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Photo by Joy BastWatching the club-kid mixmasters concocting otherworldly brews in their cocktail shakers at Cha for Tea reminds me of nighttime in Hong Kong's trendy Lan Kwai Fong area. But I'm in Westminster, in Little Saigon's Asian Garden Mall, at the only tea bar of its kind in OC. Subsidized by Ten Ren Tea Co., Cha for Tea features a daring menu heavily steeped in high-end black and green teas.
Painted Pouchong-tea-green and outfitted in modern blond woods, Cha stands out among the food court's simple Vietnamese and Chinese snack stands. Opened in November 1999, Cha relies heavily on its outgoing young staff to stand out front and pass out menus when business gets slow. But today's constant flow of customers makes the pace as frenetic as the hyper beat of techno pop that streams from the beverage bar.
How did a conservative, traditional Taiwanese tea company with more than 90 stores in Asia, Malaysia, Canada and the U.S. come up with such a concept? Meet Cha's regional manager, David Wang. Taiwan-born and New York-raised, Wang was but a devoted customer at the Manhattan Ten Ren store in Chinatown back in 1997, when his love of the brew led him to teach a free tea-appreciation course for the shop's English-speaking clientele. (They already offered the course in Chinese.) The class was packed. Through the class, Wang met Ten Ren executives visiting from Taiwan. He pitched them his idea for a slick tea bar featuring the company's newer, more progressive products aimed at a youthful clientele. Company executives had already noted a rising demand for Ten Ren products in Little Saigon. The mall spot was chosen and Cha for Tea was born. Wang also oversees a second, recently opened location in Irvine's University Center.
Even the food at Cha features notes of tea. The subtle tea-flavored minced pork and the tender, stew-like, tea-flavored beef are served with rice, vegetables and (surprise!) a complimentary green or black tea.
Liquid refreshment makes up most of the extensive menu at Cha, and the high point may be the lilac-hued, creamy taro-milk tea. A sweet tuber-based drink, it gets an extra kick from dozens of fat, black, tapioca-like orbs shimmering at the bottom of the glass like Tahitian pearls. The yummy creamsicle-like tea combined with the mouth feel of the soft, gummy pearls make this beverage an original.
But it's the standards that surprise. Iced green tea is clean-tasting and long on flavor. If you've ever been disappointed with the tepid oolong served in a second-rate dim sum joint, now is your chance to taste superlative tea. The basic black tea is full-bodied enough to replace coffee yet is without a hint of bitterness. The popular black tea with milk is a fructose-sweetened delight that will make you wonder what you ever saw in a frappuccino.
CHA FOR TEA, LOCATED IN THE ASIAN GARDEN MALL, 9200 BOLSA AVE., STE. 306, WESTMINSTER, IS OPEN DAILY, 10 A.M.-7:30 P.M. (714) 799-6957. LUNCH FOR TWO, $10, FOOD ONLY. NO ALCOHOL. CASH ONLY.