My parents were introduced to dim sum in the very early 1960s by a friend who had discovered Nom Wah's, Chinatown's oldest dim sum restaurant (dating from 1920) on narrow Doyers Street. By the mid 1960s, they would make 4-5 pilgrimages per year to Nom Wah from the suburbs, with my 4 brothers and I in tow, to gorge on steamed dumplings, fried delicacies, and almond cookies. By about 1975, however, we shifted our dim sum loyalties, first to the Silver Palace, which could better accommodate our large group and which offered a greater variety of dim sum, then to Flushing, and eventually, after several hit-or-miss (mostly miss) places in Nassau and Suffolk, to Fortune Wheel in Levittown, which also was closer and offered more convenient parking for our Lido Beach-based parents. All this time, however, Nom Wah never left our thoughts, and over the past 40 years, on the very few occasions when I found myself in lower Manhattan, I would find an excuse to walk down Doyers to refresh my memory -without going in (as I was almost always alone and I prefer to have dim sum with a crowd.
Having heard about Nom Wah's temporary closure and it recent resurrection under ownership of the nephew of the previous owner, I was eager to revisit it for a meal, and the opportunity finally came yesterday, August 3. My mother, 26 year old daughter, one brother, and I drove into Manhattan, once again negotiating the narrow streets of Chinatown in car and on foot, to re-kindle our relationship with Nom Wah Tea Parlor.
As might be expected, we found a tea parlor that in some ways was the same (modest appointments, limited number of menu items, cramped rest rooms, and the classic facade outside) and others different (booths instead of tables, much better lighting, a younger staff that is more fluent in English, and - most significantly - ordering off a menu instead of choosing from among dishes piled on carts). We ordered quite a few different dishes - many of them the standards we order at any dim sum place: har gow; pork siu mai; char siu bao (steamed roast pork buns); stuffed eggplant; steamed rice rolls with shrimp and with beef; chicken feet; chive and shrimp dumplings; sesame coated lotus balls; turnip cake; taro dumplings; and steamed spare ribs in black bean sauce. We compared these to the analogous dishes at Fortune Wheel, where we have had our most recent experiences.
First conclusion: ordering from a menu means that the dishes are hotter when you get them; my single biggest criticism of Fortune Wheel is getting lukewarm food. Second: none of these dishes surpassed in taste their analogues at Fortune Wheel; in fact most (all except the gar gow, chicken feet, and char siu bao) were inferior to Fortune Wheel in that the flavors were more muted (blander), though still somewhat tasty. Third: we really enjoyed two dishes that we cannot get at Fortune Wheel: the fried crab claw (minced shrimp wrapped around a crab claw (like a lollipop) with the claw shell as a stick) and the "original egg roll" - chicken and mixed vegetables wrapped in an egg crepe and deep fried. And finally, the almond cookies we so enjoyed as kids had morphed into a still tasty, but different textured cookie.
As we sat there, we wondered how reliable our memories are of how these items tasted 40-50 years ago, and the effect on those memories of all the other dim sum we have eaten through the years in places as different as Flushing, Washington, DC, Albany NY, San Francisco, Kansas City, MO, Toronto, and other NYC Chinatown restaurants. Of course, the cooks and recipes also have changed over the years, so who is to say that the dishes we recall from the olden days did NOT taste as good as we recall?
So, will we go back to Nom Wah Tea Parlor? My mother thinks she won't, as she disliked the schlep into Manhattan and knows the Fortune Wheel staff quite well. I might, but I also see so many enticing dim sum places within just a few hundred feet of Nom Wah that are beckoning. If I can get my other three brothers to agree to stroll down memory lane with he again, however, I will give it another try!