If working on this blog has shown me anything, it’s that I’m basically an infant: always adjusting my desires upward, always indiscriminately wanting. (Well, that and the fact that NYC has way more nut-free food than I’d ever, ever thought.) Seriously, though: How often do I fall in love with a new restaurant only to realize in a month or two that it was never truly all that great—that it didn’t really satisfactorily fill the food-void I’d wanted it to fill—and that I’m already hoping for something better?
Often. Often enough. I’m always developing incredibly high opinions of restaurants I’ve just found, and I’m always half-retracting those opinions in a few months’ time. I get used to the novelty of the new food I’ve finally found safe access to—lo mein, bagels, whatever—and then, just like that, I get my characteristic pickiness back. It’s all downhill from there, and within a few weeks, I’m searching for my next big thing. And that’s why my list of allergy-friendly restaurants is so long. (You’re welcome.)
Any-fucking-way, after finding Han Dynasty, I got a little complacent. It isn’t the world’s greatest Chinese restaurant—especially not for my purposes—but my immense excitement at the prospect of any reasonably safe Chinese food certainly quieted my inner infant for a while there. I ate Han Dynasty’s food weekly…and then I got used to it. Before I knew it, I was back to begging Google to show me some nut-free Chinese restaurants in the Tri-State Area.
Of course, I found none—because (as far as I know) there are no decidedly, advertisedly nut-free Chinese restaurants anywhere near NYC. But I’m sure there are at least a handful of local Chinese restaurants that happen not to have any nuts in the kitchen; there’s just no one collecting them and slapping a “nut-free” label on them and posting them online. (Hello!)
In any case, I’ve rambled long enough. Nom Wah Tea Parlor is (a) my next-step Chinese restaurant and (b) one of those incidentally nut-free places I so love to collect. Let’s move on.
This place has been around for a while, serving dim sum at the vertex of Chinatown’s Bloody Angle for nearly a hundred years now—but it hasn’t always been as trendy as it is today. A few years ago, a guy named Wilson Tang left his job in finance to take over Nom Wah, then owned by his uncle. And as soon as the place was his, he renovated its kitchen, expanded its menu, and generally just turned it into the American-magnet it is today. Now, I’d never been to the old Nom Wah, so I have nothing to compare this new-ish place to—but the consensus seems to be that the transition has not been a disaster.
And thank God for that, because I would’ve shown up anyway. Nom Wah is pretty much nut-free, so I would’ve had no choice but to suffer through whatever weird sort of Franken-restaurant it’d become. I’ve been assured—multiple times, via phone and in person—that there are no tree nuts (or peanuts) in Nom Wah’s kitchen, with the exception of their almond-containing (duh) almond cookies, which are fortunately not made in-house (and which should thus not pose much of a cross-contamination risk). And within hours of finding out about all that, I headed straight to Doyers Street.
The first time (Sam and) I went, I was sure to confirm the whole nut-free thing with the hostess, who double-checked with someone behind the bar before confirming for me that there really aren’t any nuts in Nom Wah’s kitchen. (I, like, quadruple-checked on this place. Nut-free Chinese restaurants are so hard to come by that whenever I find one, I automatically assume the news is too good to be true.) After this final reassurance, Sam and I took our seats—and so our Nom Wah craze began.
For a dim sum restaurant, Nom Wah is unusually calm. It’s relatively quiet, and there are no carts of food; instead, you order with pen and paper—which is a lot better for the food-allergic than the point-and-hope method you’ll have to adopt at other dim sum spots. That first night, though, Sam and I went a little pen-crazy. We left Nom Wah so absurdly full—and with so much leftover rice in-hand—that we decided we’d better walk for a while before even thinking about going home. But we’ve since eaten at Nom Wah enough times to have calmed down a bit, and I’m ready to somewhat-level-headedly talk about what I’ve most enjoyed.
The first thing I tried at Nom Wah was an egg roll (one of their specialties, apparently), pictured immediately above. If you can’t tell from the photo, these things are absolutely enormous—which I should’ve expected, really, given the dish’s $7 price tag. I’m pathetically used to overpaying for food, though, so I figured they were just a little overpriced. Nope. Huge. And fortunately, these aren’t your average Chinese-American egg rolls. (I don’t mean to hate on takeout egg rolls; they’re just…a little boring.) I don’t know what’s in these—egg and celery, maybe some mushroom, and apparently a little chicken, too—but damn, they’re good. Especially with the addition of a little soy.
Also enormous are their roast-pork buns, which happen to be incredible. The pork inside is so sweet and tender (and plentiful!) that I just might’ve had to stop for a second to catch my breath. Lesser pork buns tend to taste like a hunk of acoustic foam that’s been stuffed with unidentifiable sugar-meat, but Nom Wah’s don’t. The bun itself is pleasant—mildly sweet, and not too dry or doughy—and there’s certainly enough filling to balance it out. And the filling actually tastes like pork! Sweet pork, but soft, fatty, delicious pork nonetheless.
Really, I used to think I’d always prefer baked pork buns to their steamed counterparts, but these…well, they have me rethinking my stance. (And if you know me, you’ll know that I’m not much of a stance-rethinker. Forgive me.)
Another dish for which I’m ready to dole out some high praise: the above-pictured Shanghainese soup dumplings, which I assure you are absolutely adorable, despite their not-so-photogenic nature (or, alternatively, despite my own shortcomings as a photographer). They’re filled with pork—have you noticed I’m into pork?—and (of course) broth, and they’re truly a pleasure to eat.
I could go on about how ridiculously flavorful the broth is, etc., etc., but honestly, I think you’ll just have to try these for yourself. Soup dumplings are a strange creation, and eating them is an even stranger experience—but they sure do taste good. For real: see for yourself. Just be sure not to burn your mouth. (Oops.)
I’m also weirdly into the turnip cakes (above, left) and the pan-fried dumplings (above, right). My appreciation of the dumplings is less weird, I guess; really, who doesn’t love a good dumpling? But my first time at Nom Wah, I was surprised to have so enjoyed the turnip cakes. “Turnip cake” isn’t a very appetizing name—but fortunately, these have pretty much nothing to do with Western-style turnips. In fact, they’re made from shredded daikon (a Chinese radish)…which I would’ve loved to have known when I was sitting in Nom Wah driving myself crazy with the question of just what these cakes’ flavor reminded me of. (It was those little piles of grated daikon that so often show up on platters of Japanese food. Mystery solved.)
In terms of their flavor, these things are pretty mild. They’re a little fishy, a little radish-y; otherwise, they don’t have all that much of a taste. The inside’s soft and flaky, almost like the texture of cooked fish, and the outside’s just crispy enough to have gotten me hooked. Overall, they’re pretty fun to eat—especially with the XO sauce they’re served with—but I should probably mention (as if it isn’t already clear) that I’ve never eaten turnip cakes anywhere else, so it’s not as if I have much to compare these to. All I can say, really, is that they taste pretty good to me.
Pan-fried dumplings, though, I’ve certainly had (way too) many times before—so I’m pretty comfortable in saying that these are pretty good. They’re greasy, but not too greasy, and the filling (minced pork) is really tasty…but what I like most about these dumplings is how thick their wrappers are. They’re really chewy, but not in a mouth-clogging way, and I’m a huge fan.
I should probably mention some of the entree-sized dishes, too. The fried rice (above, left) is an absurdly big portion, and could easily feed a party of perhaps three trillion. It isn’t incredible—some of the egg bits taste weird, and the peas aren’t so hot—but hey, it’s fried rice. I like it enough to keep ordering it, and it’s a great dish for some heavy-duty sharing. (Or leftovers. I’ve learned that the folks at Nom Wah will be happy to provide you with as many styrofoam containers as you’d like—so as long as you’re willing to pack up your own food, you can take whatever you’d like to go.)
Also pretty good, and also great for sharing: the pan-fried noodles (above, right), which are way too thin to be the noodles of my dreams, but which do the trick nonetheless. They’re stir-fried with scallions, onions, and bean sprouts, but if you closed your eyes, you’d never know it; the dish is actually pretty bland. I do love me some grease, though. I guess I’m pretty easy to please. Also: the leftover version of Nom Wah’s fried rice is no match for the leftover version of these noodles. Like most stir-fries, this dish holds up well in the fridge.
I’m just about done—I think I’ve done enough praising—but before I stop, I want to mention a few Nom Wah dishes that didn’t capture my heart: the steamed spare ribs (above, left), the chicken feet (above, right), and the cilantro-and-scallion rice roll (not pictured, but here). The spare ribs were gooey in texture and hot-doggy in flavor, and the chicken feet were way too heavy on the garlic. The rice roll was weird—very slimy, very bland, and somehow still too way sweet—but I didn’t mind all that much, because at Nom Wah, there’s always plenty of other food on the table.
Does Nom Wah serve the best dim sum ever? No—nor the cheapest. But the food’s pretty good (great, at times) and it’s one of the safest Chinese restaurants I’ve been able to find. It’s a little touristy, but it’s definitely not a tourist trap…and in my opinion, at least, it’s worth a visit. Or two.
Find it at 13 Doyers Street, between Pell and Bowery. And stay tuned for another post on Nom Wah—this time, with a focus on the fast-casual spot they’ve recently opened in Nolita.
[By the way: Please, please excuse the terribly inconsistent white balance in the photos I’ve included in this post. Nom Wah’s lighting is weird, and I’m always forgetting to carry a white-balance card, so…I’ve ended up with some shitty photos. My bad. This’ll teach me, though. (I actually just put my white-balance card in my wallet, so there.) For more photos, check out Nom Wah’s Caviar page.]