourists in their 70s, some Upper West Side-looking ladies (the older, Jewisher kind), and maybe half a dozen bespectacled Brooklyn sorts.

Nobody was screaming into a cell phone. No music was being piped in. The newly installed TV was thankfully turned off.

It feels like some wonderful, alternate, former New York in this place.

Once inside, you won't want to leave--and nobody will push you out. Wilson Tang and his employees encourage you to linger, take your time. There is no hurry here. Tang is eager to ensure your happiness and visits every table. If you tell him you love what he did with the place, he will proudly beam.

The new Nom Wah is what you hope for every old New York restaurant. It shows what could have, and should have, been done for the Fedora and Minetta Tavern, for the Beatrice Inn, and too many others. It's what I pray could happen for Manganaro's. It's in league with Eisenberg's, where the new owner's touch was light and cautious, filled with love for history and respect for continuity--along with good business sense.

For everyone who insists that places like Nom Wah need to "change with the times" in order to survive, here is your answer for how it can be done. This is what can happen when the new generation values the old, rather than being hellbent on destroying it.

Go to Nom Wah whenever you need to have your faith in this city's future restored. (And pray it stays this way for a long time.)


EV Grieve said...

Miracle on Doyers Street.

Anonymous said...

I have been a huge fan of Nam Wah for years and years. Finally had dimsum last sunday and it was awesome. The new owner cleaned the original decor but keeping the original look. Great freakin' place! for those nostalgic for the old days.

BrooksNYC said...

WOW.....what a thrilling endorsement! Can't wait to check it out!

Grade "A" Fancy said...

This is great news! Thank you, J.

esquared™ said...

thank g-d. i was afraid nom wah had gone momofoku wah and start serving $175 lunches that includes pomme soufflé lo mein, dim sum caviar, crème fraiche pork bun...

in addition to the patrons "screaming into a cell phone", another turn-off for me is that they tweet or foursquare constantly on their eating experience.

and "As for the food, I don't really care about food", i agree. i've always said that restaurants aren't in the food industry; they're in the service industry. the difference between dining and eating out. it's about the service and the welcoming atmosphere, like you had mentioned. that's why most of these restaurants, aside from the fact that it already is a high turnover industry, do not last long -- they are not "eager to ensure your happiness" or do not "encourage you to linger" (same goes with pubs). these artisanal and fauxstalgia restaurants only cater to those who are there because it's the next it thing. they don't establish loyal and long lasting clienteles, local or otherwise.

thank for this post. will definitely make frequent visits to the new nom wah, before (hopefully not) blonde girls in charlie chan outfits start serving there.

Sneakeater said...

You have to be actively hostile to food to think that the new Minetta isn't eons better than the old Minetta.

Cher@Newburgh Restoration said...

Love this post. I have never tried it because that street in China Town is rather small...I wouldn't normally go down there. But totally going to try this place now! They also have a website that is still under construction. Little places like this are my FAVORITE things about NYC!

BabyDave said...

Thank you for this post -- one of the most encouraging items I have encountered in a while.

Wish I could have another shot at tic-tac-toe with that chicken, though. Retired or not, he owes me.

Anonymous said...

Kind of ironic that you are reviewing a restaurant and admit to not caring about food. Says a lot.

As long as all the little aesthetic touches that make you happy are there, you are pleased. A little bit of this kind of person, a bit more of that kind of person, and definitely not too many of the dreadful you-know-whos. But food, who cares. It's only a restaurant.

All form over substance. How exactly are you different from people who are obsessed with the in crowd, with how hot the interior design is? Just two sides of the same coin. New-porn vs. nostalgia-porn.

Nathan said...

I found your blog today after an older gentleman pointed to the corner of Greenwich and 7th Ave. to proudly inform me, "That's where the Nighthawks Diner used to be". Your info totally blew my opportunistic blog post out of the water. :)

Then, I decided to check out your more recent posts and ran into this one. I haven't been by that place in a few years, but I've used it as a filming location for 2 or 3 different movies since I moved here in the mid 80's. I remember Wally pretending he didn't speak any English the first time I went to speak to him. Miraculously, three weeks later, when we actually shot our scene, his English had become perfectly serviceable. The next time I went there...a couple of years later, he started by pretending to speak no English until I pointed at the wall behind the counter and said, "Wally, you've still got my card taped to the wall. I know perfectly well your English is fine". On that occasion, I got invited to sit down for dinner with the family. It was a blast. (I made a point of developing amnesia about my previous visit to the kitchen.)

Anyway, great to hear it's still in the family and updated so lovingly. I'll make a point of stopping in for a meal soon and chatting up Wilson.

And your blog will have to get added to my regular rounds.

timmmyk said...

Ate lunch there today - it was classic and awesome.

fifilaru said...

What a charming post! I love this place. I never minded that it was kind of run down. How wonderful that the nephew honored his family and made it better, without losing its soul.

Nom Wah Tea Parlor said...


Thanks for a wonderful blog about Nom Wah. Its reading things like this that reaffirms me that I made the right decision in restoring the tea parlor!

Wilson Tang

Anonymous said...

now i can visit new york.

MagWildwood said...

Wasn't Nam Wah's in a Woody Allen movie? Or am I thinking of the Hong Fat Noodle Company in Play It Again, Sam?

I LOVED your post. Your description of what the menu is NOT nailed it.

Can't wait to hightail it downtown and eat there. Unfortunately I'll be wearing my ironic Dorothy Kilgallen specs; blind as a bat without 'em.

Your blog is my reading highlight of the day. Thanks!

Jeremiah Moss said...

Wilson, thank you for preserving such a great place, and not letting it become just another trendy restaurant catering to young people new to the city. you did something really special here. as you can see, many people who love the city love what you did. it means a lot.

City Of Strangers said...


Great review. Never been there but will have to check it out now that so many of my old Chinatown favorites are gone.


Anonymous said...

Will there still be that group of old men in the back playing mah jong and smoking?

I also loved the fact it always looked closed when you walked by.

Anonymous said...

Can somebody tell me if Vazacs closing down? Evie do you know? I heard Ernie and Edward Vazac sold the place.

bonnie said...

Just stumbling across this via your Random Posts sections. Love the writeup. Particularly glad that Nom Wah didn't go Nom Wah Fuku with the recent unveiling of the new DOJO (fuku)...