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Perfect to a Tea

Imperial Tea House

Why coffee junkies are leaving their latté-drinking days behind

By Michele Jenkins

All over the U.S., java junkies who have traditionally grabbed their hot caffeine fixes from drive-by espresso-to-go kiosks are discovering that getting jazzed on rocket fuel-infused beverages isn't all that it's cracked up to be. Rather, a hot and aromatic sip from a cup of tea can be a tranquil and almost spiritual alternative. All it takes is trading in your beans for some leaves and putting down that Styrofoam mug o' joe for a handcrafted porcelain or clay teacup.

But before hard-core espresso-heads start crying blasphemy, a quick visit to the Imperial Tea House, in the heart of San Francisco's Chinatown, will convince even the staunchest bean lover that there is more to tea than just drinking it. The ancient and serene tradition of the Chinese teahouse has reappeared within the peaceful confines of the Imperial Tea House. Opened in 1993, this establishment, with its hanging lanterns, shelves of dried teas and marble and rosewood tables, is a perfect distillation of the newly reawakened allure of tea drinking. Throughout the world there are several schools of thought regarding tea, and more and more people are discovering that with the drink comes some culture.

Rather than the grungy cafe culture that many coffee drinkers are accustomed to, the dozens of teashops in San Francisco offer elegance as well as hundreds of varieties of oolong, black, green and herbal teas. Fancy, pricey downtown hotels have always offered the traditional English high tea, but the Imperial Tea House stands out as a unique sipping experience. The tiny Powell street shop attracts locals from the Chinese community, tourists and hipsters who appreciate an alternative to the usual coffee-caffeine houses.

Besides an extensive assortment of teas for sample sipping or bulk purchase, a crash course in tea history and appreciation is offered. Owners Roy and Grace Fong--or one of their assistants--explains, step by step, the best way to brew tea, from the correct water temperature for different leaves to how to properly hold the tiny cups (it's not as easy as it sounds). Whoever is behind the counter spends half an hour describing to each customer the differences between normal and "imperial" teas, and even points out the high-caffeine picks.

But as all true tea converts know, caffeine isn't really the point. The point is letting the sounds of honking cars and rushing commuters be replaced by the chirping of tiny finches and the burbling of boiling water. Surrounded by dozens of delicate teapots and large glass jars of dried teas, the soon-to-be tea connoisseur permits only one worrisome thought: "Am I going to burn my tongue?" For anyone sick of the java-jive, the Imperial Tea House is the perfect setting for letting worldly cares seep away and beginning a new life as a tea drinker.


The Imperial Tea House, 1411 Powell St.; 11am-6:30pm daily; 415/788-6080.

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From the November 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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