Tea Writings

A blog about tea from the desk of Cecilia Tan

San Francisco Tea Tour, part one

August 15, 2009 By: ctan Category: Tea Musings, Tea Shops

Today I am drinking bubble tea, because I worked at my tae kwon do school this morning. Otherwise one would normally not see me getting up earlier on a Saturday than on a weekday. It’s a scorcher out there today (or as we say here in Boston, “ah scaw-chah”), so on the walk home I could not resist stopping at Tapicha, the bubble tea stand in the Porter Exchange (Lesley) building.

I’ll have to do a bubble tea review at some point, but today I’d like to finally start writing about all the tea shops I visited while on my recent travels in San Francisco, Montreal, and Washington DC.

Actually, on the trip to DC I was so busy I never made it to Teaism, which I recall liking very much on past visits, though I did have some surprisingly nice teas in the fancy hotel where the SABR conference took place. They had Republic of Tea in food service bags in the restaurant, and every day the maid refilled our selection of Taylors of Harrogate. The hotel was one of the more expensive ones I’ve stayed in, so it was nice that the tea was a little more upscale than what one often finds. At a reasonably nice Sheraton one will find Tazo, at a Holiday Inn Express, Lipton. (I bring my own teabags when I travel, since in some hotels one doesn’t find tea at all. This wasn’t the case this time, though!)

But a bagged tea made in a hotel room coffee maker is just to tide me over most days while I am traveling until I can have some real tea, either by returning home, or by playing tea tourist.

Tea tourist stop #1 on my trip to San Francisco was, accidentally, the Asian Art Museum (see previous post), but I made an actual plan to meet up with my friend Midori to seek out some shops in the city. Midori has many virtues as a friend, not the least of which are an automobile, fine taste in tea, and an unending ability to converse with me about all the intellectual curiosities of the world (people, food, culture, art, architecture, food, history, politics, literature, and did I mention food?).

Our day began with dim sum. We met a small group of friends at a restaurant just a few blocks from Chinatown proper, at 11:45am. I arrived at 11:40 and the place was deserted enough that I checked that they were open. By 11:45 four parties had been seated and I could literally see people coming down the hill and up the street from the financial district. I secured us a table for five and by 12 noon there was a line out the door.

It was dim sum, therefore we feasted. The tea was good, if unremarkable. Thus fortified we set out for the Ferry Building, which has become a gourmet shopper’s dream.

Handcrafted chocolates. “Tasty salted pig parts.” (As the Boccalone slogan reads.) Wild mushrooms. organic everything. And a tea shop.

Imperial Tea Court, photo by I. TaylarThe Imperial Tea Court is a San Francisco institution and, apparently, a pillar in American tea culture. Founded by Roy and Grace Fong in San Francisco in 1993, the Imperial Court is the “first traditional Chinese teahouse in America,” at least according to their own website. Roy is also an award-winning international tea master, and came recommended to me by one of Boston’s local tea experts as the man to see if I ever want to take a “tea tour” of China. Their original shop was on Powell in Chinatown, but now they have two others, one in the Ferry Building and one in Berkeley.

We were still far too full from dim sum to sit down and partake of a tea meal at Imperial Court, but we did smell a great many teas from their selection at the counter. As with Ten Ren and other tea shops of this style, they have many many cans of tea in various varieties, some which appear to be plantation grown just for them. Having just stocked up on some things like black rose tea at Ten Ren in NYC a few weeks ago, I was on the hunt for something I didn’t have in my stocks at home.

The one thing I’ve been searching for in vain since my trip to Shanghai is this lychee green tea I tasted and bought at the famous Shanghai Tea House in Old Town, the one in the middle of the lake with the zig zag bridges to keep demons away. The clerk ended up selling me some blooming tea flowers made with lychee blossoms. I bought some jasmine white tips I haven’t brewed yet. I also walked away with a large container of a ginger black that I thought would probably be good iced.

Guess what? It is! Though on second steeping there is almost no flavor left other than that of generic black tea. If one wants to have ginger flavor on the second go round, apparently I should be chopping a little ginger myself and dropping it in my pot. It’s good tea, and wasn’t particularly expensive. When I go back to San Francisco the next time, I’d like to try their gong fu tea presentation or gaiwan tasting. And of course I would love to go on one of Roy Fong’s tea tours, though perhaps taking his “OMG” Tea Class would be nearly as good but not as far to go. He’ll be back from China and teaching it on September 13th in San Francisco, apparently, “this class will dip into Roy’s personal tea locker for five of his favorite ultra-rare teas.” OMG, indeed.

(Still to come, Aroma Tea Shop, Lupicia, and Samovar Tea Lounge.)

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