Wilson Tang: Don’t Dismiss My Chinese Restaurant Because I Have White Customers

Nom Wah Tea Parlor, 13 Doyers Street.

Editor’s note: The following article is from Wilson Tang, the owner of the Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Chinatown:

How do you decide whether a Chinese restaurant is any good?  Do you check out the customers to see if any Chinese people are actually eating there?  I know a lot of people do — and some of them are turned off by too many white diners. But I’ve gotta tell you,  it’s a pretty messed up way to choose a restaurant.  As a guy who grew up in Chinatown, surrounded by family in the restaurant business, I definitely have strong feelings about this topic.

Two years ago, I took over the Nom Wah Tea Parlor from my Uncle Wally, who’d run the place (a Chinatown institution) since 1974.  In some ways, not much has changed from the good ol’ days.  Our longtime Chinese “regulars” are here every morning when we open at 10:30, just as they have been for decades. Dim sum is traditionally a morning and midday meal, so it’s no surprise that Nom Wah, Chinatown’s oldest dim sum parlor, was historically busiest early in the day.  What’s different is that I have put a lot of energy into a “dim sum for dinner” campaign, creating a late day business that never existed before.

This has meant that after 2 p.m., our mostly Chinese clientele becomes more diverse. If you peek in our windows during the evening hours, you’ll still see Chinese customers but also lots of white diners.  As far as I’m concerned, this is a very good thing. It’s not just good business to broaden Nom Wah’s appeal beyond Chinatown and beyond strictly Chinese customers. It’s what comes naturally to me, a second generation Chinese-American; I’m as much American as I am Chinese. Growing up on the (ever-shifting) border between Chinatown and the Lower East Side, I didn’t just hang out with Chinese kids; my circle of friends was about as culturally and racially diverse as you can get. As an adult, I continue to have all types of friends — Chinese, white, black, brown, etc.  I can’t imagine running a restaurant geared to one group or another.  That’s not my world.

So what about those “Yelpers” or the curious “foodies” wandering by the restaurant — occasionally speculating about the “authenticity” of a place with a seemingly all-white clientele?  I want them to know a couple of things. First, our chef is as “old school” as he could be.  He’s been at his dim sum craft since the 70’s and has worked at some of the top dim sum joints in Chinatown. His dim sum master has turned out dozens of Chinatown’s greatest dim sum chefs. Same goes for all of my kitchen staff.  Bottom line: there’s not much he and his team are doing any different than when they worked at restaurants with a strictly “Chinese” customer base. So in my opinion, it’s not about the food.

Second, I came back to Chinatown to run the family business because I wanted to help sustain a place that’s a big part of my family’s heritage in a neighborhood that I love.  My counterparts at other Chinese restaurants often praise the new Nom Wah for creating an “American” customer-base.  It’s something they’d love to do, too.  But it doesn’t happen because they’re too busy beating eachother up with “rock bottom prices” geared towards an exclusively Chinese audience.  These restaurants are “just getting by” instead of figuring out how to grow their businesses as Chinatown and Manhattan change.

In short, I think it’s a very good thing to have other people besides Chinese dining in my restaurant. It means that my outreach to New Yorkers and people from all over is working. It means my “dim sum for dinner” campaign is working. It means Nom Wah is reflecting the diversity of Lower Manhattan. It’s all good news. So seriously, don’t immediately dismiss my restaurant or any restaurant in Chinatown because the customers don’t look the way you think they should look. Instead, stand by us as we bridge that divide between the “American way” and the “Chinese way.”  And above all — judge us on the stuff that matters — our food, our service and our atmosphere.

 

  • JP Bowersock

    Mr Tang,

    As a fan of your restaurant I can understand your frustration when swipes are taken at you for catering to a non-Chinese clientele, with the added claim that your food must be inauthentic because of this. This should come as no surprise. 

    Restaurants “beating each other up with ‘rock bottom’ prices” is part of the restaurant culture in Chinatown. Diners have come to expect it. I even find myself dining out in Chinatown thinking, “I could have gotten this same dish a buck or two cheaper over there.” This is because so many Chinatown chefs display an almost supernatural ability to turn some of the meanest ingredients into delicious dishes they can sell for pocket change. It’s a pretty impressive feat, although it might not be a good way to make a business profitable. And as far as non-Chinese diners go, it’ll only attract the most adventurous.

    You’re bucking the trend, which is bound to draw praise and criticism. Both are irrelevant compared to the success of your business model. So far so good in that regard. Best of luck to you!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1137544834 Beth Goffe

    I haven’t been to Chinatown for a meal in a long while.  Your philosophy prompts me to head down there for a nice dim sum dinner very soon.  More power to you, Mr. Tang!

  • Snshin

    2nd what JP said. And I want to add, if you’re concerned about customer service, what’s with the guy that hangs by the register lately? He’s very aggressive, in such way that even when he’s trying to be nice he’s not.  And that’s on a discordant note with the rest of the staff.

  • dubz

    Everyone loves nom wah! Just please don’t ever change your sign :)

  • Dr Rosen

    Good on you Wilson. You’ve maintained the integrity of your menu and your restaurant while making changes in order to have a thriving business. Oh, and your food is awesome. Nom Wah is one of my favorite restaurants in the city and I can’t wait to scarf down more of your tasty vittles.

  • Gabriel Meister

    Well said. VERY well said. And I echo the sentiments of one of the other commenters below — “Just please don’t ever change your sign :)” Sure, it may get to the point where it’ll need to be *retouched*… but dude (if I may call you “dude”), that sign is a golden thread between eras that can never break.

    As Ginsberg’s mom wrote, “The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window.” I don’t know what makes me think of that now, and I’ve never quite known what it meant, but there it is then.

    Gabe (LES but in Tokyo for a spell)

  • anon

    Personally, I look at the rating of the restaurant and whether or not it has a clean dining area; bonus if I can see the kitchen and assess whether or not it’s clean. I also look at the staff; filthy or stained clothing is an obvious bad sign.

    The customer base is probably the worst index.

  • david

    I have not eaten there, but my Chinese pals say the food is so=so… so what does that mean?

  • De Gustibus

    It means that your friends say the food is so-so. That’s all. Not that every Chinese person in NYC says the food is so-so, or every person, period. I don’t mean to imply that you have few friends, but: the smaller the sample, the less reliable the data.

  • chefmateo

    As you know, the worst customers are foodies amd yelpers, diners who generally know nothng about authentic cuisine, cooking, or the resto biz. Ignore them, keep your vision and stay the course.

  • http://twitter.com/TiewLayLoMo Hugh G. Rection

    Not everybody. I agree with david’s pal mentioned above…the food at nom-wah is so-so at best. it’s a damn shame that doyer street is also turned into a douche-bag hangout with the two bars next door to nom-wah.

  • http://twitter.com/fivespicealley 五香路

    I was out in L.A. two weeks ago visiting my family, and we had our customary Sunday dim sum with Grandma at the Empress Pavilion downtown–a place we have been going for as long as I can remember. Just as we were digging in to some tasty ha gau, Grandma turned to my mom and noted with a laugh, “There are so many lo fan here nowadays!” We all turned to look around the room, and sure enough, it was crowded with people of every color.

    Wilson, I couldn’t agree with you more. Change is a part of life. The fact that more people want to learn about and participate in Chinese culture is a good thing. And when it comes to dim sum, I let the food speak for itself.

  • Wu

    All of the Chinese posting here, are either self-haters like the author, or white people perpetrating a fraud, pretending to be Chinese. LOL!!!

  • dechance

    I don’t trust most reviews from Yelpers, they are outright rude. They give a poor rating just because there is a long time or something stupid like that without giving the food and service a chance. I think they destroys mom and pop business with stupid reviews and also fake ones.

  • cjl2009

    Those foodies/Yelpers are casting themselves as intrepid anthropologists who are daring to explore the natives’ natural habitats.

    Dude and dudettes, you’re just getting dim sum. If it tastes good, who cares how pale the clientele is?

    I guess those Apple products aren’t making you feel unique enough from the typical American suburban crowd that y’all are so desperate to differentiate yourselves from.

  • Culbert

    All my Chinese girlfriends love going to Nom Wah. Its the best Chinese food in NYC. People are just jealous. Come enjoy real Chinese food in Chinatown. My Chinese girlfriends likes it that there aren’t too many Chinese people.

  • Jai

    All my white girlfriends like dining at McDonald’s..it’s funny but they always complain that there is too many white people there…