Friday, March 16, 2012

92 Years New: Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Soup dumplings and turnip cakes
There is no shortage of dim sum houses in New York.  These days, even new Chinese "inspired" restaurants are having a go at dim sum, giving it a fancy makeover with organic ingredients, sleek dining rooms, and equally high-brow price tags.

Organic ingredients are nice but sometimes you just want it down and dirty.  You don’t want to care about whether the ground pork in your dumplings was sustainably raised and you don’t want a dissertation on the architect who designed the dining room.  You want to be hustled to a cheap table with wobbly legs, thrown a pot of hot tea, and play dodge ball with steamer baskets as a surly Chinese grandmother flings your order on the table.

Nom Wah Tea Parlor was one of the first on the proverbial block in New York City working the trade of small plates of steamed buns, turnip cakes, and all manner of dumplings.  In existence on Doyers Street since 1920, Nom Wah was in need of a facelift a few years back and the influx of some youthful energy.  Enter Wilson, nephew of owner Wally Tang, who came on board in 2010 to turn the place around.

Steamed Pork Buns
After a visit last weekend I would say there are certain aspects of the place that still feel decidedly last century, like the lumpy booth cushions and the sloping tables.  Among the modern improvements is the elimination of carts replaced with a handy order card.  What you loose in mystery cart presentations Nom Wah makes up for in the freshness of each order. 

Among the highlights were the obligatory pork buns, perhaps the largest and fluffiest I’ve seen.  Snow pea and shrimp dumplings were bursting with fresh greens, not frozen.  The clean, pure flavor of shrimp and greens were enough to make up for the package itself, which seemed to cling to the steamer basket, a resistance that made for some messy eating.

Shrimp and Snow Pea Dumplings
There were a few misses.  Fried dumplings were chewy, not crisp, and left a small pool of grease on the plate in their wake.   The soup dumplings were satisfactory though the sticky problem meant I lost the bottom off one and with that, the “soup” that is the whole point of the dumpling[1].  A plate of fried turnip cakes with bits of pork and greens was delicious after one bite, but bites two and three declared their presence as a solid lump of cake sitting in my stomach, taking up precious room I had reserved for other dishes.

The biggest surprise was the ubiquitous dim sum sesame ball- a crisp fried ball of dough filled with sesame paste and covered in toasted seeds.  This is the sort of thing you normally eat at dim sum because it is there, not so much because you want it.  At Nom Wah, you want the sesame balls.  The crisp hard shell collapsed with a bite revealing a soft molten center.  It was the way the a sesame ball should be, a play on contrasts- crisp and soft, savory and sweet.  And perhaps the sesame ball was a good representation of Nom Wah itself, an old player remade into something familiar but just a little bit new, and if not perfect, just a little bit better. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

[1] Meanwhile my brother shot himself in the face with hot liquid trying to take a bite out of the side of one.  Hilarious.

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