The Girl Who Ate Everything

Blogging about food and whatever since 2004.

Nom Wah Dim Sum Adventure Time

This post originally took place on January 10.

Yup, there's food.

"Are 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."

interior Greg LADIES / MEN
Hanging around. With the opportunity to pee.

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
Har gow.

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 of some sort
Pork dumplings.

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. :[

roast pork buns pork bun innards
Roast pork buns.

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 sticky rice dumpling
Sticky rice dumplings.

Sticky rice dumplings: Balls of sticky rice wrapped in some sort of 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 rice noodle rolls filled with mung bean sprouts
Rice noodle rolls.

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 things

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
Shrimp balls.

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.

fortune cookies and almond cookie

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.)


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!

This is my duurrhh face
Another weird roboppy face.

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.

Nom Wah
Bye bye, Nom.

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.

somewhere on Doyer's street
Lip balming.

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.

zong zi
Zong zi come to meee.

We also made a random stop at Mee Sun Cafe (next on our Chinatown "To Eat" list) where I bought a zong zi.

slicing the cake

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.

Wacky photo?
Awkwardsauce? Greg, me, Jessica, and Diana.

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.


Nom Wah
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)

Hon Cafe
70 Mott St, New York, NY 10013 (b/n Canal and Bayard; map)


Christine / January 16, 2010 1:54 AM

I agree that the food doesn't always make a meal memorable. It's usually the company, just like you said. But saying that, great food does help it along.

Greg looks pretty sharp in that picture. Heh. And you look too cute with those glasses.

The one-man-ran-restaurant must've given your table one of the fresher almond cookies, eh? That's assuming that the others are old, heh.

Nicholas / January 16, 2010 2:47 AM

howwwww can you serve based on the number of people at the table? What if everyone at the table wants to eat 2x the normal amount?!?!?!


kim / January 16, 2010 7:52 AM

I couldn't agree more about having gret company.

I think that green tea roll is probably discounted as the day wears on. Just to keep rid of inventory I guess.

Btw, did you have to get the store owners' permission to shot?

Greg kind of look like Takeshi from Chung King Express. :)

Brownie / January 16, 2010 11:17 AM

I wandered in hear one time with my brother-in-law in search of pork buns before Mei Lai Wah reopened as Mei Li Wah. I think we got there a little closer to 7:30 mah jong time, because after standing there and staring at the almond cookies for about 10 minutes while the guys in the back were totally engrossed in their game, we decided to leave. We figured that almond cookies were maybe the only offering and I'm allergic to nuts. Nom Wah fail on our part. :( The atmosphere of the restaurant is really neat in a time capsule sort of way. I love imagining it bustling with customers in it's prime.

Michelle / January 16, 2010 12:05 PM

Holy Crap, I must go eat those sticky rice dumplings! I used to get those when I was a kid in the 80's at a restaurant in Philly called Ho Sai Gai and I have not seen them since. I think Ho Sai Gai is still open but they don't serve dim sum anymore. These sticky rice dumplings must be an old-fashioned or no longer popular dim sum item but they are so delicious.

Angel / January 16, 2010 12:23 PM

i was really craving for Indian food, then i saw your post.
and now, all i want is some dim sum!
i love your site, long time ready and first time tagging :)
you are cute too!
definitely why i come back so often to visit your site.

egeria / January 16, 2010 6:44 PM

Mmmmm Greg in a suit...thanks for sharing :D

I've never had bad dim sum, and I hope I never do! Me and my friends tend to go to the same place, partly because we know the food is good, partly because my Chinese friend gets a discount. So we win both ways :D

Oi-lin / January 16, 2010 9:04 PM

The "skin" around the rice dumplings is "tofu skin" (doufu pi / fu pei), which is made from the "skin" formed during the boiling of soy milk.

roboppy / January 17, 2010 1:39 AM

Christina: Great food would've made it a better experience, for suuure. But I guess a place with great dim sum wouldn't be nearly empty and have a bunch of mahjong-playing dudes in it. :)

Nicholas: You can ask for more food if you want! (The waiter offered.) :D We were not terribly hungry.

Kim: We didn't get the owner's permission. He didn't seem to mind us, interestingly!

Greg was Tony Leung from 2046 for Halloween. :) That helped pave way for the photoshoot, haha.

Belinda: The glasses were pretty sweet. Worth the short moment of dizzyness.

Brownie: I don't blame you for leaving after waiting for 10 min. If I hadn't been there with a bunch of friends I would've felt like nothing was going to happen. ;_;

Mike: Re: smoking...shhh. :)

That video was awesome!

Michelle: I dunno why they're not popular anymore, THEY ARE TASTY. Nom Wah is the first place I've had em.

Angel: Thanks for reading! I hope you get to fulfill your dim sum craving soon.

egeria: Diana should have more photos soon. ;)

I keep trying different dim sum places; I don't have a fave yet. But NYC isn't known for good dim sum so I may never find a fave. :[

Cat: Fluff = win.

Oi-lin: Thanks for the info! I am a fan of tofu skin.

Mahar / January 17, 2010 5:10 AM

Now horribly craving dim sum. SERIOUSLY.


18$ is a 900 peso meal here; split 5 ways that's 180 pesos per person. A cheap but reasonable standard for an okay-ish Chinese dinner.

In other words: you got developing world prices in NYC. That is full of epic win.

Carmen / January 17, 2010 8:24 PM

Hello Robyn! It's Carmen (from the past; you hosted me on Diskobox so many years ago). I've been keeping a (mostly) baking blog for the past couple of months and tonight I linked to a Serious Eats article (it came up in a Google search for the Starbucks macarons) and saw it was written by you! Glad to see you're doing well, and we both live in New York now... and coincidentally, I just ate dim sum for brunch today (Dim Sum Go Go)

Anyway, all these things. I was just thinking of you and thought I'd say hi, old friend!

James / January 18, 2010 9:50 AM

I'm definitely a fan of genuine restaurant style (the kind that can't be planned and paid for). When I spent an afternoon at Eden Center (a suburban Vietnamese parking lot village in Virginia), the best part was hanging out in dank, smoke-filled hallways playing cards while out-of-shape middle aged Viet dudes sat at the next table watching variety shows and taking turns at the xiangqi board.

It's too bad, though, that A RESTAURANT CALLED "NOM" doesn't have amazing dim sum :P

eatyourheartout / January 18, 2010 10:08 AM

Way better account of Nom Wah than I could have done. Definitely one of the most memorable experience for my 2010, so far, too! Good call, Robyn! ;) Hope you had fun as well - as it seems like you did!

Where's the photo of you holding up a gong zi? You can't hide that.

Pat / January 18, 2010 2:48 PM

Awesome posting & pics from Nom Wah! I've always wondered about the dim sum there. I never had the nerve to try the food there since, like you guys were always the only patrons when walking in amongst the MJ players. Next time, we might take a load off from the cold & have a siu mai or har gow or two, & some coffee before heading off to the hand pulled noodle place a few stores down! Thanks for sharing the great times in chinatown!

auntjone / January 18, 2010 3:32 PM

1. Greg needs to wear suits in your pictures more often. Hubba hubba!
2. Go back and get those glasses. Pop out the soda-bottle-bottom lenses and wear them every day for the rest of your life. You may not be able to wear hats but you can rock plastic frames like no one else.

roboppy / January 18, 2010 4:13 PM

Mahar: Developing world prices, yeah!!

Nicholas: Just remember: LOW EXPECTATIONS! :D

James: Oo, I went to Eden Center once! Didn't get to spend enough time there though. No middle age Viet dudes for me. :( Someday, someday.

D: I'll just link to the photo here. That's all the public needs. :)

Pat: Try a cookie! Cos that's the best thing there.

auntjone: I hope these comments give Greg an ego boost, hehe.


Michelle / January 19, 2010 11:45 AM

I just came across another website entitled "the girl who ate everything" and got very confused..

Rosebud / January 20, 2010 6:35 AM

Diana is an amazing photographer. Her photos reminded me of Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love. And somehow you make tepid-tasting dim sum memorable-- reminds me of why I love gathering friends for noshing even on cold nights. (And you do rock those gramps glasses.)

ML / January 20, 2010 1:02 PM

I second the Greg = hubba hubba hot comments. Yikes! (And yes, if anyone could look cool in grandpa glasses, it's you.)

Margaret / January 20, 2010 2:04 PM

OK, this has already been said multiple times, but it's no less true: Greg looks completely fantastic in that suit & ciggie combo -- Tony Leung to the Nth degree!! How about working in an "interesting garb" sub-theme for your group outings? Kathy would be up to the challenge. Looove those grampa specs on you.

roboppy / January 21, 2010 12:24 AM

Michelle: There are a few other sites with the same name. :( Then again, it's not like I have a copyright. I do have the dot com though! I WIN?!!

Rosebud: She captured the mood really well! And ain't no better way to improve subpar dim sum than with...GRAMPS GLASSES!

ML: Hubbahubba..NOOO! ;)

Margaret: Whenever we eat out with Diana we should go the interesting garb route! Unfortunately, I don't really have anything interesting; I'll have to rely on neglected glasses. ;_;

Jason Lam / December 18, 2010 2:06 AM

Thanks for writing and taking pics of this. I just walked by this place tonight and wondered. It's under renovation now. Maybe for some TV show? They have a Facebook page. I don't know if it seems so cool anymore, but maybe that's better than being empty.

roboppy / December 22, 2010 3:11 AM

Jason: Thanks for the heads up! We're definitely gonna go back when it reopens. Sort of sad to hear that it's getting spiffed up, but I guess it's about time. :)

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