Nom Wah is Chinatown history in a teapot, a 90-year-old dim sum house where time is measured in decades. Unfortunately, its food has mostly left Chowhounds cold in recent years. Now a nephew of the latest owner (who'd been at Nom Wah for only six decades) has taken over the family business, and a pleasantly surprised Lau says the revitalized Nom Wah is serving some of the best dim sum in the neighborhood.
The kitchen now cooks to order instead of sending food out in advance to circle the dining room in carts, and the improvement in freshness is especially evident in the right-on-target texture of cheung fun (steamed rice-flour crêpes) with scallions and cilantro, seasoned with light sweet soy. Steamed dumplings with shrimp and snow pea leaves are another highlight, notable for their delicate skins and fresh filling. Even Nom Wah veterans like Polecat, who is no fan of the dim sum, found something to like there back in the day: big, crisp almond cookies. Good news: They're back.
The new Nom Wah is the furthest thing from the city's modern dim sum palaces. The next-generation owners brightened up a once-uninviting dining room with homey touches like red-and-white checkered tablecloths, but left the retro vibe undisturbed, keeping some vintage signage, photos, and fixtures like tea tins and an ancient-looking cash register (a few feet from a 21st-century point-of-sale system). The result, Lau says approvingly, is a Chinatown place that "doesn’t look like a Chinatown place at all."
As long as we're in the neighborhood, here's a Chinatown riddle: When is a carrot not a carrot? As it happens, Lau knows the answer: when it's chai tow kway, the Southeast Asian snack with a name that means "carrot cake," but which contains no carrot. This street-hawker staple, nearly impossible to find in New York, is made of rice flour and grated radish, steamed then pan-fried. Think of the Cantonese dim sum favorite lo bak go, but with more robust fixings: egg, preserved radish, garlic and spring onion, and dried shrimp sauce.
Something quite close to chai tow kway has turned up at New Kim Tuong, a Chiu Chow Chinese restaurant. Known here as fried rice-flour cakes (qian dan gao), they're "perfectly crispy on the outside, perfectly minced and soft on the inside," Lau writes. The condiments are on the money, especially sweet preserved radish, though he thinks a lively hot sauce—like those at Chiu Chow competitors New Bo Ky and New Chao Chow—would put this dish over the top.
The rest of the menu is hit-or-miss, Lau adds. Hits include tender, juicy "Pi Pa" roast duck, named for its resemblance to the Chinese musical instrument, and a surprisingly good, clean-flavored pork bone soup with barley, served free. Queens hounds may remember this restaurant from its former incarnation in Elmhurst, a onetime hound hangout. "Good to know they're still going strong," says erstwhile regular E Eto.
Nom Wah Tea Parlor [Chinatown]
13 Doyers Street (between Pell Street and Chatham Square), Manhattan
New Kim Tuong [Chinatown]
83 Chrystie Street (between Hester and Grand streets), Manhattan