Nom Wah Tea Parlor is New York Chinatown’s oldest dim sum restaurant. For decades, it served Cantonese dumplings and rolls in the traditional way, from trolleys pushed around the restaurant. When Wilson Tang took over Nom Wah in 2011, he switched from trolleys to menus with pictures and started serving dim sum through dinner. He also opened new locations that broadened Nom Wah’s repertoire beyond dim sum. These were big changes for a restaurant that opened in 1920, but Wilson saw them as measures to secure Nom Wah’s future for its next century in business.
(Sound of restaurant)
WAILIN WONG: Wilson Tang is a native New Yorker and a Chinatown kid. On weekend mornings, his family would head to Chinatown in lower Manhattan for dim sum. It’s a Cantonese meal consisting of small dishes traditionally served from trolleys that servers push around the restaurant. There’s dumplings, rolls and buns, some steamed, some fried, all accompanied by a bottomless pot of tea.
WILSON TANG: I hated that growing up. I hated fighting the crowds. When I was a teenager, we lived in Queens and it was this ordeal, you know, like driving out to the city, looking for parking and then waiting in line and getting a number.
WAILIN: Teenage Wilson had no idea then that dim sum would play a much greater role in his life than just a weekend family ritual. Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, how Wilson Tang, who used to dread these weekend outings, ended up running New York’s oldest dim sum parlor and bridging the gap between his family legacy and new generations of diners.
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WILSON: I am the owner and operator of Nom Wah Tea Parlor. We are actually in four places: New York Chinatown; Philadelphia Chinatown; we’re in Nolita of Manhattan, which is just slightly north of Chinatown; and we have a sister restaurant called Fung Tu in the Lower East Side.
WAILIN: A couple named Ed and May Choy opened the New York Chinatown location as a bakery in 1920. It’s on a small, curved street that earned the nickname The Bloody Angle because neighborhood gangs used to fight each other with hatchets there in the early 1900s. Many years later, Wilson’s uncle Wally Tang got a job there under the Choys. He was 16 years old.
WILSON: He started working there in the 50s as a dishwasher coming from China to America through the Cultural Revolution. He was working there for the Choy family until the 70s, where he purchased the restaurant and the building from them and continued it into the late 2000s.
When you’re a newly immigrant, the thought process is you have to do this, versus for myself, being second generation where my parents were immigrants, it’s something where like, I want to do this.
WAILIN: Wilson had tried his hand at restaurants before, when he left a corporate job to open a small bakery in Chinatown. The daily grind of running a cafe wasn’t right for that stage in his life. His friends were staying out late and partying while he was getting to the bakery at 5:30 in the morning to open up. But the experience of owning the bakery gave Wilson a taste of being a restaurateur, and it stayed with him.
WILSON: I was in my early 20s. A lot of my peers and friends were out having fun, doing what 20 year olds do, and I ended up selling it because it was a business that just kind of got by. I think I was a little too young, like my life wasn’t really balanced out yet, but in my second opportunity with Nom Wah, I saw myself being a little more levelheaded, a little older, a little wiser—basically had the dating stuff out of my system, the having fun out of my system, and I was closer to 30.
My uncle Wally was like, “Hey, I’m getting too old for this. I know you were previously interested in restaurants and foodservice, why don’t you take another stab at it?”
WAILIN: That was in 2010. The year after that, in 2011, Wilson quit the corporate world for the second time and succeeded his uncle at Nom Wah.
WILSON: My parents were questioning me, like why would you want to do this? Because you took a stab at it and it wasn’t really fruitful for you and you ended up losing three years of your life working at this thing that didn’t work out, where you’re educated, you know, you can just get a job in corporate America at some big firm and you have a lot less stressful life.
I was at a point in my life where this was basically what I saw was my last chance. No one else really wanted it and if I didn’t take it, it would have just went down in history as closed and maybe some other proprietor would come in and take the space for whatever business they want to do and it’s gone forever. I feel like I did a good thing for New York. It’s a century old restaurant and I did my part as a native New Yorker to really hold onto old New York.
WAILIN: If you didn’t know Nom Wah’s history, you might think it was one of these new businesses made to look like an old-fashioned one. You might think Wilson hired someone to put in the tin ceiling and hand distress the vinyl booths, that he went to thrift stores to buy the mismatched plates and metal tea canisters. But the vintage patina is real, and Wilson wanted to keep that character.
WILSON: I’m very proud of the fact that I’m able to kind of just stop time for a little bit and people can come in and “Wow, this is what the place looks like when it was the 50s.” And kudos to my uncle Wally for being the kind of gentleman that his whole motto was “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” and the place is that way because of his thought process, you know. I see a lot of new companies or new restaurants or new businesses, they try to replicate this old New York style and it’s very hard to replicate. I literally have something that’s genuine and unique and real.
WAILIN: Wilson preserved the Nom Wah aesthetic but made other changes. He saw an opportunity to update how dim sum was presented and served, so he got rid of the trolleys and extended the restaurant’s hours. His father was skeptical about serving dim sum for dinner, but Wilson was committed to trying the idea.
WILSON: Most dim sum parlors or dim sum halls serve it from like 6 am to 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and that’s the lifespan of a dim sum restaurant. Those are the hours; that’s what culture tells you to do. If I had it my way, I would just do this for breakfast lunch and dinner and I wanted the cuisine to be very approachable as a Chinese American or an American Chinese person. I saw Nom Wah as this kind of Chinese diner—you have booth seating, you have tables, and I’m like, why can’t we just make a menu with all the dim sum items, like put a picture, description, price. As a Chinese person like, oh hey, you drink tea, but as an American person, I want to know what you’re drinking, like what different types you have, and what the meaning behind it is, like what’s this good for, what’s that about, what’s the caffeine level on this.
WAILIN: It used to be that in the mid afternoon, when Chinatown dim sum restaurants closed, their chefs would head to Nom Wah to smoke and play mah johng or cards. Today, the dining room is busy through dinner with a mix of tourists, Chinatown regulars and nearby office workers. The dim sum chefs don’t hang out there anymore. But that brotherhood isn’t what it used to be. There aren’t new chefs coming in to replace the old guard.
WILSON: This dim sum profession is very hard to get into, either language barrier or it’s just too labor intensive to actually learn and do. They want, the chefs or cooks these days, they want like this instant gratification, oh like I want learn something and just do it and excel, where making this skins for dumpling, it’s not an easy task. You have to have the right formulas, you have to have the right technique and it takes years to learn, so we’re in those crossroads right now and how do we push forward and be creative and push the envelope of what the word dim sum means?
WAILIN: At Nom Wah Chinatown, the menu is the same. It was important for Wilson to keep signature items like the pork bun and shrimp and snow pea leaf dumplings. The new locations that he opened, like Nom Wah Nolita, became his playgrounds for trying new things with Chinese cuisine. It’s also a way of addressing the talent gap. He can recruit younger chefs who might not be interested in traditional dim sum but are inspired by those flavors or techniques.
ZHIYU LAI: We offer ho fun beef noodle soup and it’s our shank sliced beef, but obviously a shank can’t be completely all slices so we had the leftovers —
WAILIN: That’s Zhiyu Lai, the co-owner and general manager of Nom Wah Nolita, which is the newest restaurant in Wilson’s portfolio. It opened in 2016 after a brief run as a pop-up location. Zhiyu is explaining the origins of a popular soy-braised beef dish they serve over rice or noodles. It’s called fiery dank shank.
ZHIYU: So we put the leftovers aside. We added some chili oil in there, like Chef Calvin, he just started putting different things in there and that was our staff meal, and I was like, “This was a pretty good staff meal. We should offer it out there.” And when we did, it took off.
WAILIN: Wilson and Zhiyu have been friends for years and they both come from entrepreneurial immigrant families. Zhiyu’s father drove a New York taxi cab for 18 years before opening his own business in the restaurant industry, which made him a little concerned about his son entering the same high-stress world. At the same time, he also wanted his son to enjoy his work. It’s the same kind of second-generation luxury that Wilson talked about earlier. The first generation works to survive and succeed so that the next generation can have a choice of vocation. Zhiyu didn’t have to go into restaurants, but he wanted to.
ZHIYU: My siblings and I we were raised to go into the corporate world, right? We went to high school, college, and then I worked at a desk job for 16 years. It’s funny because throughout those 16 years, my dad was like, “Do you envision yourself sitting here for the rest of your life?”
My dad, he owned a food distribution business. His company was called Yi Pin. He made those soy sauce, hot sauce, duck sauce packets that go out to all the takeout restaurants, right? And just seeing him hustle like that, I’m like I’m younger than when he started, you know? So I know I can do it.
WAILIN: Nom Wah Nolita is a small, self-service place where customers order and pay for their food at touchscreen kiosks. The Nolita location serves a selection of traditional dim sum, which Zhiyu brings over from the Chinatown restaurant in a little smart car. There’s also other dishes that change seasonally, and the data that the staff collects from its modern point of sale system helps shape the menu.
ZHIYU: When it’s winter, it’s cold, we have a lot of noodle soups, right? A lot of spicier things, you know? As it’s getting warmer, I see from the POS system that the orders are going down, so that just proves to me that when spring comes, we have to come up with something more of a cold dish, something more cleansing in a sense. A lot of people like to stay with everything the same and they think it’ll last throughout, and I think that’s why a lot of restaurants fail. There’s no innovation.
WAILIN: In big cities like New York, there are a lot of reasons why restaurants fail. They’re chasing the same food trends: farm to table, small plates, handcrafted artisanal whatever. There’s a labor shortage of cooks, not just in dim sum like Wilson mentioned, but across the industry. And restaurants that don’t own their buildings get priced out as rents go up. Nom Wah’s Chinatown location has some measure of protection: The neighborhood hasn’t gentrified as rapidly as the area around it, and Wilson’s Uncle Wally owns the building. But Wilson doesn’t just have the original location. There’s Nolita, Philadelphia and a sister restaurant called Fung Tu. His expansion of the Nom Wah family of restaurants means that his real test as a business owner isn’t whether he can keep the Chinatown restaurant going, but whether his new ventures have staying power. He’s planning another location on Canal Street in lower Manhattan.
WILSON: You know, on the exterior, like on social media, everything looks great, right? Like I’m always posting positive things and long lines and cool shit, right? But the reality is that I am responsible for feeding the mouths of over a hundred people. People that look at me, they lose track of that burden. If any of these places don’t do well or they fail, it’s a big deal, you know, like this Nolita employs over 10 people. Nom Wah in Chinatown, we have over 30 people. At Fung Tu, it’s over 20 people. In Philadelphia, it’s over 15 people. It all looks glamorous because we’re in a media world but it’s very daunting and there’s a lot of people involved and I have to make sure it’s successful, that we keep the money flowing. It looks good but it’s actually a lot harder than it really looks.
WAILIN: There’s one thing Wilson doesn’t worry about, and that’s whether Nom Wah is authentic. He likes to challenge what that word means, especially in the authenticity-obsessed world of restaurants and foodies. Can you serve dim sum for dinner and be authentic? Can you be a Chinatown restaurant with a dining room full of non-Chinese customers and be authentic? Can you serve a dish called fiery dank shank and be authentic? Wilson just wants you to come into one of his restaurants and have a good meal.
WILSON: I use that word very loosely now, like you know, I kind of don’t care what you think, you know, as long as it’s authentic to me, it’s tasty and it’s affordable, then that’s really what I go for. Like I kind of walk through the noise and as long as it’s well accepted by the masses, it’s okay by me.
WAILIN: Even Wilson’s parents have come around, in their own way. He’s bridged the gap there too.
WILSON: You know, there’s a moment where I first started where it was kind of dark ‘cause like they didn’t understand why I was doing this. I think restaurants really got hot. I think cooking shows and social media has really boosted this career or work into another stratosphere, where restaurateurs or cooks or chefs are celebrities really helped the cause. Today I think just because they’re Chinese and like it’s you know, mum’s the word and not saying much means that they’re happy. I think the fact that I’m not needing their help and I can actually help them proves that I’m doing okay and there’s no question about that.
The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. There are all different ways you can keep in touch with us. You can email us at tips at the distance dot com. You can tweet at us @distancemag, that’s @distancemag. And you can leave us a rating or review on iTunes. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.