Category Archives: Chinese

A Guide to Nut-Free Chinese Restaurants in NYC

At this point, I’m basically a broken record: “Nut-free Chinese food is hard to find.” “Nut-free Chinese food is hard to find.” “Nut-free Chinese food is hard to find.” Yeah, we get it—and anyway, if you’ve found yet another occasion to start off yet another post with yet another iteration of that fresh and shocking information, doesn’t that just mean you’ve found yet another nut-free Chinese restaurant to write about, thereby throwing yet another point of evidence out there that sort of, you know, contradicts whatever it is you’re trying to say…? Um, yes, Italics Voice. Yes. I’m repetitive, and the repetition is in itself actually sort of paradoxical, which is why I’ve decided to drop the shtick altogether and put together a guide whose very existence implies that nut-free Chinese food is both hard and easy to find. Because really, it’s both.

So. Here’s my one and only truly original contribution to this world: a list of all of the tree nut–free Chinese restaurants I’ve found—so far, because if putting this guide together has taught me anything, it’s taught me that there are undoubtedly many, many more where these restaurants came from. You’re welcome.

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Tasty Dumpling

A plate of dill-and-pork dumplings from Tasty Dumpling

Has a restaurant ever had so many things going for it…?

For two years, I’ve lived within minutes of Tasty Dumpling. But somehow, I’m only just now finding out that it’s this unprecedented combination of everything I love and look for. First and foremost, it’s nut-free Chinese food, which is alone enough to win me over. But it also happens to be particularly good nut-free Chinese food, walking distance from the elevated cube I call home, served up very quickly, in a wholly painless setting, for next to no money. This, I think, is worth celebrating.

I came across this place in somewhat of a weird way. I was wandering aimlessly around my neighborhood, as one does, when I walked by Tasty Dumpling’s storefront and noticed how small their menu was. (I end up spending a lot of time walking around Chinatown, which is, of course, filled with Chinese restaurants. Most of those restaurants’ display menus are long as hell, so I tend not to bother with pausing to conduct my preliminary once-over for nutty dishes. Tasty Dumpling’s, though, looked promising.) So what’d I do? I stepped aside, dialed the number on the awning, and watched, through the window, as the cashier picked up the phone, asked me to repeat myself, then told me all I’d hoped to hear: No nuts. Nor peanuts. Not one.

[Why didn’t I just step inside and ask in person? I don’t know. I think calling feels more formal and less spontaneous (and thus more trustworthy), though I’m well aware that’s probably just an illusion. In general, I always feel a little better about restaurants I’ve contacted via phone or email than I do about those I’m not able to reach in advance—and while I do really believe that written communication is, for these things, a lot more reliable, I acknowledge that a phone call probably has next to no real advantage over a face-to-face conversation with an employee. That’s especially hard to deny when you’ve just watched a cashier pick up the phone and answer your question just as he or she would’ve answered it had you been physically present, but…well, I’m insane, and I do what makes me worry least. Haven’t you noticed?]

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Now, when I talk about cheap meals, I usually mean those that’ll come to under $10 per person. And while I admit that definition of “cheap” might be a little too liberal, that isn’t something I have to worry about in labeling Tasty Dumpling. This place isn’t just NYC cheap. It’s cheap-cheap—like, stuff-you-and-a-friend-for-$8 cheap. And at that price, can you really go wrong? (Yes. You can definitely go wrong with a $4 meal. Not at Tasty Dumpling, though.)

Fried pork-and-chive dumplings—the tried-and-true, and my personal favorites—come 5 for $1.25. Dumplings with “off-menu” fillings (like dill and pork, advertised via handwritten sign) cost a lot more—$5-ish for 8—but “a lot more” than $1.25 is hardly something to whine about. Soups will run you $2 or $3 ($4 or $5 if it’s noodles you’re after), and stir-fries (yes, they have them) around $5. Pancakes, $2-ish. Sodas, $1. Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that Tasty Dumpling won’t strain your wallet. You can probably even pay for your whole meal with nothing but the quarters you’ll find lying around your apartment…not that I’ve ever done that or anything.

Anyway. That’s more than enough about pricing. 500 words in, I’m finally ready to talk about food. I’ll start with this, then: Tasty Dumpling makes some good-ass fried dumplings. The pork-and-chive are best, I think, followed by the dill-and-pork, then the beef, then the others—but it’s hard to go wrong, really, provided you manage to choose whatever it is that appeals most to you. The wrappers—on the doughy side, though never tough—are strong enough to hold the fillings, which are themselves ridiculously moist and flavorful. And the vinegar (sitting on every table, and safe, too, as far as I can tell) only helps.

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About the pork-and-chive dumplings (immediately above), I don’t have all that much to say. The filling’s your average pork-and-chive dumpling filling—juicy, greasy balls of pork and chive—with one key difference: this stuff is approximately as good on its own as it is inside a wrapper. (Tasty Dumpling is big on forks and small on chopsticks, and for whatever reason, I’m straight-up hopeless at forking dumplings. With these, though, it’s no big deal when my filling ends up on my plate.)

On the other hand, the dill-and-pork dumplings, pictured at the top of this post, are like no Chinese dumplings I’ve had before. The dill flavor is particularly prominent—overbearing, almost—which reminds me more of, say, bagels and lox than of Chinese takeout. Of course, it’s entirely possible that these are just as standard as the pork-and-chive dumplings, and that I’m just ignorant and inexperienced. But still: If you’re into dill, these are worth a try.

A scallion pancake from Tasty Dumpling

Of course, Tasty Dumpling also has a number of non-dumpling offerings, too. And though it does seem a little silly to write about (or, for that matter, to order…) anything but the namesakes, I feel compelled to sing the scallion pancakes’ praises. The pan-fried noodles, pictured second above, are at once busy and underwhelming, and soups offered aren’t really my thing—but the pancakes? The pancakes! Pictured immediately above, they aren’t at all what I imagine when I think of scallion pancakes, but you know what? I don’t care. These, thick and chewy—dense and bready, even—have stolen me away from the thin and flaky Platonic ideal I’ve come to expect, and I can’t even pretend to have any complaints about that. God, I love these. Especially fresh off the pan.

Food aside, though, I think it’s worth mentioning that Tasty Dumpling’s an easy place to be—and I really appreciate that, given the sorts of places I’ve been known to subject myself to. Granted, the atmosphere itself doesn’t do much: it isn’t all that clean, nor all that aesthetically pleasing. But I’m much more interested in what Tasty Dumpling doesn’t do. It doesn’t aspire to be anything it isn’t; rather, it admits to half-assing what it half-asses—decor, customer service, whatever. It doesn’t aim at cool or hip or trendy. It doesn’t claim to be “healthy,” and there are no superfoods involved. Fortunately, Tasty Dumpling is humble: greasy, quick, and cheap. (And yes, it’s tasty, too.)

Find Tasty Dumpling at 42 Mulberry Street, between Bayard and Mosco. But do note that they close each night at the ridiculously early hour of 8:30pm, and that in the 45 minutes or so before closing, service is a little spotty. Also, don’t be caught cashless—there’s an ATM on site, but its fee will cost you more than a whole order of dumplings.

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Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

Shanghai pan-fried pork buns from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

You know, my instinct was to start this post with one of those obnoxious half-apologies I so love to offer up: “More Chinese food! How repetitive! Poor me! Poor you! Poor us, having to suffer through this post that I chose to write and you chose to read!” (Why, yes. I do find another one of my own blogging tics to roll my eyes at about every other day. How kind of you to notice.) But that’s an exceedingly stupid instinct, I think—because if you’re allergic to nuts, you’re probably grateful for each and every Chinese restaurant that can accommodate you. Unless you aren’t into Chinese food, in which case…well, my next post is going to be about taquitos, so I’ll see you then.

In any case, I first contacted KFLSBR (no chance I’m going to be typing that name out) a few months ago. I called their Hell’s Kitchen location—that’s the location this entire post will be about—a few weeks before going and then again about an hour before showing up, and both times, I was told (by separate people) that there weren’t any tree nuts or peanuts used in any of their food. Evidently, though, that isn’t true. There aren’t any tree nuts in the kitchen, but there are peanuts present in at least one dish, which is what I was finally told the second or third time I went.

Of course, I’m not allergic to peanuts, and I’d only even asked about them for the sake of this blog post (and because it’s usually a lot easier to ask about peanuts alongside tree nuts than it is to go through the effort of separating the two in your server’s mind)—but I really don’t like being given misinformation when it comes to allergenic ingredients. Finding out that they’d been wrong about the peanuts naturally made me question what I was told about tree nuts…but no matter how many times (and how many different ways) I’ve since asked about tree nuts, the folks at KFLSBR have stuck to a consistent answer: there are none. (Plus, by now, I’ve eaten there plenty of times without issue—so I’ve come to feel comfortable enough with the place.)

Stir-fried ramen with pork from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

Anyway. KFLSBR is a little strange, but it definitely isn’t bad. The name—Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen—is a little misleading, but only if, like I did, you approach this restaurant from a place of ignorance. Up until very recently, I’d had no idea that Japanese ramen started off as a Chinese dish. (“Ramen” is actually the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese “lamian,” which refers to a type of Chinese noodle.) So while the ramen served at KFLSBR isn’t at all what most of us have come to think of as ramen’s only legitimate form, there’s no need to bring out the pitchforks. This is ramen as it was when it first showed up in Japan. Rest easy, Yelpers.

But before you start to think I’m praising KFLSBR’s noodle soups, I should probably come out and say that they sort of suck. The noodles themselves aren’t bad, but the broths are so simple that they just end up coming off as boring. Really, I see no reason to mess with these dishes. There are plenty of other things on the menu, so I tend not to bother.

I’m similarly unimpressed with all the stir-fried noodle dishes I’ve tried. (And that should probably mean something to you, because I like almost every single stir-fried noodle I come across.) Again, the noodles themselves are good—they have a satisfying chew to them, and they’re sort of fun to eat—but the stir-fries as a whole are exceedingly boring. Both the pork (visible in the dish pictured above) and the roast duck are themselves surprisingly tasty, but the noodles they come atop are just so…one-note. They’re way too sweet, and none of the veggies are worth the (minimal) effort it takes to bus them to your mouth. So I tend to pass on these dishes, too.

Peking duck buns from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

I guess I should get the rest of the dishes I don’t like out of the way before I go on to talk about what I do like. (This isn’t my favorite restaurant, obviously. But they do have a few dishes I love, no doubt.)

Anyway. Let’s talk soup dumplings. I love xiao long bao (or steamed buns, as they’re called at KFLSBR), but these just don’t do it for me. The wrappers are fine, but the broth inside is pretty bland. Maybe that’s why I saw a guy literally squeezing the soup out of each and every one of his poor, poor dumplings before forcing the dry wrappers down his throat with a grimace. (No, that’s probably not why. He was probably an idiot, and I probably need to learn to keep my eyes on my own food.) In any case, I’ve written these off as another skippable dish, though I can work up a little more excitement for these than I can for the other dishes I’ve mentioned so far.

One more dish. Just one more dish, and then I promise I’ll have some nice things to say. The pan-fried Peking duck buns—which are pictured immediately above, and which actually are buns, rather than dumplings—are so close, yet so far. The buns themselves are fine, but the duck inside has too funky of a flavor for me. And on top of the funkiness, it’s cloyingly sweet, too. I’d love to be on board—duck, when done right, is probably my favorite meat—but I just can’t. Sorry.

Scallion pancakes from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

And now, finally, onto the dishes I crave. First, the Shanghai pan-fried pork buns (sheng jian bao), which are totally worth the 20-minute wait the menu warns about. The wrappers are thick and doughy—too thick and too doughy, perhaps—but I, for one, love them. And the broth inside tastes (or maybe just seems to taste) a whole lot better than the broth you’ll find in the xiao long bao.

Honestly, the first 45 minutes or so of my inaugural KFLSBR meal had me pretty discouraged, and by the time these dumplings arrived, I’d pretty much decided that I’d never be coming back. But these were enough to sow the seed of craving in me—and as long as I can keep ordering them, I’ll keep going back to KFLSBR. (…On occasion.)

My other favorite dish—and I’m aware of how silly this sounds—is the scallion pancakes, pictured immediately above. I don’t exactly know why, but these things just haunt me. I like them better than any of the other scallion pancakes I’ve had lately, and that’s not only because I’ve been eating some moderately underwhelming scallion pancakes—it’s (for once) because these are solid in their own right. They aren’t just greasy and somewhat crisp (which is all I require of a scallion pancake, really); they have actual layers to them, too. They outer bits are crisp enough, but the inside’s soft and and fluffy, even. Perfect.

I can’t really deny that these place is, overall, a disappointment. On top of the problems I have with the food, there’s…well, it isn’t cheap, it’s small and cramped (and always packed with tourists, too), the service is (frankly) pretty bad, and they automatically apply a 15% gratuity to all bills. (That last one’s fine with me, actually, but I do think they could afford to be a little more upfront about the practice. The receipt shows what they’ve added on, but it encourages you to tip, too—and the servers never, ever mention that you’ve already tipped when they’re handing you the check.)

But despite all that, and despite the dishes with which I’ve had my differences, I don’t mind KFLSBR. And in fact, I actually sort of like it. In small doses, it’s fine—especially if you’re short on Chinese restaurants whose food won’t kill you.

Find KFLSBR at 811 8th Avenue, between 48th and 49th; 146 East 55th Street, between 3rd and Lexington; or 610 8th Avenue, between 39th and 40th.

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Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles

A dish of roast pork pan-fried noodles and a dish of chicken with broccoli from Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles

I’ve been on a Chinese-food kick lately. And the fact that I, a Nut-Allergic, can even say that is pretty wild, given how nut allergy–unfriendly a lot of Chinese restaurants tends to be. But I, ever-obsessive, have found another (incidentally) nut-free Chinese restaurant. Don’t bother holding your applause. I’ll just wait.

[While they’re clapping: On the off chance you’re a Nut-Unallergic following along because you just can’t resist the downright-magnetic appeal of my incredible writing—that’s 100% joke, everyone—please just know that finding a Chinese restaurant that doesn’t have a bunch of cashews bumping around the back is near-impossible. And with the way wok cooking works (soaping a wok is a big no-no, for example), those who aren’t cool with potentially ingesting trace amounts of nuts kinda-sorta need Chinese restaurants to be nut-free. Now you know.]

Okay. That’s enough. (Enough clapping, or enough rambling? I’ll never tell!) Point is, I’ve found a new Chinese restaurant that specializes in—guess what?—noodles. Hand-pulled noodles…and tasty ones, at that. (Ugh.)

Roast-pork pan-fried noodles

As far as I know, Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles (henceforth THPN) doesn’t have an online contact form or an email address, so I settled for giving them a call. Three calls, actually, over the course of a few weeks, because restaurants—especially Chinese restaurants—that seem too good to be nut-free give me trust issues and agita. Fortunately, all three calls yielded the same basic answer, and fortunately, the gist of that answer was that there are no tree nuts or peanuts in this restaurant’s kitchen. I should say, though, they they have some dishes—Kung Pao broccoli, for example—that I’d expect to contain peanuts. Maybe those dishes are peanut-free; I’m not sure. I’m only allergic to tree nuts, so I didn’t do much digging on the whole peanut issue.

Before actually showing up, I had no idea THPN’s menu would be so big. I’d expected noodles, noodles, and maybe a dumpling or two, but they have plenty of other classic takeout fare, too (fried rice, General Tso’s, beef with broccoli, Hunan shrimp—the works). But when I received my three yeses, I wasn’t all that excited, as I had no idea I was coming into a full-fledged Chinese restaurant. (Well, maybe not quite full-fledged. But it’s the fullest-fledged nut-free Chinese restaurant I’ve found to date. For better or worse, I’ve been looking for a place just like this—not Sichuan cuisine or dim sum, but the Chinese-American food we misguided Americans can’t seem to get enough of—mostly to replace the exceedingly average takeout of my childhood.)

Roast-pork pan-fried noodles

Anyway, what originally drew me to this place was its promise of tasty noodles, so I’ll start with those. At THPN, you’ll have the absurd privilege of choosing between eight (!) types of noodle: hand-pulled (which come regular, fat, small-wide, and big-wide), knife-cut, and rice (which come regular, skinny, and sticky). You’ll have to choose between pan-fried and soup-drenched (my phrasing)—and then you’ll have to pick from their seven-trillion meat and vegetable offerings, too.

Personally, I tend to vacillate between the fat hand-pulled noodles (they’re the least likely  of the hand-pulled noodles to come off as overcooked, I’ve found) and the knife-cut noodles (which are extra thick and so pleasantly chewy). I always, always go pan-fried, and as for meat, I’ll usually choose roast pork. (My instinct is always to spring for duck, but THPN’s, though tasty, is very bony, so it’s more trouble than it’s worth, if you ask me—and their beef has a funny flavor to it, so roast pork it is.)

And that’s basically my favorite THPN dish: pan-fried (fat) hand-pulled noodles with roast pork, pictured all over this post. There’s plenty of pork, and almost all of it’s delicious. (The occasional piece will be over-cooked or over-seasoned, but that’s life.) The vegetables are hit or miss, but I’ve never heard of anyone ordering a fried noodle dish for the vegetables, so I’m happy to let these slide. (And actually, I usually specify through Seamless that I’d like my noodles sans most greenery, and fortunately, the folks at THPN listen. Wish me luck with the whole scurvy thing, though.) Plus, this dish is greasy as hell, too. In all, it’s precisely what I’ve been dreaming of.

Like I said, I’m also a pretty big fan of the knife-cut noodles. They don’t look all that thick, but they have the chewiness of a spaetzle- or a gnocchi-type pasta, which sort of chewiness happens to be precisely my fetish, noodle-wise. But these, relative to the hand-cut noodles, seem to come in a slightly smaller portion, and with a whole bunch of extra (i.e compensatory) vegetables, too—so I don’t order them all that often. Here is what’s for some reason the only picture I have of them:

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Swoon. (That’s the aforementioned bony-ass duck, by the way. I have no idea how to eat this stuff without getting my fingers involved.)

Enough about the noodles, though. (For now, at least. But good luck getting me to shut up about these noodles for long.) Because another one of the most exciting things about this place is its offer of a lot of the other Chinese takeout I’ve been missing. Take, for example, chicken with broccoli. I have no idea why, but as a kid, I could never order Chinese without tacking on some chicken with broccoli. I was a little obsessed, I guess. (So obsessed, in fact, that my mom took to making me takeout-style chicken with broccoli for dinner. And it was all right—but as anyone who’s ever tried to home-cook takeout knows, it just wasn’t the same.)

Anyway, I’d pretty much forgotten about just how inexplicably much I liked this stupid-ass dish—that is, until I saw it on THPN’s menu. I had to get it. Just to see. And now, I’m once again entirely unable to order Chinese without throwing some chicken with broccoli into my cart, too.

Honestly, there’s not much to say about this stuff. It’s takeout chicken with broccoli, and it tastes like takeout chicken with broccoli. The broccoli’s average; the chicken’s average. Smothered in sauce, both are unfairly tasty. It’s a surprisingly flavorful dish, and it does well over rice (though THPN’s rice can be a little mushy). That’s probably way more than I needed to say. Here’s a picture:

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What else is there to say? The fried rice is pretty good—it’s on the bland side, but that’s sort of just how this kind of fried rice is, so I’m not really complaining—and the noodle soups are fine, too, though I don’t tend to have as much fun with them as much as I do with the pan-fried noodles. But (for me, at least) finding out stuff like that is, like, 75% of the fun at eating at a place like THPN. So go. See for yourself. Make your own discoveries.

Find Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles at 1 Doyers Street, between Bowery and Pell. Or check out their uptown location (to which I’ve never been): Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles 2, located at 648 9th Avenue, between 45th and 46th.

[By the way, this is my 100th post, y’all. Thanks—really, thank you—for following along.]

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Nom Wah, Part II: Nom Wah Nolita

Nom Wah Nolita's storefront

A few days ago, I published a post on Nom Wah Tea Parlor, one of the only nut-free Chinese restaurants I’ve ever found. This time around, I’ll be writing about Nom Wah Nolita, Nom Wah’s brand-new fast-casual spot in (guess where?) Nolita.

Now, Nom Wah Tea Parlor has been around since 1920. (It’s said to be Manhattan’s first dim sum restaurant.) Nom Wah Nolita opened three months ago—and even the fast-casual concept they espouse has only been a thing in the US since, like, the 1990s. You get it—Tea Parlor, old; Nolita, new. And it shows.

Nom Wah Nolita is incredibly hip and modern. It’s like you took the Tea Parlor and cross-bred it with a Crif Dogs–type place—and then stripped the offspring of any remaining traces of its Chinatown roots. Its all metal and hard-wood, with a few bright-white walls, one featuring a bunch of graffiti-esque drawings of, um, anthropomorphic dumplings. You order via iPad (which is sort of annoying, actually—they’re a little glitchy), and you’ll be in and out in no more than 20 minutes.

Nom Wah Nolita's menu and self-service kiosk

Honestly, Nom Wah Nolita is what the Tea Parlor would’ve become, had its renovations gone terribly, terribly wrong. But since Nom Wah Nolita isn’t the Tea Parlor—since it’s a separate restaurant that should be evaluated on its own merit—this isn’t a tragedy. A 1920s dim sum spot becoming a hyper-modern bastion of “new Chinese food”? Unacceptable. Its counter-service offshoot blaring some hip hop every now and then? Totally acceptable…as long as the food’s good.

Unlike the good ol’ Tea Parlor, Nom Wah Nolita is not peanut-free, but there aren’t any tree nuts on-site, so I’m entirely comfortable eating there. As always, I called ahead, and the guy who answered the phone—who also happened to be allergic to tree nuts!—told me I’d be “good to go” (i.e. that I’d have no reason to fear cross-contamination at Nom Wah Nolita, because there are no nuts or nut products anywhere in the kitchen). Reassurance from someone with allergies like mine is all I need and way more, so the first time I went, I actually wasn’t worried at all.

Steamed ribs with char siu glaze, scallion pancakes, and

That first time, I tried a whole bunch of different things: the steamed ribs with char siu glaze, the scallion pancakes, the vegetable fried rice, and—how could I not?—the soup dumplings. And though no particular dish was mind-alteringly incredible, I thoroughly enjoyed my meal. The ribs were so unprecedentedly tender that I was able to forgive them for their too-sweet glaze, and the scallion pancakes, though a little bland, had the perfect texture. The fried rice was also on the bland side, but it wasn’t bad in the slightest—and there were crunchy bits of something or other on top that managed to make the dish worthwhile.

And then came the soup dumplings. (As the iPad will warn you, soup dumplings take longer than everything else to cook, so you’ll probably have finished the rest of your food by the time you end up with any.) They taste just like the Tea Parlor’s—which is to say that they’re pretty damn good. The broth is lovely, and…

Actually, in Part I, I said of the Tea Parlor’s soup dumplings that you’d do best to just try them for yourself, and I think I’m going to have to stick to that assessment. For whatever reason, I have trouble describing these, but they’re intensely flavorful, and I love them. Go for it.

Soup dumplings from Nom Wah Nolita

I’ve since tried the ho fun beef noodle soup with seasonal veggies and the Cantonese smoked chicken leg with ginger and scallion sauce—both via delivery, so I didn’t take any photos. Ho fun really aren’t my thing (I hate thin, floppy, wide noodles, but that’s just me; there’s nothing inherently wrong with Nom Wah’s), and there are too many good-for-nothing greens hanging around in the broth—but for me, the cilantro-heavy broth itself is what makes the dish worthwhile. (Plus, there are plenty of scallions floating around in there. Always welcome.)

I’m not much of a fan of the smoked chicken leg, though. The sauce is intensely garlicky, and the meat isn’t quite as tender as I would’ve hoped. I don’t taste scallion; I don’t taste ginger; I don’t even really taste chicken. I taste garlic. So while the meat itself is pretty good, the dish as a whole is seriously underwhelming. Oh well.

On the whole, though, I’m pretty into Nom Wah Nolita. My affection for the place may not be all that obvious from all I’ve just written—it’s been a pretty lukewarm write-up, I know—but you have to take into account, too, that it’s safe Chinese food we’re talking about here…served in a genuinely pleasant space, which helps a bunch. (What can I say? I’m 20. I’m in college. They’re catering precisely to me and mine.) I’ve only been by a handful of times, but I can definitely see this place becoming one of my weekend-lunchtime staples.

Find Nom Wah Nolita at 10 Kenmare Street, between Elizabeth and Bowery.

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Nom Wah, Part I: Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor's storefront

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 decidedlyadvertisedly 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.

nomwahteaparlor

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 menu at Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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.

Two nut-free egg rolls from Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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.

A nut-free pork bun from Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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.)

Nut-free soup dumplings from Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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.)

Turnip cake and pan-fried dumplings from Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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.

Fried rice and pan-fried noodles from Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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.

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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.]

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Essen New York Deli, Part I

A pastrami sandwich from Essen NY Deli

Man, Jewish delis are the best.

I’ve had a lot of luck with kosher food, but until now, that luck has been reserved for baked goods. I’d never been able to find a nut-free delicatessen—that is, until I heard about Essen, a glatt kosher deli in Midwood, Brooklyn that happens not to have any nuts in house.

It sounded too good to be true, so I sent Essen an email to double-check. The response I received, in its entirety, was as follows: “Hi, we do not cook with any nuts but we are not a 100% nut free environment. Any questions please call us.” That response could have meant a whole lot of different things, so I did end up calling with a few further questions.

After being transferred a few times, I ended up on the phone with someone who really seemed to know what he was talking about. He explained to me that, while they don’t cook with any nuts at Essen, they don’t like to call their food “nut-free,” as they have no means of controlling what their customers (or employees) bring in with them. They prefer to say that they make food without nuts so as not to mislead anyone with severe allergies. So far, so fair.

Bread’s trouble, though, and I wasn’t about to make a trip to Midwood without the promise of a sandwich, so I was sure to double-check on that, too. With me still on the line, the man on the phone called up his bread supplier, put him on speakerphone, and asked him whether there might be any nut traces in their rye or club breads. The answer was “no,” and that was that. Within 30 minutes, I was riding the Q to Avenue J.

[Before I move on, I’d like to emphasize just how competent and knowledgeable this guy was. I asked what “we are not a 100% nut free environment” meant, and without a second’s hesitation, he jumped into an explanation that demonstrated a degree of allergy awareness that was really refreshing—especially at the tail end of a few hours of restaurant-calling. He was patient, clear, and actually helpful, and I was incredibly grateful. Serious props to the folks at Essen for that one.]

The restaurant’s bigger than I expected it to be, with a few different rooms full of tables. There’s counter service at the front, and it’s easy enough to get food to-go, but Sam and I opted to eat in (mostly because I’m absolutely hopeless when it comes photographing food without a table to help me out). Ourselves excluded, all the patrons were Jewish—and most seemed to know one another, too. We got a lot of funny looks, but such is life in an Orthodox neighborhood for even the most modestly dressed of goyim. In all, everyone was friendly enough.

Essen has two menus: one Chinese and one with traditional deli food. Before I’d even sat down, I knew I’d be ordering the hot pastrami on rye. (How could I have considered anything else? Pastrami’s at the base of my need-hierarchy pyramid.) Sam got the Yitzy’s Favorite Deluxe (fried skirt steak with gravy on a club roll), which came with french fries and onion rings—and as we tend to, we split both sandwiches.

First came the cole slaw and pickles, though. The cole slaw was good, if a bit sweet—though it was much, much better after a few too many bites of pastrami. There were two types of pickles: half-sours, which were all right, and full-sours, which I much preferred. The full-sours tasted inexplicably like salami, but we didn’t care much. We ate them quickly, and our sandwiches arrived soon after.

The pastrami on rye (pictured above) cost $14.95, and it was worth every last penny. Fatty, tender, and juicy, the pastrami itself was really tasty, if a bit thin-cut—and the bread wasn’t half bad, either. It held its integrity, at least. (I tend to hate rye, but how can you hate anything that’s acting as a vehicle for a few inches of freshly-carved meat? You can’t.) As a whole, the sandwich was simple and delicious, and I’d already begun to crave another within an hour of finishing my first. (Unfortunately—or fortunately, perhaps—I was back in Manhattan by then. Oh well.)

The Yitzy’s Favorite ($22.95) wasn’t my favorite, though I didn’t actually dislike it in the slightest. It wasn’t at all bad, but the fried steak just wasn’t anywhere near as good as the pastrami, and the club bread was worse than the rye, too. I loved the gravy, but the sandwich was a little boring overall—and it’d cost $8 more than the pastrami, which just made me feel like I was paying more to miss out. Nothing was wrong, but I’m not exactly in a rush to order the Yitzy’s Favorite again.

The fries it came with were pretty terrible, by the way. (Like, inedibly bad. Neither Sam nor I could get through them, which is sort of saying a lot.) And the onion rings were not onion rings; they were strands of hot onion adorned every few inches with clusters of fried batter. Regardless, they were delicious, though certainly a little strange.

With tax and tip, the meal was on the expensive side, but I maintain that it was absolutely worth its price. Fortunately, Essen is far enough away that I can’t stop by every day, which should go a long way in keeping me from going broke. Their menu’s pretty big, and I’ve only eaten two of its offerings, but you know what? I’m ready to say with confidence that I love this place.

Perhaps one day I’ll let go of the pastrami (yeah, right) and try out the rest of the menu. I’d like to try their knishes, or their matzah ball soup, or maybe some of their other sandwiches, at least. Perhaps I’ll even get around to trying a few things off their Chinese menu—though I think that’ll probably deserve a post of its own. (That’ll be part II—stay tuned.) But for now, it’s pastrami for me.

Find Essen New York Deli at 1359 Coney Island Avenue, between Avenue J and Avenue K. (It’s not that far away, really. From Manhattan, it’s 40 minutes on the Q, tops—way less if you’re starting off downtown.) Beware, though: They are Jewish, so they won’t be open on Shabbat. They close at 2pm on Fridays, and they don’t reopen till 11am Sunday mornings.

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Han Dynasty

Pork lo mein from Han Dynasty

For a while there, bagels were my holy grail. They just seemed to be the one thing I couldn’t even come close to finding, and for a while there, they were the food I wanted most, too. Since finding a workable bagel place, though, I’ve realized (remembered, really) that there are plenty of foods that are much harder to safely source—and at the top of that list is Chinese.

Takeout Chinese food (authentic, inauthentic, and everything in between) is hard not to love. But Chinese restaurants seem to all use nuts, and the nature of wok cooking is such that cross-contamination is a very real possibility. A restaurant would need to be nut-free in order for me to feel safe—but in all the time I’ve spent on this planet, I’ve never so much as heard of a nut-free Chinese restaurant. Google searches lead almost exclusively to recipes, unanswered questions, and questions with unhelpful answers. So basically, I figured the situation was hopeless.

I used to eat Chinese takeout pretty often, but I stopped when I got old enough to understand the risks involved. By now, it’s been years (and years) since I’ve dug into some spring rolls, chicken with broccoli, or my favorite: pork lo mein—and naturally, my craving has been building since then. I’m getting tired of abstaining, though, so I figured it was time for me to start combing through menus, sending emails, and making calls.

One of the (very) many restaurants I looked into was Han Dynasty, a Sichuan mini-chain with two New York City locations: one in the East Village, and one the Upper West Side. I’d sent them an email, but got impatient while waiting to hear back, so last Friday afternoon, I decided to give Han Dynasty a call. The man I spoke with understood my question—which is uncommon, no matter what type of restaurant I’m calling—and sounded confident when he assured me that they didn’t use any tree nuts in anything. He even double-checked on whether I could eat peanuts and sesame seeds, which was a good sign.

His apparent competence, combined with my absolute desperation for Chinese food, sent me (and my equally desperate boyfriend) running to Han Dynasty that same day. To be honest, though, this restaurant isn’t quite what I was looking for. I’m not really into spicy food, so Sichuan cuisine and I tend not to get along. But Han Dynasty does have a few dishes I’ve been known to lust after, even if those dishes aren’t the ones owner Han Chiang recommends. Still, I figured the place was worth a try, at the very least. After all, I’m hardly in a position to be choosy.

When we arrived, the guy who took my order reassured me that they don’t use any tree nuts or tree nut products in any of their dishes. They do use plenty of peanuts, though—and I figured it’d be best to try to avoid any dishes that explicitly contained peanuts so as to avoid any potential cross-contamination on that front. (It’s notoriously difficult to find peanuts free from tree nut cross-contamination, and I figured Han Dynasty was unlikely to be using a supplier that’d be safe for me. Better safe than sorry!)

Anyway, in an attempt to avoid both mouth-numbing spice and potentially-contaminated peanuts, I ordered something I’ve been specifically craving for a while now: pork lo mein (pictured above). Lo mein isn’t Han Dynasty’s speciality (they’re known for their dan dan noodles, actually) but I wanted to give it a try. Sure, it’s on the section of the menu marked “Kids & Baby Adults”—but I’m both, so perhaps the lo mein would be perfect for me.

I also ordered the Taiwan pork belly buns, not expecting them to be filled with crushed peanuts (though I should’ve known, because gua bao usually are). As soon as Sam bit into one, though, he told me there was something nut-like and crunchy in it, so I decided it’d probably be best for me to stay away.

I did eat the lo mein, though, and it wasn’t half bad. It wasn’t the best lo mein I’ve ever had, but I certainly did enjoy it. Pork lo mein is pork lo mein; rarely is it ever intolerable, and I took this helping down without issue, despite its oversized vegetable chunks. It was certainly on the bland side, and the pork itself was a bit too starchy—but hey, safe Chinese food. There’s only so much I can bring myself to complain about.

Pork lo mein from Han Dynasty

I’ve since tried the scallion pancakes, too—another dish that isn’t quite recommended—and though I have very little to compare them to, I can confidently say that I liked these a whole lot. They’re crispy, greasy, and satisfying, and though they aren’t the most flavorful thing in the world, they do hit the spot.

So…while I didn’t try anything I should’ve tried, and while my opinion is probably heavily tainted by desperation, I’m more-or-less satisfied with Han Dynasty. Maybe (hopefully!) someone out there will read this and put this place to better use than I ever will. But for now, I’m going to go order some more lo mein and continue my search—with a little less desperation, fortunately.

Find Han Dynasty at 90 3rd Avenue, between 12th and 13th, or at 215 West 85th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam. Of course, they also deliver—and if you, like me, live too far away, their food’s also available through Doordash, Postmates, and Caviar.

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