Sunday, December 30, 2007

Imperial Tea Court, Chinatown, San Francisco

Above: The counter at the Imperial Tea Court.

San Francisco, CA
December 26, 2007

The Imperial Tea Court has been an institution in San Francisco since it first opened its doors in Chinatown in 1993, bringing top grade Chinese tea to the city's residents, as well as some beautiful yixing pots and other tea ware. In the last few years they have opened two additional locations: one in the upscale Ferry Building, and one in Berkeley. But out-of-town visitors and local tea fanatics alike would make sure to visit the Chinatown store, seated right outside the mouth of the Broadway tunnel, with a view down to the Bay Bridge from its corner. I've always had a preference for this location for its simplicity and quiet. It was a great place to sit, drink and contemplate tea.

Above: The yixing clay pot display area.

The reason I refer to the Chinatown store in the past tense is because it closed its doors on December 26, 2007 - another casualty of San Francisco's increasingly un-affordable rental market. I suspect the Chinatown store didn't get as much business as their other locations, as there was rarely more than a table or two filled whenever I've been there. But when they opened for the final time, Jefre Cantu and I made the trip up to Chinatown for a last cup of tea there. The weather was crisp and clear that day, a welcome relief from the gray dampness that had settled over the city for several days prior - and a beautiful day for drinking tea.

They were serving free tea all day, and they immediately brought us two cups of the Superior Green Oolong, a really nice basic oolong that is quite floral and which has a nice bitterness. I ordered the Imperial Green, which to me is one of the most beautiful teas in the world in every sense. It is visually stunning in all of its phases; the smell is warm and grassy; and the taste is completely full bodied and earthy without being too bitter or too sweet to my taste.

Above: Imperial Green.

Jefre had the Dong Ding (or was it Tung Ting - I didn't hear it clearly) Oolong, which I only tried briefly. Not the best oolong we've had there, but very good, mild, and visually quite beautiful. I never tire of watching oolong unfurl over several infusions. I'm still like a kid who feels some trick has been played - that small bunch of tea turned into all that?!

Above: Dong Ding Oolong.

The Tea Court was jammed. Almost every table was full, and it sounded like everyone was reminiscing. Jefre immediately pointed out that the caged birds that reside there were going nuts, chirping like mad whereas they are normally very quiet. There must have been quite a discussion going from cage to cage about all the people having discussions just below them.

My favorite memory from this place is from earlier this year, when I went there on a Saturday afternoon by myself. The owner Roy Fong came in with a suitcase and a couple of cardboard boxes under his arms. He had just returned from China the night before on his annual tea-buying trip, and he had a few teas that he had carried back by hand. I was trying oolongs that day, and Roy pulled out some 2007 spring harvest Wenshan Baozhong for me to try (I linked to the winter harvest as the spring is no longer available). I ended up buying half a pound that day before it even went on sale. There are not many tea shops where that kind of thing happens.

Above: Our two gaiwans for the day.

So this is my requiem to what I think was a wonderful spot for drinking tea. The environment in which we sit, drink, talk, contemplate, and whatever else we do while drinking tea together, has everything to do with the experience; I am grateful for the places that lend themselves to good tea. Thankfully we haven't lost the Imperial Tea Court altogether, but the Chinatown store will be sorely missed.


gd said...

the imperial green looks lovely!

just made an order with red blossom tea last night, ill try to post a review of a tea or two when i get it.

happy new year!

Alex Cobb said...

Great post, Tony!

That looks like it was a lovely spot. Jefre has talked about it many a time. Wish I could have had a cup there!

Maxwell said...

Great post Tony! I'm so bummed I missed the Imperial Tea Courts last breath...