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Welcome to Nom Wah Tea Parlor. Opened in 1920, it is the oldest continuously running restaurant in Chinatown. Located in an area originally known the “Bloody Angle” (born from its street’s sharp corner and the warring gangs who took advantage of this unsuspecting turn), Nom Wah was foremost a bakery. Its specialty were their mooncakes, for which patrons would regularly line up down the block. While the neighborhood has since morphed from a gritty, blood-soaked quarter to a humming hotspot—adjacent to trendy speakeasies designed to resemble those from the good ol’ days of Prohibition and gang warfare—Nom Wah has remained a neighborhood staple, still offering fresh Chinese pastries in addition to their steamed buns, dim sum, and tea.
The literal translation of dim sum is “touch the heart,” and is often combined with yum cha, “to drink tea.” Dim sum culture began in the port city of Guangzhou. Originally a luxury, it eventually made its way into teahouses, particularly those serving as rest stops along the historic Silk Road. Travelers, traders, and rural farmers would frequent them to enjoy a hot beverage and conversation. Over time, the houses offered small bites to accompany the tea, which evolved into the modern dim sum tradition.
Typically, carts stacked with small plates and bamboo steamer baskets roll out of the kitchens, and customers boldly flag down their desired carts. The dim sum is enjoyed family-style; shared amongst the table, so diners can enjoy a veritable banquet of steamed buns and finely crafted dumplings. And while Hong Kong and Guangzhou still lay claim to the world’s greatest dim sum, kitchens like Nom Wah introduced, fostered, and perfected this culinary export for the US.
The first known owners were the Choys, who in 1950 hired a scrappy sixteen-year-old dishwasher named Wally Tang. Within four years he had worked his way up to manager, a position he held until he bought the restaurant in 1974. Sixty years after washing his first dish, Uncle Wally passed the reins of the establishment to his nephew, Wilson, who is still running it today. In 2015, the Nom Wah brand expanded to touch the hearts of diners in Philadelphia’s Chinatown.
Wilson welcomes opportunities to showcase the restaurant. Numerous movies and TV shows—from Reversal of Fortune to Law and Order—have used the charming red leather booths, vintage fixtures, and shelves of antique tea canisters, all lovingly restored to uphold Nom Wah’s cred as a New York institution. In 2015, the Met Gala pre-party was held at the restaurant.
Today, the lively carts of the Tea Parlor have been replaced by a made-to-order, all-day menu…but the classic dishes and century-old vibe remains (and you won’t hear us complaining about additions such as brunch mimosas). But tea is still central to any dim sum meal, a nod to the houses where the cuisine originated, and essential for an authentic dim sum experience. The most popular varietals are Oolong, Jasmine, Chrysanthemum, and—for white tea drinkers or enduring, expressive skeptics among you—Shou Mei, also known as “longevity eyebrow.”
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