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San Francisco’s Vital Tea Shop

In June 2010 Femme de Joie and Amico del Signore were wandering the streets of San Francisco's Chinatown on an early summer evening. We browsed the identical shops with identical brocade jackets and other gewgaws destined to be garage sale items in a few years, and stepped over the hoses from the nearly-closed greengrocers washing the sidewalks for the night. After a stop at a bakery for some bow ties (deep-fried pastry heavily coated in honey) and a bag of those addictive almond cookies, we stepped into a small, modern storefront with a long counter and seats on one side and shelves of tea canisters on the other. A gaggle of Canadian tourists were seated at the counter, listening closely as a young man served up free samples and described the health benefits of the various teas. At the invitation of co-proprietor Carina, we slipped into seats and were soon entranced by the experience served up.


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We were both accustomed to the standard British method of making tea: preheat teapot, bring water to full boil, add one teaspoon tea per cup (or one teabag), and let steep five minutes. As the tea served at Vital was unlike anything we'd ever tasted before, so was the preparation. First you rinse the tea. Yes. Rinse it: put the leaves in the brewing container, add a small amount of water and rinse, then drain off and discard the water. After that add very hot water - just below the boil - and let steep 20 to 40 seconds, then serve the tea. What was even more surprising was that most of the teas at Vital could be used four to six more times with no loss of flavor.

And the flavors: these were a completely different animal from Lipton's or Red Rose. The jasmine pearl was by far the most fragrant and flavorful jasmine tea we'd ever had. Mango was like drinking a ripe mango. Others reminded us, variously, of grass, spinach, or toasted wheat. We particularly liked sticky rice (a taste and smell exactly like its namesake), bamboo, and lychee black.

Jason (the proprietor behind the counter) explained about the different types of tea and what health benefits each holds. Green tea is an anti-oxidant, calming, and relaxing, as is white tea. We were unfamiliar with pu-erh, which comes in small, tightly compressed cakes. It's unique because of its underground fermentation method and it becomes smoother with age. According to Jason, it treats digestion, upset stomach, acid reflex, constipation, and cuts grease and fat.

We sampled over a dozen different teas, each served in the tiniest cups you've ever seen. What fascinated us was that Jason drank each cup of tea right along with us. He does this all day long and never gets tired of it.

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The topic of cost came up. How could it not, when a few of the canisters were clearly marked as selling at $400 or $800 per pound? Jason pointed out that yes, some teas are quite dear; even $40 a pound might sound like a lot. But a pound of tea leaves is a lot of tea; prepared according to his method with multiple reuses, it will last far longer than you would ever dream. You need a very small amount tea to make multiple servings - enough to serve all day long. And not to beat that familiar comparison to death, but if you buy a Starbucks coffee every day, you're spending a LOT more on one cup of coffee than you would on enough tea to provide you with six cups a day.

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Some tea comes in hard-compressed spheres, to be broken apart and rinsed, then brewed. Other types are dried flowers that open up in hot water like an anemone.

There is never any pressure whatsoever to buy; when the Canadian tourists simply got up and left after a good hour drinking free tea, Jason and Carina were serene and unperturbed. They see this as an education and experience. Whether or not you believe in the purported benefits of drinking tea, Vital opened our eyes to new flavors we had never experienced. It's worth a visit, both for the tasting and for the friendliness and kindness of Jason and Carina.

Vital Tea Leaf, 905 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94133, 415-981-9322, also at 1044 Grant Avenue and 1199 Pacific Avenue. Branches in Seattle. Website
http://www.vitaltealeaf.net/index.php?main_page=index

Comments

Lovely! Three reviews in a day!

I have pu-erh tea, we got it some years ago as a way to calm the stomach, but it was so odd and nasty prepared the way we were used to doing, that it has languished in its airtight box. I'll have to try rinsing it before brewing. Were there any other tricks they used?

The pizza place... I am now tempted to drive to California just for pizza, but I'll have to make do with the yuppie-tinged "Pizza Schmizza" here. They do New-York style but they tend to throw things like feta cheese and alligator sausage on them, and they do a competent spinach salad, which they label the Greek Salad. So, perhaps a bit too authentically Italian.

And I am greatly amused by the chameleon exterior of the Kobe teppanyaki joint. I assume it blends into the similar style of other buildings in the area? I vaguely recall a similar dramatic painting in the entrance to the Kobe near Washington Square here.
Alas, the wasabi dressing experience is one I've seen in too many places. I suspect that an endive or a strong radiccio would back up the regular lettuce more effectively, but it's sad when one must bring one's big brother to a food fight.
Some of the pu-erh tea that has been aged years is apparently "earthy" as the website says, which is polite talk for "tastes like dirt." We bought sticky rice pu-erh, which tastes and smells exactly like sticky rice. Vital does not use boiling water; they brew with just-under-boiling, which may help with the nasty taste.

Celestino's is by far the best pizza we're found in NorCal, though there are a couple of places in SF that are on the to-do list.

The exterior of Kobe's is ogaudy and rather ornate compared to the block it's on, which is fairly plain, multicolored, and stuccoed. It does not look like an Asian restaurant is inside.

Asian restaurants seem to love iceberg or very mild leaf lettuce, which wilts pitifully under the wasabi attack.

All these columns run first in A News Cafe, and updating this blog has been on the back burner for some time. Trying now to rectify that.
Ah, the actual blog as opposed to the more sandboxy place.

Regarding the temperature for tea -- I've read that tea was first brewed in the Himalayan mountains, at elevations where the boiling point of water is less than at sea level. It makes sense. My father's current home is in a town at a mile above sea level, and the water is no better than here in the Portland area - a little worse, in fact, as there is a trace of sulphur in the water table - and yet tea brewed there tends to taste better than here.

Amusingly, in a real-life "plate o' shrimp" moment like unto one from the 1980s movie Repo Man, there was a lunch meeting at work wherein another group brought in far too much Pizza Schmizza and the break room was provided with the excess. There was the reprehensible 'barbecue' and a two-topping 'meat and pepperoni' and a veggie which I avoided and a "don ho" which is "canadian bacon" and pineapple slices.

Edited at 2011-06-01 06:23 am (UTC)