Like many others, Wilson Tang’s life changed forever on September 11, 2001. He was working that morning on the seventy-fourth floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower when the first plane hit the North Tower. Heeding initial evacuation instructions, Tang began walking down the stairwell; he was only sixteen stories from the ground floor when he heard an announcement that the building was safe and he could return to work.
Life and death often tipped on little decisions that day. Tang was so close to the lobby that he figured he’d exit the building to get some fresh air. He was a young office worker with an uninteresting finance job, he admits, and he saw an opportunity to milk the clock.
When he got outside, the pandemonium and emergency response he saw around him convinced him to stay clear of the building. He headed north. He had made it just a mile, to the border of Chinatown, when United Flight 175 hit the tower he worked in.
Tang walked away from death that morning, but he also entered a new life. “I know lots of people who changed their life paths that day,” he says. “They changed careers, went to nonprofits, or quit work altogether to focus on their families. It put a lot of lives in perspective. It was definitely a turning point in my career. I instantaneously made this decision that I had to do what I love.”
The truth was, Tang didn’t much care for the world of finance. He was more drawn to his family’s restaurant business. Tang’s uncle owned the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a Chinatown institution established in 1920 and the first place in Manhattan to serve dim sum. Wilson grew up in Chinatown and can recall when the family restaurant was sometimes a dangerous place to visit: for a period in the seventies, the crooked, two hundred-foot Doyer Street was notorious for gang shootouts. Nevertheless, weekend dim sum brunches were major events for his family.
“I have vivid memories of dim sum carts with all these different kinds of delicacies, just roaming around the restaurant,” he says. “We’d sit at round tables and all check in with each other.” It was a full sensory experience. He remembers the aromas, the visual beauty of the delicacies served. Dim sum’s literal translation is “a little bit of heart.” Compared to childhood memories like that, a career in an antiseptic office held little appeal.
Tang’s realization that he wanted to commit himself full-time to the restaurant world, however, didn’t go over well with his family.
“My parents were super upset about it,” he recalls. “Growing up as the son of immigrants, the restaurant industry was definitely somewhere my parents wanted me far away from. They felt that I needed to go to school, get my degree, and, and join the workforce.” Why, they wanted to know, would he give up a business career?
But Tang knew that restaurants were business, and he felt he could escape his cubicle and put his education to work in a more satisfying way, marrying his business and computer skills with his family’s restaurant tradition.
“I think restaurants were just kind of in my DNA,” he says.
I’m marrying what I know. My experiences with technology have become a big part of our business.Wilson Tang
After taking over running Nom Wah from his uncle, Tang oversaw a major renovation in the kitchen. But left the rest of the restaurant as original as possible. Customers today feel like they’ve entered a time machine back to the fifties: the classic diner stools, the fluorescent lighting, the original tiling in the floors. But Tang took quickly to his new role as restaurateur and entrepreneur, and realized there was also potential to expand the brand and open up new venues.
“Running a restaurant today is so different from running a restaurant when my dad was doing it,” he says. Social media was just beginning to show its power to influence consumers, and new cooking and business tools were becoming affordable to smaller organizations. “I’m marrying what I know. My experiences with technology have become a big part of our business.”
In 2015, Tang opened another Nom Wah, this one in Philadelphia. But his real leap forward was the September 2016 launch of Nom Wah Nolita, just north of Manhattan’s Little Italy. The idea behind the new outpost was to serve traditional dumplings in a light, casual environment, but also to experiment with new creations. Unabashed about adopting new technologies to create both great food and a thriving business, Tang put in cashless ordering kiosks and embraced machine extruders to help make some of the dumplings. He’s always on the lookout for new potential venues as well: Nom Wah dumplings at Yankee Stadium? A new restaurant in Florida? It’s all on the table.
Walking through Chinatown with Tang today feels a bit like accompanying a local prince. He’s known by shop owners and fish merchants as part of a new generation of restaurateurs bringing energy and ideas to the lower-Manhattan food scene. He spends his busy days managing a growing staff and looking for new ways to introduce a broader population to Nom Wah’s delights.
“I really like the idea of serving people good food in a friendly environment and seeing them smile,” he says. “It gives you a warm fuzzy feeling to have people eat and talk and laugh in your restaurant. You are making them happy.”