Tea & Tea serves all types of tasty teas, like pearl or "bubble" tea and exotic tea blends
Whether served ice-cold over chewy tapioca balls or piping-hot in traditional, delicate cups, teas in Chinatown come in all varieties, styles, and distinctive Asian flavors. There are simple, cheap cups of light-bodied green tea to accompany a platter of steamed dim sum, or mugs of frothy, refreshing "milk teas" to help beat the heat on a summer day. Tucked away along the narrow alleys of the downtown neighborhood, a range of teahouses -- from decades-old, family-run parlors to cool, modern salons -- offer all kinds of brewed comfort to locals and tourists alike.
One of the oldest teahouses in Chinatown is the Nom Wah Tea Parlor. Located on Doyers Street, Nom Wah was founded more than 80 years ago in 1920. Customers enter a quiet, no-frills space decorated sparsely with family-style tables, simple wood chairs, and patched-up red leather booths. Heavy metal fans attached to the ceiling sit motionless over a small bar with bright orange stools and a glass showcase featuring home-made walnut cookies.
Dressed in a yellow, collared shirt, his white hair brushed neatly to the side, owner Wally Tang says that he began working at Nom Wah when he first came to this country from China in 1950. At that time, Tang's cousin owned the business.
"My cousin used to work in teahouses in China," Tang says, speaking through a translator. "So he came here and followed the same line of work."
|Nom Wah Tea Parlor is one of the oldest teahouses in Chinatown
In 1975, Tang became owner of the downtown teahouse. Most of his family has now moved on to work in other professions, leaving Tang to care for Nom Wah.
"The new generation does their own thing," Tang says of his family. "But they still come back to help."
Today, Nom Wah offers more than 20 varieties of tea, all stored in old, multicolored tins that line white shelves on the right side of the parlor. There are jasmine and green teas available and also full-bodied oolong tea, which is the most popular. Tea at Nom Wah is served in basic, metal pots and then poured into plain china cups.
Along with the brewed drinks, the teahouse offers a selection of dishes like lo mein ($3), fried noodles ($3), and more than 40 different kinds of dim sum -- priced from $1.20 to $2.40 -- which Tang says go well with tea.
"Normally, we bring out a platter of dim sum, and the customers choose from that," he says. "And we have a lot of repeat customers so they know what they want."
After serving tea at Nom Wah for more than 50 years, Tang has no plans to retire any time soon.
"I enjoy working here," he says. "I get to meet a lot of people. And I also get to watch my customers grow up and become successful."
In addition to the time-tested places for tea like Nom Wah, there are also more modern, trendy parlors available in Chinatown. Take, for example, the marble-floored, air-conditioned Big Apple Tea House, located on Howard Street.
Patrons at this teahouse enter a calming, chandeliered room where bouquets of flowers hang from eucalyptus-colored walls. There is seating available at the bar or at one of the tables, which are made from uncut natural hunks of dark, glossed wood.
The teahouse, which opened in September 2003, aims to offers its customers a laidback, elegant tea-sipping environment, according to manager Danny Chan.
|Howard Street's Big Apple Tea House teaches visitors how to brew tea at their tables
"We were looking for something that was relaxing," Chan says through a translator, "where people could feel comfortable, because that is what tea is supposed to do. It's supposed to soothe you."
Teas at the parlor -- all imported from China -- are stored in sealed glass jars. Prices per cup range from $2.50 to $25, depending on the quality of the blend.
"We'll recommend teas for customers, depending on whether they're looking for something bitter or sweet," Chan says. "Or, we also have teas that will make people feel better, if they're tired for example."
Customers can also brew the tea themselves at their tables, ordering their own selection of tea, which comes with a pouring tray, kettle, and cups.
"We'll accommodate you," Chan says. "If you want to brew the tea yourself, we'll teach you how."
And while customers wait for their tea to brew, they can surf the Web on one of the three computers at the teahouse. The Internet rate is $5 per hour, with printing available for 50 cents per page.
"We felt that the customer should be relaxed here and also have something fun to do," Chan says of the Internet access. "People come in, drink tea, and surf the Web."
Along with the assortment of teas, there are chilled juices available at Big Apple Tea House like papaya ($4), honeydew ($3.50), and watermelon ($3.50), as well as coffee ($2), espresso ($3.50), and cappuccino ($4.50). Also, the kitchen at the teahouse offers a wide ranging menu of baked and steamed dishes like shrimp dumplings ($3) and red bean buns ($2.75).
Although located in Chinatown, Chan says that most of his customers are actually Westerners.
"I noticed that Westerners have a big interest in drinking tea," Chan says. "There is real demand for it. They're looking for an alternative to coffee."
Besides steaming cups of traditional tea served in simple, understated pottery, there are also teahouses in Chinatown that specialize in more contemporary versions of the ancient drink. The owner of Green Tea Cafe, for instance, decided to open a teahouse that offered an updated version of the classic brew.
|Green Tea Café offers classic teas with a modern twist
Oliver Kung used to work in the restaurant business before opening up his tea parlor in 2000. While researching different business opportunities, he discovered the popularity in Taiwan of pearl, or "bubble," tea, a kind of frothy, sweet tea drink served with chewy balls of tapioca, which customers suck through a fat straw.
"Pearl tea, at that time, was a new drink," Kung says. "It attracted people. Now it's even more popular."
Located on Mott Street, the Green Tea Café is a sleek, modern-looking space, outfitted with concrete floors and exposed brick walls. Music hums through overhead speakers as waiters dressed in green polo shirts deliver drinks to their customers.
Besides offering pearl tea ($3.75) -- which comes in a rainbow of refreshing Asian flavors like creamy almond and taro -- there are also 16 different types of green tea available as well as black teas and different kinds of milk shakes ($3.75), from chocolate to red bean. Customers can sit back and sip their drinks while munching on hot and cold snacks like steamed pork dumplings ($3.75) and spicy, Szechuan-style eggplant ($2.75).
Like Oliver Kung, Andy Tan and Tony Chu began looking into different ideas for their own business when they also discovered how trendy pearl tea had become.
"We found out how popular pearl tea was in Taiwan," says Tan, a youngish-looking man with thick black hair. "So we decided to learn more about it and make it our business. We thought it could work here in New York."
In June 1999, Tan and Chu, both in their late 20s and immigrants from China, opened Tea & Tea, a lively, fun parlor lined with red tiles and dotted with dark wood tables.
"When we first opened, it was immediately busy," Chu says. "It's a new idea for tea."
In addition to pearl tea, which costs $2.85, Tea & Tea also serves milk shakes and smoothies ($2.95), and exotic drinks like the Verdant Cooler, a blend of green tea, green peppermint, passion fruit juice, and honey ($2.95). There are also inexpensive, tasty foods available at the downtown shop, like vegetable spring rolls ($2.95) and deep friend chicken strips ($2.95).
On a recent Monday afternoon, the teahouse hummed with business, tourists and New Yorkers packing into the small space for their drinks and snacks.
"Summer is a popular time for us," Tan says. "A lot of tourists come and the weather is nice. People come and just hang out."
Nom Wah Tea Parlor 13 Doyers Street
Big Apple Tea House 22 D Howard Street
Green Tea Café 45 Mott Street
Tea & Tea 51 Mott Street