Beside zombie clowns and working a full-time office job, few things frighten me as much as listening to a barber talk.
To me, being confined to a chair with scissors clacking and clippers whirring is a form of temporary imprisonment. It’s trusting your life, or at least your looks, to another human being. The arrangement sends my pulse into a frantic foxtrot. My unease is exacerbated by idle chitchat about the weather and whether or not I think the Yankees will win the World Series this year.
In standard social settings, it’s easy to flee inane chatter. Sure is hot outside, isn’t it? Yes, yes it is. Now I must be off to do that…thing. In a barber chair, you’re unable to escape conversation. Sure, chatty Cathys like my wife love spending time at a salon—girl talk!—but New York is a loud, maddening metropolis. Peace and quiet are rarely in stock. That’s why I get my hair cut in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where the barbers barely speak a lick of English.
Over on crooked Doyers Street (colorfully dubbed "Bloody Angle" because gangs once bided their bloodthirsty time there, waiting for rivals to round the bend), barbershops line the curvaceous block. Though they appear indistinguishable, trial and error has led me to settle on Hip Kee Beauty Salon (10 Doyers St., betw. Pell St. & Bowery, 212-587-3305). "Haircut?" the barbers call out as I enter the rectangular room festooned with photos of folically immaculate Chinese men and women. "Not too short," I tell the barber. He nods. Our conversation ends. The haircut begins. After my hair is hacked off, the barber straight-razors my sideburns and scrapes my hirsute neck till it’s as smooth as gelato.
For almost seven years I’ve been getting my hair cut at Hip Kee. During that time, I never ventured across the narrow street to Nom Wah Tea Parlor (13 Doyers St., betw. Pell St. & Bowery, 212-962-6047). It’s Chinatown’s oldest dim sum salon, slinging dumplings, pastries and steamed buns since 1920. Given my dumpling addiction, it’s surprising that I’ve avoided Nom’s potstickers. But I had my routine, hitting dollar-dumpling shacks such as Prosperity Dumplings (46 Eldridge St., betw. Canal & Hester Sts., 212-343- 0683) or A-Wah (5 Catherine St., betw. Division St. & Broadway, 212-925-8308), home to crisp, clay-pot rice topped with mushrooms and an egg—bibimbap by way of China.
Not dining at Nom Wah was an oversight. Yet I recently saw the restaurant in a new light, thanks to news that Wilson Tang, the nephew of longtime owner Wally Tang, had taken over. Instead of slashing and burning decades of history, creating a shiny tourist temple, Wilson merely gave Nom Wah a facelift. Grease and dust, be gone! Lights were brightened, tables made less rickety, the kitchen modernized. The result was a restaurant with one foot in 1956 and the other in 2011. It was a timeless eatery that it was high time to visit.
The opportunity arrived via email. Fellow writer and cheap eats fan Craig Nelson invited me to Nom Wah to celebrate the release of his Chinatown Chow Down app, which decodes the neighborhood’s restaurants. "Complimentary dim sum and $2 beer," his invite read. Free dumplings and cheap booze? I booked it to Doyers Street, eager to kill two birds with one stone: a haircut, then Nom Wah.
Per usual, the barbers at Hip Kee did right by me and my unruly locks were tamed. To do the same for my appetite, I crossed the block and popped my Nom Wah cherry. I filled my plate with a sampling of plump har gow, shrimp-porkmushroom siu mai, oyster sauce-slicked greens and deep-fried, salt-and-pepper spare ribs. I sat at a table topped with a redand-white checkerboard tablecloth, pulled on my Taiwan-brand lager beer—forgettable but frigid and refreshing—and nibbled my dumplings tentatively, then ravenously.
I’ve dined on my fair share of dim sum, but these handmade nibbles were a 180 from the wan, soggy eats typically doled out from carts by ancient women. These dumplings were fat, juicy and flavorful, not even requiring a soy sauce shower. The thin-sliced pork was salty and crunchy, a potentially winning salvo in the ceaseless war against hangovers. And the lightly blanched greens were bright and snappy, a pleasing workout for my incisors and molars. Much like waiting ’til I went to college to make the beast with two backs, I thought to myself, Why did I wait so long to experience such pleasure?
I ran my hands through my buzzed hair, hoping it’d regrow soon to give me another reason to return to Doyers Street.