Reviving a Century-Old Classic

Restaurateur Wilson Tang brings innovation to Nom Wah Tea Parlor
By Irene Luo, Epoch Times
September 21, 2018 Updated: September 21, 2018

In Manhattan’s Chinatown, a foodie paradise brimming with scrumptious noodles and mouthwatering dumplings, perhaps no establishment is as legendary as the Nom Wah Tea Parlor. Almost a century ago, Nom Wah was the first dim sum parlor to open in New York City. Since Nom Wah’s relaunch in 2011, flocks of restaurant-goers congregate outside every day, awaiting a taste of Nom Wah’s famed dim sum offerings, from its original “OG” egg rolls to its classic shrimp dumplings.

Wilson Tang, Nom Wah’s current owner, is a towering figure with a friendly, youthful face. Although Wilson grew up in a family of restaurateurs, his Chinese immigrant parents despised the idea of their son working in a restaurant. “‘We do not want you in the restaurant at all. Stay far, far away.’ And I think that’s the immigrant’s mindset,” Wilson said. Toiling away at multiple jobs, they hoped Wilson would end up in a comfortable and stable white-collar position.

So that was exactly what Wilson did, studying hard through school to land himself a banking position at Morgan Stanley. But deep down, he always felt a different calling. After four years, Wilson decided to drop his career to try his hand at the food business. His first attempt—opening his own bakery—failed to bear fruit as he worked successive 70-hour weeks without turning a profit. So Wilson was back in banking until three years later when a golden opportunity arose.

Wilson’s uncle Wally, Nom Wah’s then-owner, felt it was time to retire and offered ownership to Wilson. “As much as my parents wanted me out of the food business, it’s in my DNA,” Wilson said. “I love seeing people smile when they eat.” So Wilson decided to take a leap of faith and try again. With persistence, dedication, and a good dose of business innovation, Wilson revived the classic restaurant and transformed it into one of Chinatown’s busiest and most beloved fixtures.

Safeguarding History

When Nom Wah first opened as a tea parlor and bakery in the 1920s, its most adored specialty was the dainty mooncakes, which attracted long lines of eager customers. Over time, its focus shifted to dim sum, and Nom Wah became a socializing club for local dim sum chefs. When Wilson took over, he decided to keep its quintessential, antique appearance—from the faded red sign outside to the decades-old tables, chairs, and red vinyl booths inside. Tucked away on quiet, winding Doyers Street, Nom Wah is a timeless glimpse into an earlier era.

Doyers Street was not always the street it is today. Wilson still recalls the Doyers Street of his youth, dubbed the “Bloody Angle” because it witnessed so many shootings among rival gangs. Now the street is free of violence but filled with historical distinctiveness, preserved by old establishments like Nom Wah.

Bold Innovation

Although old-fashioned in appearance, Nom Wah, with Wilson at its helm, has also forged ahead as a pioneer in the business. Besides bringing back the old regulars, Wilson also attracted a large swath of new customers through active promotion on new channels, especially social media. Along the way, he’s created a booming online business for Nom Wah merchandise—think T-shirts, gift cards, and teapots—and launched a curated wine and beer menu.

Wilson transformed the dim sum eating experience when he decided to switch out the classic carts for picture-filled menus. At traditional dim sum restaurants, servers push around carts loaded with different dim sum dishes that people pick and choose from. Growing up, Wilson watched as carts clogged walkways, food rolled around getting cold, and people shouted at servers, clamoring to order. In lieu of that cumbersome process, he introduced picture-filled menus and gave restaurant-goers a checklist of options they could mark with a pen. And within minutes, fresh, steaming dim sum would be delivered to the table.

Wilson took it a step further when he started serving dim sum—a cuisine traditionally reserved for breakfast, brunch, and lunch—for dinner too. “To me it wasn’t such a big deal, but to the industry, it was a game changer,” he said. Some reacted with horror, but soon other dim sum restaurants were following suit.

Over the past few years, Wilson’s revived Nom Wah has become one of Chinatown’s most famous eateries, attracting crowds of locals, tourists, and even famous celebrities. The restaurant got a publicity boost when “The Amazing Spider-Man 2″ production crew decided to shoot a scene at Nom Wah for the Hollywood blockbuster. Wilson also opened four Nom Wah sister stores in downtown New York and Philadelphia, each a continuation of the Nom Wah brand with some unique twists tailored for each neighborhood.  

Forging Ahead

These days, Wilson juggles time at his various Manhattan locations, offering mentorship to up-and-coming restaurateurs, donating time and food to different charitable causes, and spending time with his wife and two toddlers.

Wilson plans to make sure Nom Wah keeps to its roots, combining affordable prices with delicious flavors. All the dishes are between $5 and $10, in accordance with Wilson’s philosophy to “underpromise, overdeliver.”

He’s watched with pride as Chinese cuisine in America has grown with the help of businesses like Nom Wah. “I think, as a whole, Chinese cuisine has gone a long way,” Wilson said. It’s no longer a cuisine prized simply because it is cheap and predictable. As Chinese food gains popularity, people have gained insight into its extraordinarily diverse offerings, from Cantonese to Sichuanese. “It really puts Chinese food on the map as a cuisine,” Wilson said.

“I see a lot of entrepreneurship coming out of it, especially for Asian Americans. From low-end to high-end, there is always something happening,” Wilson said. “It’s great for me because it just builds the momentum for our cuisine as a whole.”

Growing up, Wilson was ingrained with a spirit of hard work as he watched his father work multiple jobs, every day of the week. At age 14, Wilson started working part-time jobs too, from pushing grocery handcarts for a restaurant supply business to delivering messages and mail for a bank. He hopes to instill this ethos in his children as well as the younger generation of restaurant entrepreneurs.

“I encourage my younger Asian-Americans to work hard, to try to figure out what they need to do to make a great restaurant, and to make a great menu, a more creative menu,” Wilson said. “Don’t get discouraged by pessimism or people that aren’t facing upward.”