Slurped: Rice Rolls at Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Editor's Note: From hand-pulled noodles in Chinatown to pasta with Sunday gravy on Arthur Avenue, New York is one big noodle town. You may already know Chichi Wang from her Nasty Bits and Chinese cooking columns, but I'm thrilled to say she's now joining us on SENY for a new series, Slurped: Noodles in the City. She'll uncover the city's best noodles and dish out their history, culture, and place in our lives every week. Take it away, Chichi!

Shrimp Rice Rolls

[Photographs: Donny Tsang, unless otherwise noted]

Doyers Street is less a street than an alley, curved and one block long, an afterthought to the rest of Chinatown's infrastructure. In past decades it has been the site of gunfighting and street brawls between Chinatown gangs, but those days are gone. Now Doyers evokes a sense of nostalgia and longing, of stepping back into a world that seems slower and somehow unreal.

From the south, on Worth street, you come upon Doyers as it curves into Mott. You walk in a little, up a slight incline, and right before the bend lies Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a dreamlike place if there ever was one. The yellow sign looks ancient, like something out of a Tin Tin story about the Far Orient.

20120604-nom-wah-interior.jpg

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

As I always had it explained to me, the dim sum At Nom Wah has never been excellent, nor does it need to be. Where else in the city can you have your dim sum served on red-checkered tablecloths, or sit in vinyl covered booths while pictures of celebrities line the walls? Nom Wah has been around since the 1920s. It is a throwback to a different era, borrowed maybe from the Italians in Little Italy.

Making Shrimp Rice Rolls

Rice roll batter.

The menu is your standard dim sum menu. Depending on the dish, the quality ranges from less-than-average to slightly above. The dumpling skins made of glutinous rice flour, used for shrimp dumplings (har gow), are notoriously difficult to fashion, and at Nom Wah they are thicker, a little clumsier, than their counterparts in Flushing.

A confession: I only go to Nom Wah for the rice rolls. Some weekends, I bring a book, order a plate or two of the rice rolls, and I sit back and wait. Chinatown is quiet in the morning, especially on Doyers.

The rice rolls at Nom Wah are some of the best I've tasted in Chinatown. So often rice sheets are too soggy, too laden with sauce and steamed for too long. But at Nom Wah, the sheets strike the right balance: they are soft and tender, a little slick, a little chewy. Brown sauce (XO, oyster sauce, soy sauce, or some combination thereof) is spooned over with restraint—just enough so that each piece soaks up some flavor.

I like all the rice rolls, except the vegetarian option, with a slapdash mixture of canned baby corn, canned water chestnuts, canned straw mushrooms, and celery. But I am partial to the pork ribs. There could be more fermented black beans in the sauce, but I'm too enamored of the texture of the rice sheets to grumble about the details.

Rice Noodles With Fried Crullers

Fried cruller rice roll.

Another iteration comes rolled around fried crullers, you tiao, which I've always thought of as the croissants of Chinese cuisine—crisp, airy, yeasty delights. I love the contrast between the soft noodles and the crisp interior. If you happen to have leftovers, they are surprisingly satisfying when eaten at room temperature right out of the take-out box.

When the rice rolls arrive at the table, they are so fresh and delicate that there is something poignant, poetic even, about their freshness set amidst everything else, which is old and faded. Still the place has managed not to sink into decrepitude. Nom Wah has aged, is aging, cheerfully. In the mornings, the light that shines through is yellow and warm. On its westward facing wall, a glass counter holds trays of almond cookies. They aren't tempting, not do you get they sense that they are meant to be. Instead they seem like fixtures, like the retro bar stools and the coat racks and the old black-and-white porcelain tiles that run askew on the floors. For a moment, all judgment about the food is suspended, giving way to enjoyment and appreciation for those things that are older and wiser.

About the author: Born in Shanghai and raised in New Mexico, Chichi Wang currently resides in Manhattan, where she divides her time between writing, cooking, and tracking down the best noodles in the city. Visit her blog, Mostly Tripe.

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