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 each other 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.
This article first appeared on The Lo-Down and is reprinted with permission. (www.thelowdownny.com.)