"Are we...um...getting food?" I asked.
Diana, Greg, Adelyn, Jessica, and I were at Nom Wah, officially Chinatown's first dim sum parlor (open since 1920) according to the sign on their window, unofficially Chinatown's least occupied restaurant according to the meager clientele last Sunday night. And that's counting the two tables of old men in the back of the restaurant who were playing mahjong.
Our friendly waiter/chef/one-man-band had greeted us when we entered the restaurant and brought us a massive metal pot filled to the brim with scalding hot tea, but disappeared into the kitchen for a long enough time to make us wonder, "Does this place actually serve food?" And yes, you would wonder too, considering Nom Wah doesn't bother with menus, and we were the only people there who had the intention of eating. They serve you dim sum based on the number of people in your party. After Adelyn went to the kitchen to investigate the situation, she returned with a positive report.
"He's making food! He's back there with a huge steamer."
In the meantime, we soaked in our surroundings. The purpose of the night was to help Diana with her Wong Kar-wai-inspired photoshoot, featuring a dapper Greg and female cohorts Jessica and Diana. Adelyn and I were her assistants. Nom Wah was the perfect setting: it looked—and smelled—as though it hadn't changed in decades. It didn't feel dirty as much as worn down. Aged red vinyl booths, simple wooden chairs, mirrored columns with coat hooks (some broken), high shelves of ancient-looking tea and teapots, an antique range that was being used as a table/storage, and so much more. Surprisingly, the clock on the wall was correct.
One of the most peculiar things to me was the single display case to the right of the entrance filled with stacks of large almond cookies. It's a bit hard for me to believe that hoards of cookie-hungry customers regularly descend upon Nom Wah so that it's worth keeping a case stocked with hundreds of cookies. But...there they were. For some reason. I sort of wanted to know how old they were, but at the same time was happy to remain ignorant.
We didn't nurse our cups of tea for long before our waiter reappeared with a large tray full of plates and small metal steamers. He gave us at least five pieces of each item so we could eat try one. Which meant we were given up to eight pieces of certain dishes. Which meant, "Oh jebus this is a lot of food." A lot of, unfortunately, not very good food—something that didn't sink into my head until hours after the meal was over because, being so hungry at the time and drunkenly charmed by the setting, I ate everything sort of ravenously. Mastication and tasting weren't high priorities.
Well. Um. Here's a rundown of the dishes:
Har gow (shrimp dumplings): I only ate one, so I don't recall much about it besides, "Not very good." That's probably why I only ate one.
Pork dumplings: I've never had pork dumplings quite like these before. The filling had a denser-than-average texture and the flavor was a bit off. I don't think I finished a whole piece. :[
Steamed char siu bao (roast pork buns): Soft fluffy bun to the rescue! The pork filling was fine—not memorable nor objectionable—but we were all more into the bread. Overall, not bad.
Sticky rice dumplings: Balls of sticky rice wrapped in some sort of ...skin. Simple lumps of carbs. These were my favorite dish of the night, even if the glutinous rice was on the dry side. I love most iterations of glutinous rice.
Rice noodle rolls with mung bean sprouts: I've never had rice noodle rolls filled with mung bean sprouts before. They add a pleasant crunch. The rolls were tougher than usual, but I ate the whole thing because I EAT EVERYTHING. Especially if it's rice-based.
Shumai: Not so great. I think it's safe to say the meat-centric items here lean towards "fail," but considering the prices (I'll get to that soon), it's not surprising.
Shrimp ball things: Like fish cakes, but shrimpy. Soft with a bit of sproinginess. Not bad.
The amount of food was just right; not much was left behind. Our expectations were so low that despite the food being subpar, we were pretty satisfied with it. Things got even better when the waiter gave us our bill.
$18? $18? There was no indication on the bill of how many dishes we ate, just a simple total. $18 for at least 10 dishes that fed five people; dinner can't get much cheaper than that. Granted, the cost of the ingredients for our dishes was probably negligible, but there are other costs involved, like...salaries, electricity, gas, etc. Or maybe not.
We finished with an almond cookie and a fortune cookie for each of us. I rarely eat almond cookies, but I thought this one was good—light, crisp, buttery. My fortune cookie was good too, or as good as a not stale fortune cookie can be. And my fortune was quite apt:
:) You are sociable and entertaining. :)
(Replace the emoticons with actual smiley faces.)
Indeed, I AM FULL OF AMUSEMENT.
- There's a human under there. Maybe. Photograph: Diana Yee
My main role during the photoshoot was "human coat rack / bag holder / pack mule. Which was fine with me; the models (Greg and Jessica) had to frequently go jacket-less in the bitter cold. Not only was I wearing my super poofy sub-freezing weather-appropriate jacket, but I was covered in like, two more jackets. On my head. I felt like a winner!
During dinner we found a pair of neglected glasses on the neighboring table. We could tell from the thick, square plastic frame that they were probably meant for someone much closer to blindness than we were. So naturally, we passed it around the table and each tried it on for a dose of dizziness and buggy-eyed action.
- The cook/waiter strikes a pose. Photograph: Diana Yee
We moved about the restaurant as we pleased, taking a gazillion photos along the way (check out Diana's photos here and here) without any question from the cook/waiter. I can't imagine what he must've thought of us: "Why is that young woman sitting on a table in front of the mirror? Why are they hanging around those stools? Why is that other young woman uncomfortable wearing heels?" I can't imagine any other public place where we could've done this without drawing attention to ourselves. If we annoyed the crap out of him, he didn't show it; he was super nice. It'd be great to find out what his story is.
When we left around 7:30, the cook/waiter was preparing to leave the close the restaurant. Sort of. After he left—we noticed since we stuck around Doyers Street to take more photos—all the lights were still on and the mahjong-playing men were still in the back. I loved that.
The night continued with a random photoshoot inside the hallway of a nearby office building. I forgot to get good photos, hence why I ended up with this mid-lip balm application shot of Greg.
We also made a random stop at Mee Sun Cafe (next on our Chinatown "To Eat" list) where I bought a zong zi.
The night ended at Hon Cafe, one of the few bakeries in Chinatown that's open late, for more dessert. Greg bought a log of rolled up cake since it was only $2 and it ended up being pretty good—moist, spongy soft, not too sweet. No idea why it was so cheap compared to their other offerings.
Although it's only January, I can confidently say that dinner at Nom Wah will be one of the most memorable meals of 2010. It doesn't matter that the food wasn't great; it was the people I was with at the environment that made it an incomparable experience. I feel sort of hypocritical heaping on the praise as someone who is generally opposed to the idea of eating somewhere purely for the setting instead of the food—think "trendy restaurant with hip customers and overpriced food"—but Nom Wah is the opposite. And I like that.
13 Doyers Street, New York, NY 10013 (b/n Pell and Bowery; map)
Mee Sun Cafe
26 Pell Street, New York, NY 10013 (b/n Doyers and Mott; map)
70 Mott St, New York, NY 10013 (b/n Canal and Bayard; map)