In the United States, teahouses are the domain of the doilies. But in South Korea, the tabang (tea room) is a combination pub/coffeehouse where young adults roam until late, drinking super-sweet teas and engaging in fevered conversation or karaoke. Or both.
Fans of Koreatown in Los Angeles jam such places after dinner or clubbing. The best-known is Koffea, a sprawling former hotel off Wilshire Boulevard with about as many hidden rooms as the Winchester Mystery House. There's nothing in Orange County that approaches the scope of Koffea, but we've got 419 Cafe Veronese in Fullerton, a smaller, better version of the classical tabang.
From the outside, Cafe Veronese looks more like a home than a business. It occupies a historic two-story house a couple of blocks from downtown Fullerton's strip of bars and clubs. The inside is sparse—a counter where you order and a couple of tables in what was once the living room. But in the back yard, 419 Cafe Veronese offers a mystical, soothing experience straight out of The Secret Garden,but without the cripple. Small pathways lead to what look like tool sheds that serve as art galleries. A profusion of plants—ferns, palms, vines, flowers, trees of the deciduous and evergreen variety—spills from overhead, from every corner and beam. Doodads abound—headless Grecian torsos, old coffee cans, a banner depicting the coats of arms of all the schools that make up Oxford University. There are blankets for chilly nights, umbrellas and canopies, board games, tables and chairs, a fire pit. It's the sort of chaos that creates private nooks where you can lose yourself in The Life of Pi or argue about whether "pinche" qualifies as a word in Scrabble.
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There's really nothing like 419 Cafe Veronese—imagine a backyard barbecue in a Sinophilic English manor, but without the meat. Cafe Veronese sells almost no food—just a couple of sandwiches, some salads, desserts (like cream puffs and carrot cake), and a great panini with prosciutto, fontina cheese and fragrant sun-dried tomatoes. Lunch includes Japanese specialties: a nicely grilled chicken yakitori and udon soup.
But Veronese's specialty is its Korean teas, 11 of the most fragrant, delicious beverages you'll ever taste. They are steaming art. Each costs about $5—a bit expensive, but they are served in massive clay steins and redolent of flavors you'll want to try again and again. The nice gals at the counter will steer you to the lemony yooja, the flavor most familiar to the American palate. But most of the teas use such Asian fruits as maesil, a red grape-tasting thing better known stateside (if known at all) as the Asian plum. Sukryu is a burgundy-tinted tea made from pomegranate seeds and flowers, divinely intense in the nose and on the tongue, and featuring a fistful of juicy pomegranate seeds at the bottom. The murky, lime-green mogwa tea is prepared with Chinese quince and is reminiscent of a light honey. Deachu tea, made from Chinese dates, is filling and gently sweet. You'll encounter pine nuts floating atop most of the teas, each an earthy counterpoint to the tea's sweetness.
These are more than just gourmet beverages. The Veronese menu describes their ostensible therapeutic powers: the sukryu, for instance, is supposed to make women more beautiful, while the yoolmu, made from a fruit called Job's tears, is good for dieting and digestive problems. I stayed clear of the saenggang tea, a powerful drink made of fresh ginger slices that is supposed to "revitalize [the] liver and help you sweat." Scientific studies in South Korea supposedly attest to each. Whatever: an evening here with a mug of tea will rejuvenate your view of the wonders man can create with boiling water and steamed fruit.
419 CAFE VERONESE, 419 W. COMMONWEALTH AVE., FULLERTON, (714) 578-8265. OPEN DAILY, 10 A.M.-11 P.M. TEAS, $4-$6. BEER, WINE.