Thi on Tea: Tea Habitat in Palos Verdes
Forget IV, forget JG. Thi on Tea is the True Brew!
Thanks guys, for all the kind words.
I can now (since I've been keeping a lid on this place for the last 2 months as I've been working on this thing) say some things I've been wanting to say for awhile:
You know how I've been complaining forever about coffee in Los Angeles is lesser than our other metro-brethren. Not so with tea. Not with this place. Tea Habitat is god's own love-juice. It is the Blue Bottle and beyond.
It's hard to describe how important this place is, to me. How about this: I've been drinking tea, uh, seriously, for about 12 years now. I probably care about it most of all, of all gastronomic experiences. This includes sushi, barbecue, and bourbon. For a long time, by *far* the best tea sources were all direct from China. Websites, long waits, inaccessible. All the stuff in the US (and I've tried almost *every* serious tea vendor I can find) was lesser. Like the famed Imperial Tea Court in Berkeley... there's always a quality of effervescent life, of *glow* to the really *great* stuff that I get shipped from Taiwan or China, that most of the American vendors don't match.
Imen's stuff is like that and beyond. I'd say it's one of the three best tea vendors I've ever found in my life, the only one such in the United States, and by far the best vendor, bar none, of anything we in the West have access to, for this style of tea. The difference between her tea and the next best thing in the US is like the difference between Blue Bottle and, you know, everything else. It has texture. It has glow. It has insane flavor. It has *life*, oozing out its pores.
But there's also her. Right? I think, right now, this is the only place in all of LA where you can walk in the door and have a really trained, sensitive person give you gong fu tea service. It's unbelievable. Berkeley has ITC, but they don't really do tea service, and when they do, it's some trained peon. Teance in Berkeley has gong fu tea service, and a few of the people there are pretty good. But this is our only one, and she's *unerring*. Her brewing technique is completely incredible. It's really hard to describe, how good she is, how precise the technique is... I was actually a little depressed waiting for the article to come out, because I just felt I hadn't really captured how fantastic the tea is, and how completely rare and insane it is to have somebody of her skill and sensitivity just there, willing to brew for anybody who comes in.
As far as I know, in all my years of searching, this is the best tea shop in the US.
And it's in Rancho frickin' Palos frickin' Verdes. Did I mention that it's next to a Baskin Robbins? Because it is.
It was incredible. I was sitting there, my first time, chatting with her while she brewed, and I saw all these tables with full gong fu tea setups, ready to go, and I was like, "Wow, this is the only place in SoCal I've seen this available. How often do people come in here and ask for gong fu service?" And she said, "Never." And I was like: oh my god, that is a complete crying shame, and something Must Be Done.
Anyway: how much do I care about this place? How good is the tea? How about this: I was home the other day, feeling depressed, ready to go out for another day of flailing at my dissertation, and I pulled out some of her Eight Immortals tea, made it as she'd shown me in the shop (as she'll show anybody), and brew five was *so good* that I actually shed a tear. It was so good I actually, honest to god, no exaggeration, wept.
But only for a few seconds. Because, you know, I'm a *man*.
Short version: it's a temple. Go.
Also: she does elevation flights. HOW COOL IS THAT? She'll make you the same genetic line - you know, related trees - that grew at different elevations. So you can taste *what elevation does*. When she first mentioned that we could do this, my jaw fell to the counter and I was like, you are the coolest person ever, and this is the coolest place ever.
re: Thi N.
That was you who wrote it?
Wow. That was really well written.
Although the focus of the article was single bush Oolong tea, how are their other varieties like green and white, can you speak for their quality, or am I better off still ordering from teaspring.com?
Definitely looking forward to checking this place out though. Maybe the quality of the tea brewing will inspire me, and I'll stop forgetting that I poured tea over the leaves and then play computer games for an hour, then come back to drink a really bitter brew.
@kainzero: One advantage of a local place is that you can go there and try the tea before you buy it, so it's worth driving down and seeing for yourself how the other teas compare to what you like / are used to. She also carries other oolongs, and pu'er tea. But dancong, specifically Fenghuang [i.e., Fenghuang (Phoenix) mountain in Guangdong] dancong (other types of tea can also be single bush) is definitely her specialty, and what she is most enthusiastic about (and where she has the best connections). But there are some excellent examples of other teas there as well.
Great article, Thi (liked your article on SGV breakfast as well!), and glad to see Tea Habitat getting some much deserved press. [Full disclosure: the owner is a friend, and a member of our little tea group, but I'm not an employee, nor do I have any financial interest in TH]. Hopefully this will spark some more interest in Chinese tea culture in LA - this is a *really* hard business to be in anywhere in the US, and it's really hard for brick and mortar shops like this to survive without local support. A lot of times when you read an article about something you know about or are connected to, it seems like the author really didn't get it, and I didn't feel that way at all about this article.
I will be down there helping out on Saturday, so if anyone here comes by, say hi. I'm a tall skinny white guy with glasses.
Not sure it was covered in the article, but 'cong' is pronounced more like 'tsong' than 'kong' in Mandarin.
re: Thi N.
What a beautiful write up. This is your best by far (not that your other reviews were less than awesome). But you can feel the love flowing through and through. Not just her love for tea but yours as well. The way you describe the evolution, different textures, influences of the immediate environment on the teas sounds a lot like the decriptions of wine. Hopefully I will be able to taste the differences and have such an eye-opening and emotional experience as you do.
On tasting the differences: it's not super-difficult. I mean, we're not talking espresso mochachino here, or Sichuan food, but we're also not talking, say, the fineness and quietness of white tea. Many, many people I give white tea to say they can't taste anything at all - tastes like water to them. I know I can taste white tea best only if I haven't eaten anything at all that day.
This stuff isn't like that. I think it's pretty clear and distinct. One of my friends, Sari, was all worried before I took her that she wouldn't be able to be subtle enough to taste things, that she wasn't as sensitive as some of the beverage-obsessed gang, etc. etc. I tried talking her out of it, and then I just *handed her my can of honey orchid leaves* and told her to smell.
She smelled it, sort of let out a gasp and moan, doubled over the can, and just started snorking and snuffling and moaning.
I was like, "Yeah, it's not actually *that* hard to tell."
How about this: it's subtler than bourbon, less subtle than green tea. it's about as subtle as sushi. If you can tell the difference between good hamachi, and mediocre hamachi, you're golden.
If you, say, have any opinions about water - like, say, that the tap water in Santa Monica tastes pretty decent, the tap water in Hollywood tastes like the devil's ass, running it through a Brita makes it tolerable but still faintly like ass; the cheap chemically filtered jugs of Walmart water taste dead, but Arrowhead water tastes pretty darn good, and the tap water in Nevada is *awesome* - then you're *more* than tongue-trained enough.
Anyway: tea is where I think I really developed my palate, where I learned to be the person I am now. Tasting *with* somebody makes it grow faster.
re: Thi N.
Great article in the L.A. Times, Thi and I loved your post above.
It's usually hard to get me out of my immediate neighborhood, but as soon as the car comes out of the shop, it sounds like a pilgrimage to Palos Verdes is in order.
Should one call ahead? Is the owner always there? I'm guessing a weekday might be a little quieter in the shop than a weekend?
Weekdays are good, and definitely a better bet if you want to pick Imen's brain and drink some tea. She's pretty much always there when the shop's open, but calling ahead is never a bad idea, especially if you're coming from far away. I think Monday is still the day it's closed; the website agrees.
Thi -- thanks for your wonderful article which has piqued my interest once again in Imen and her Tea Habitat.
Back in April of '08 I ordered a dozen teas from her. Three stood out in particular: an '07 Gold Medalist #2 Honey Orchid Phoenix Oolong, an '05 Honey Orchid Special Grade Phoenix Dan Cong Oolong, and a '97 Honey Orchid.
After having read your article and your very passionate posts here, I am ready to place another order with her. Are there any specific teas that you or anyone else with Tea Habitat experience might wish to recommend? Otherwise, I know that Imen is everything you said about her; she is very willing to educate and assist.
Honey Orchid is the most immediately likeable I think - a floral, sweet-malty glowing thing. If you don't know what you want, you should order this.
My personal favorite is the cattelya orchid fragrance - best about a year old, which is less obviously sweet, but has this almost eerie organic depth and life... very... thick in the middle. A very creamy, subsantial flavor. It's subtler than the big glowing warmth of honey orchid, but it seems more alive to me. This could be my favorite tea ever.
Eight immortals is an oddball - coppery and lovely. But I love it.
Song Zhongs are exceedingly delicate and refined.
I have a great affection for Royal Tribune, which are pretty explosive and dense.
Unusal Fragrance is very... unusual. Possibly the most like, say, a bourbon. Not floral at all.
Affectionate Tail Ant is pretty exceptional. I think my friend described it as "like a flower wrapped in a chicken, buried underground, and then blooming through the chicken."
Zu Ye - bamboo leaf - has pretty incredible clarity of flavor - some of the sparkle of greens/whites.
The most "wow this is a flower" one is pomela scent dan cong, I think.
An oddball tasting value is Wild Hong Yin - it's cheaper, it's not single tree, but it's pretty exceptional - an intense, chicken-bone-soup like minerality.
If you've got the bucks, she sometimes has 30-year-old Wild Hong Yin in, which is extraordinary - a kind of dense, purified mackeral sashimi + pepper + citrus + everything experience that is sort of lifechanging. It's some of the pleasures of aged pu-erh, but more... lively and floral and penetrating. But it's *really* pricey.
But really - if you're in LA, you don't need any of this info. You can taste at least 4 at a time for a visit. If you have more people, you might be able to taste more, maybe. You could taste through the majority of her stock in 3 visits - at least, taste from every major variety, if not every permutation of particular tree, year of aging, etc. And, it'll be *an incredible amount of fun*.
re: Thi N.
As soon as I stop laughing over your "flower wrapped in a chicken..." description of the Tail Ant tea, I will try to thank you for your very detailed descriptions of some of your favorites.
You have offered me some very good information with which I can begin to put an order together!
That flower wrapped in a chicken description isn't mine. I have to credit my friend Ira R. - fellow graduate student, and my main partner in severe tea-obsession and severe liquor obsession.
There's another one (I'll ask him which one it is) that he describes as: "like drinking melted pearl."
Unfortunately, none of my own favorite descriptions of the teas made it into the article or online, because they're all X-rated.
Maybe that says something about how I feel about those teas.
I've been by this place at least two dozen times and have never gone in. I'm not much of a tea person, but I do appreciate good quality tea the few times I've gotten to enjoy a cup. I'll try to stop in soon and learn a thing or two (or three) about tea.
Thanks for your article!