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Tuesday, February 21, 2006 - Page updated at 11:17 AM

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New-age tea shops bring exotic flavors to Portland

Seattle Times travel writer

PORTLAND — Across the street from the Wunderland Electric Castle and the Cooler Than You second-hand shop, Southeast Portland meets Southeast Asia at the Tao of Tea.

Veerinder Chawla, serene in a turban and a fleece pullover, reaches into a silver canister and scoops out a few ounces of a Chinese black tea called Tippy South Cloud, known for its sweet aroma and reddish-brown color.

This is the "leaf room," where after you've sipped your way around the world at his teahouse next door, you come to stock up on a few of the 120 loose teas sold by the ounce.

Tea is taking off in Portland, a city already known for its coffee, wine and microbrews. Forget fussy Victorian tea rooms, cream teas and English china. Portland's new-generation teahouses range from Asian-influenced cafes like the Tao of Tea to student hangouts such as Tea Chai Té, on the second floor of an old house in the chic Nob Hill neighborhood.

Think chicken curry empanadas, chocolate truffles laced with tea, and flatbread pizzas sprinkled with dates and coconut, all washed down with smoky, nutty and sweet teas from China, Sri Lanka, India and Japan.

Portland has spawned some major tea companies. Oregon Chai, Stash Tea and Tazo Tea are all homegrown. So it goes that there's a niche for cozy places to sit and sip.

"Tea slows you down," Sharron Reichle says as she finishes a cup inside the teahouse at the Portland Classical Chinese Garden. "You don't get a big teacup to go and slosh it down in your car. It's more like a ritual."

Here are a few places worth a detour the next time you're in town. They're all in interesting neighborhoods. Take some time to walk around, then relax with a nice cup of tea.

The TeaZone

510 N.W. 11th Ave., Pearl District. Phone: 503-221-2130. Web: www.teazone.com

The scene: Tea for the masses served in a modern cafe with sidewalk tables, wire teapots hanging from the ceiling and a back room furnished with high-back chairs.

Husband-and-wife team Jhanne Jasmine and Grant Cull opened their shop in the Pearl District 6 ˝ years ago after leaving Boston and jobs in high-tech and medical research.

Their customers are young professionals working in the restored warehouse buildings in the Pearl, nearby condo residents and tourists on their way to and from Powell's Books.

"A big part of enjoying a cup of tea is understanding that tea does have a steeping time," Jasmine says. Teas are served in ceramic pots accompanied by hourglass sand timers (to measure that steeping time) and elegant glass mugs.

The teas: Eighty-five loose-leaf teas including hand-tied flower teas from China, bubble teas and herbal medicinal teas made by a local naturopath.

Specialty drinks: Tea lattes such as black currant or peach and almond and tea tonics such as "Liquid Yoga" that combine green tea with herb and fruit elixirs.

Noshing: Quiche and panini, tea cookies and desserts. Try the scones served with Devonshire cream and lemon curd.

Classes/tastings: Monthly Thursday evening tastings and classes ($10). A recent class featured a tasting of five aged Pu-erh teas from China's Yunnan province. Afternoon high tea on the third Sunday of the month ($14.95). Call for reservations.

The Tao of Tea

Locations at 3430 S.E. Belmont St. in Southeast Portland (503-736-0198) and 2112 N.W. Hoyt St. in Nob Hill. (503-223-3563). Web: www.taooftea.com

The scene: Somewhere in East India, Japan or Southwest Asia.

Photographs of the tea plantations that Chawla, a native of Delhi, visits on his frequent buying trips to Asia decorate the walls at the Belmont location he opened in 1997. Green plants and bamboo surround tables made from reclaimed wood and tea crates.

"It's like walking into a forest glade," says customer Mary Zartman. "You have the feeling that the people who work there really adore tea."

Tao means "way," and here, the experience is as much about drinking in the culture as it is about tea. At the newer Hoyt Street location, paper umbrellas hang from the ceiling and the sound of Indian music mixes with the gurgle of a waterfall. Visitors can reserve a Japanese tatami room or settle into chairs scattered with silk pillows and cushions.

If you go


Portland tea houses

Lodging

The Portland Big Deal program offers off-season discounts at many hotels. See www.travelportland.comand click on "The Portland Big Deal."

Traveler's tips

• Take the train. Amtrak (www.amtrak.com) has a two-for-one special through May 25 on its Seattle-Portland Cascades routes. To book, use discount code H567.

• All of the teahouses can be reached from downtown on foot, bus or streetcar. See www.trimet.org for transit schedules.

More information

• See www.TeaMap.com for a list of tea cafes in Portland and other cities.

• Explore a new neighborhood. See www.portlandneighborhood.com for information on Portland's Pearl District, Chinatown, Nob Hill, Belmont, Alberta and Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhoods.

The teas: Both teahouses serve and sell 120 or so varieties of pure-leaf teas from India, Vietnam, China, Sri Lanka, Japan and Nepal. Most are organic and fair trade. Selections change with the season, depending on what's fresh (right now, oolongs from Taiwan and teas from South India and Sri Lanka).

Specialty drinks: The emphasis is on brewed teas served in traditional teapots and cups, but on a warm day, a good choice is a fresh fruit Indian lassi made with organic yogurt, ice and fresh mangoes, pears or whatever's in season.

Noshing: Even if you're not a tea drinker, the vegetarian small plates ($4-$7) and traditional Indian tea snacks ($2.50) are reasons enough to visit either location. Try the coconut date flatbread, a thin pizza drizzled with honey, or the spinach roll-ups, fresh leaves served with little portions of coconut, mango chutney, lime and fresh ginger. All are artfully presented.

Classes/tastings: Regular sessions of Chanoyu ("hot water for tea") are offered, along with other classes and events throughout the year. Call or see the Web site for more information.

Foxfire Teas

4605 N.E. Fremont St., Northeast Portland. Phone: 503-288-6869. Web: www.foxfireteas.com

The scene: This is an urban, user-friendly tea bar with a gas fireplace and garage-style doors that open up onto the courtyard in a new development called Fremont Commons in the Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhood.

In keeping with the development's eco-retail theme (Foxfire shares the building with an "environmentally friendly" pet store), owners Katherine and Quinn Losselyong covered bare concrete floors with oriental rugs, fashioned a counter from barn wood, and had stools made from birch logs.

The teas: Forty loose teas, mostly organic and fair-trade, are sold from help-yourself bins. There's a sniffing station with glass jars filled with samples. Hot teas are served in white ceramic mugs with built-in infusers.

Quinn Losselyong says their goal was to take the intimidation out of tea. "We wanted people to be able to drink tea much the same way they drink coffee."

Specialty drinks: Foxfire mixes its own chais. Most popular is a smoky chai latte made with Masala chai mixed with Lapsang souchong tea. Also beer, wine and Stumptown coffee.

Noshing: Tofu sandwiches, salads, Katherine's homemade chocolate-chip scones and muffins from Portland's Crema Bakery.

Tea Chai Té

734 N.W. 23rd Ave., Nob Hill. (Second location opening soon on Alberta Street in Northeast Portland). Phone: 503-228-0900.Web: www.teachaite.com

The scene: Matt Thomas, 26, says he and his partner, Dominic Valdes, 25, were aiming for a "college-style place with a study atmosphere" when they opened Tea Chai Té in the upstairs of an old Victorian surrounded by sushi restaurants, clothing boutiques and import shops.

"We're trying to take all the traditional aspects out of tea," Thomas says.

Both tea drinkers in a coffee town, the partners came up with the idea for a tea bar as a business-school project at the University of Oregon.

"We would go to the coffeehouse on campus, and there wasn't much of a tea selection," Thomas recalls. "When we went to the tea houses, we found them to be mostly formal and food-focused."

Tea Chai Té is neither. Furnished with tables and couches from estate sales and thrift shops, the focus is on enjoying an affordable cup in relaxing surroundings. The Wi-Fi is free and laptops are welcome.

The teas: A 12-page menu lists 84 loose teas sold by the ounce, various hot and cold tea drinks and a rainbow of bubble teas in 16 flavors.

Specialty drinks: Eleven varieties of chai made from scratch latte-style, including a non-caffeinated African Rooibos spiked with cardamom, fennel, pepper and mint.

Noshing: Tea breads and light sweets. Top seller is a "hippie cookie" made with granola, raisins and oats.

Portland Classical Chinese Tea Garden

Northwest Third and Everett, Chinatown. Phone: 503-228-8131.Web: www.portlandchinesegarden.org

The scene: "Teahouses are not just about what you serve, but who serves it," says Veerinder Chawla, who besides operating the Tao of Tea also runs this classical teahouse called the Tower of Cosmic Reflections, inside Portland's Chinese garden.

Taiwanese manager Evonne Tang is in love with tea, and it shows as she performs a Chinese tea ceremony tableside, first pouring hot water over a tiny clay pot filled with tea leaves, then filling a tall, thimble-shaped cup for smelling the aroma, and finally, with a quick flip, inverting it into a shallow cup for drinking.

Furnished in Ming style with wooden tables and intricate ceiling carvings, the two-story teahouse is nicest in warm weather when the windows open onto the gardens.

The teas: Forty pure-leaf Chinese teas (selections change with the seasons) served in traditional pots and cups and sold loose in canisters.

Specialty drinks: Winter specials include Lei-Cha, a Hakka-style sweet, warm tea pudding and White Luo Chun, a tea from an organic farm in the Hunan province made from young leaves with white tips. Also Chinese rice wine, Asian pear and green tea sake.

Noshing: Light meals ($3-$7) focus on classics such as turnip cakes, sometimes called Chinese polenta, served with basil and sesame sauce. Among a selection of Chinese tea snacks ($1-$6) is a dish called Five Treasures Come Knocking. Roasted dates, candied lotus seeds, chestnuts, dried kumquats and candied winter melon represent health, wealth, longevity, virtue and happiness.

Classes/tastings: Classes throughout the year. Check the Web site for information on summer "Tea by Moonlight" sessions. Or just drop in and talk with Tang.

"Coming here to drink tea," she promises, "could be a class in itself."

Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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