A Perfect Tea-Drunk Day in Southern California - EATER 2018

A Perfect Tea-Drunk Day in Southern California

The best way to learn about tea is to drink as much of it as possible

Xiong Di oolong
Photo by Bill Addison

This post originally appeared in Bill Addison's newsletter "Notes From a Roving Critic," a twice-monthly dispatch from Bill's travels across the country. Subscribe now.

I have a smoldering fascination with tea. Nearly everyone I know — including most of my editors — rolls their eyes and yawns when I bring up this subject, but I ignore them. I’m not talking about a strong cup of Constant Comment in a “Virginia Is For Lovers” mug to soothe on a rainy day. Nor a teapot etched with swirly flowers that’s filled with some bogusly mango-flavored liquid presented alongside scones and crustless sandwiches. Nor a mentholated herbal brew that clears the sinuses when you’re down with a cold.

I’m talking about loose-leaf teas — all made from the camellia sinensisplant, although grown and handled in hundreds of variations — that have comparable pedigrees to first-rate grower Champagnes or the finest naturally processed Yirgacheffe coffee beans from Ethiopia. Teas that, solely through masterly treatment from practiced hands, surrender complex and elusive flavors that can be toasty or flowery or minerally or nutty or vegetal or smoky, and can recall peaches and honey and pecans or dirt and spices or a thousand other tastes.

I will spend the rest of my life learning about tea — not only understanding growers and varietals and brewing techniques, but also the rituals around the actual drinking. To dive into everything tea, I’d suggest reading my buddy Max Falkowitz, who has an amazing fluency that makes the topic approachable and absorbing.

As with next-level wine and coffee, the best way to learn about great tea is to gulp down as much of it as possible. It’s my deep pleasure to seek out the country’s rarest tea shops: Song Tea & Ceramics in San Francisco; Te Company, T Shop, and In Pursuit of Tea in New York; and online retailers Spirit Tea in Chicago are five standouts.

Loose leaves of Xiong Di oolong tea
Photo by Bill Addison

My latest tea destination keeps an unusually low profile, but I want anyone with a passing interest in tea to know about it. It blipped on my radar thanks to Scott Reitz, a fellow tea-loving food writer. Imen Shan runs a small business called Tea Habitat in the San Gabriel Valley, the wonderland for Asian restaurants east of Los Angeles. She previously ran a retail store in the area, but now operates an online store and an appointment-only tasting room, its shelves filled with teas packaged in pink boxes. It’s so worth the effort to email her and arrange to spend a few hours drinking tea. (Tastings are $25 per person.)

What makes Tea Habitat special is Shan’s profound selection of dan congs— variations on a type of oolong, often made from the leaves of a single tree, produced in the Guangdong province (formerly known as Canton) in southeastern China. Dan congs are prized for their naturally intense fragrances; I was first enamored by one that brought to mind the freshest, ripest lychee. I’ve since become a dan cong junkie, and Shan is my preferred dealer.

Last fall I went to see her. We spent several hours drinking through her current stash: The names have wonderful translations like “honey orchid,” “ginger flower fragrance,” “big dark leaf,” and “cinnamon aroma.” There’s a famous dan cong nicknamed “duck shit”, or ya shi xiang. The story goes that villagers gave the soil around this treasured tree an unappetizing moniker to keep interlopers away. (It didn’t work, and the tea actually tastes of honey and tropical fruits.)

Obsessives know about the state of being “tea drunk.” The compounds in tea, which of course include caffeine, can make you at once alert and focused and calm. After I drink enough, I become both hyper-alert and utterly spacy. My tasting notes from this round began straight-laced enough — “sandalwood, masculine; odd, savory, powerful” — but soon veered into arcane territories: “Does the energy of the soil influence human nature and culture?”

Crab xiao long bao at Jin Jian
Photo by Bill Addison

Shan and I had waded far into the tea-drunk zone by then. To clear our heads, she took me to a couple of her favorite restaurants in the area: First we went to Jin Jian (also known as J&J) for Shanghainese specialties: crab xiao long bao and stir-fried oval rice cakes with greens and chicken. Then we scarfed down roast duck and seafood hot pot at Monterey Palace, a Cantonese restaurant known for dim sum.

Roast duck at Monterey Palace
Photo by Bill Addison

Then we went back to her shop… and drank more tea (pu-erh this time). Whenever anyone asks me if I weary of being constantly on the road, I mention days like this one and resolutely reply, “No.”