Thursday, December 11, 2008


I drank my way across San Francisco on a sunny day last week!

Fortunately, for my own safety, and probably the safety of others, I was drinking tea and not alcoholic beverages.

I had a sample tea at tea shops in Chinatown and in the Downtown area.

My day started in the San Francisco Centre at the Peet's Coffee & Tea in the basement Food Emporium. There is nothing exotic about Peet's, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, but, when I take BART to Powell Street, I can't resist stopping at the San Francisco Centre, which has an underground entrance right from the BART station. I first get a cup of tea at Peet's. Then, I spend some time visiting my favorite shops in the San Francisco Centre.

So, with my cup of Jasmine Fancy Green Tea in hand, I wandered around the San Francisco Centre for a bit. After all, Bloomingdale's is in the Centre and I think it is against my religion to not visit any and all Bloomingdale's that I am close to.

I headed up to the Rotunda level of the San Francisco Centre to see what kind of Holiday decorations there were. The Rotunda holds a special place in San Francisco history. It is a 102-foot-wide skylit dome built in 1908. The Emporium department store occupied the site of the San Francisco Centre and this dome topped the Emporium. When construction began for the San Francisco Center's east side, the Emporium's dome was removed, restored, and, finally, positioned atop the new building. Today there is comfortable public seating under the Rotunda. It is beautifully decorated for the Holidays.

The tea mission was not entirely abandoned in the San Francisco Centre...on the second floor is the Japanese tea shop, Lupicia.

I love this beautiful shop with its wide variety of tea, both loose and bagged. At this time of year, Lupicia features beautiful gift packages of tea and tea accessories. While I browsed, I sampled Lupicia's Pommier tea, a blend of rooibos tea (no caffeine), honeybush, maple syrup and apple. I also tasted their Tarte au Poire, a green tea with the taste of pear. Both are lovely to drink.

With my final destination being Chinatown, I next headed up through Union Square, stopping briefly to look in Macy's windows which are filled with cats and dogs in need of adoption. The San Francisco SPCA has made Macy's windows its own Holiday Tradition.

My next stop was at the Skating rink in Union Square. I was there between skating sessions, so only saw the rink maintenance people on the ice. This being a sunny mild San Francisco winter day, the outdoor tables at the Emporio Rulli Caffe were filled with people enjoying an al fresco lunch and the view of the skating rink. Even San Francisco's infamous pigeons were doing at bit of lunching by the skating rink!

Finally, I arrived at the Chinatown gate on Grant Street at Bush.

My first Chinatown stop was at Red Blossom Tea, a tea shop with an expert staff which is knowledgeable about what looks like the hundreds of varieties of tea that they stock.

I had hoped to taste some tea at Red Blossom but, despite some tables that appeared to be set up for tasting, I was told that they only sold tea and did not offer brewed tea to drink. Not being able to taste made my purchase choices a bit of a challenge.

Many of their teas have vintages and even seasons when they are harvested. The teas are stored in large tins. I was told to remove the lid from a tea and to sniff the inside of the lid to sample the fragrance of the teas. For me, the sniffing worked for awhile, but it soon became like trying to decide which perfume to buy...after a few sniffs, I couldn't distinguish one from another. Oh that there was a scent cleanser on the order of a palate cleanser of water or bread while tasting wine or fruit sorbet in the middle of a multi-course dinner.

I mostly relied on the detailed description of each tea that is posted by its tin.

I came away with a bag of Moroccan Mint Green Tea, a Chinese green tea that has fresh peppermint in it. I am going to try to duplicate the tea drink that is so popular in Morocco. Having read that Pu-Erh is one of the most complex of black teas, I decided that this would be the appropriate place to buy some Pu-Erh. The descriptions of Red Blossom's many Pu-Erhs only made my decision more difficult. My helpful sales person suggested I try Nannuo Shan Shou Pu-Erh, vintage 2001.

She then packaged my teas in sealed foil bags. She also included a card with steeping and brewing instructions for each tea.

Red Blossom's web site has detailed descriptions of each tea that they sell...I plan to study this before my next purchases. The web site also provides detailed brewing instructions for each tea.

My next stop was at a less sophisticated but just as interesting tea shop, Ten Ren's. My world-traveling friend Janet says that, in China, Ten Ren's is sort of like the Starbuck's is in the United States...a popular place to stop for a drink and a snack and to hang out. While I was in the Chinatown Ten Ren's, several "regulars" stopped by to get their favorite drink; some stayed and drank in the shop, others appeared to be carrying their beverages back to their offices.

While Ten-Ren's sells many tea varieties, what I was after here was a cup of Bubble Tea, also called Tapioca Pearl Tea.

Bubble tea first gained popularity in Taiwan in the 1980s and is gradually catching on all over the world...Canada, United States, Australia, Central and South America, to mention some locations. Bubble tea is served hot or cold, with or without milk, with or without flavoring. For my first Bubble Tea, I decided to have a Hot Green Milk Tea. What Bubble Tea is really all about is the tapioca balls that sit at the bottom of the cup or glass of tea. One drinks Bubble Tea through a straw. Beforehand, the tapioca balls are boiled, drained, and then sweetened with sugar syrup, honey, or some other sweetener. At Ten Ren's, the tapioca balls are large and brown. A special wide-diameter straw is needed to sip up the tapioca while you are drinking your tea.

While sipping my tea, I asked where I could buy the large tapioca pearls. When the sales person offered to sell me one of their 15-pound bag of pearls, I must have looked so shocked at the quantity that she then offered to sell me just a pound. This pound of tapioca has proven to be enough for me to make several glasses of Bubble Tea at home. Then, I asked if they would sell me some of the special straws. An older Chinese woman, possible the mother of the lady who had been helping me, told me that I could buy the straws at a Dollar Store or in Walgreen's. This led me to ask where the nearest Dollar Store or Walgreen's was in Chinatown, thinking that there was little chance that the suburban versions near my house would carry them. After a conversation in Chinese between the two women, they consented to sell me, the helpless, hopeless, and clueless Caucasian, 10 straws. The entire experience from drink to purchases was a lot of fun. This picture is of my purchases which cost me a total of $4, less than the price of two Bubble Tea drinks:

There are many little shops at which to taste and buy tea, throughout San Francisco's Chinatown. Some appear more commercial and tourist-oriented than others.

By the time I left Ten Ren's it was well past lunchtime and I was hungry for something other than tea.

When I found myself in front of Eastern Bakery,

which claims to be the oldest bakery in Chinatown, I stopped for a baked Barbecued Pork Bun and yet another cup of tea. This time my tea was an ordinary tea bag of black Chinese tea.

Eastern Bakery is a very modest place where, when I worked in San Francisco, I'd walk over on my lunch hour to buy their Whipped Cream Cakes, Fresh Fruit Cakes, Moon Cakes and Barbecued Pork Buns. They are as busy as ever, mostly with takeout orders.

A note on Eastern Bakery's moon cakes...they are famous throughout the United States and can be shipped anywhere in the States. There is a price list on their web site. The one "catch" is that they do not take credit cards, so you have to mail them a check and they will then ship your order. They make their own lotus, black bean, and melon sweet pastes, the fillings for the moon cakes, and promise that there are not additives or chemicals in their cakes. The moon cakes are worth ordering for a special treat, if you can't get to the bakery.

Just a note on moon cakes: They are dense little filled pastries about the size of one's palm. An intricate pattern is embossed in the top crust. They are traditionally served as part of the Mid-Autumn festival which is celebrated each year on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, when the moon is at its maximum brightness for the entire year. Some moon cakes also include up to 4 egg yolks in the middle of the cake, signifying the phases of the moon. Eastern Bakery's moon cakes are made with from zero to 4 egg yolks in the filling; it's your choice of filling and your choice of yolks. Eastern Bakery's customers seem to enjoy Moon Cakes year 'round.

Working my way back to the Powell Street BART station, I stopped at a few of my Union Square favorites.

Teuscher Chocolates had a magnificent Christmas display of specially packaged Swiss Chocolate in its windows.

I thought it appropriate to end my day in another of downtown San Francisco's famous Rotundas, the one in Neiman Marcus. This Rotunda had been atop the City of Paris department store that previously occupied the Neiman Marcus site. Although City of Paris was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in San Francisco and as a California Landmark, the building could not be saved from the wrecking ball and was demolished in 1981. Under pressure from San Francisco preservationists, Neiman Marcus saved and restored the historic dome with its sailing ship design. It now tops Neiman Marcus. Neiman Marcus also continues the City of Paris tradition of placing its very large Christmas tree under the dome. The glass dome dates back to 1909. My picture does not do it justice,but it gives an idea of the dome and the tree.

My final stop before heading underground to BART and returning home was at the new CB2 on Ellis Street. CB2 is Crate & Barrel's newest venture, a lower priced, trendier home furnishings store.

Browsing through this attractive two-story store, I found the perfect solution to my piles of Holiday cards: the Fotofall by Umbra. Now I can display my cards in a decorative fashion. In the store, they had tiny Christmas Ornaments hanging on their Fotofall; I've added a few ornaments to mine as well. I know I will use the Fotofall for birthday and Valentine cards too. The Fotofall is currently on sale on CB2's web site...I just ordered one for a Holiday gift for one of those people on my list who have "everything."

1 comment:

mary ann said...

What a great post! I'm a coffee person, but your writing and photos make me want to switch to tea.