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Menuplease: San Francisco’s Vital Tea Shop

A few weeks ago Femme de Joie and Amico del Signore were wandering the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown on an early summer evening. We browsed the identical shops with identical brocade jackets and other gewgaws destined to be garage sale items in a few years, and stepped over the hoses from the nearly-closed greengrocers washing the sidewalks for the night. After a stop at a bakery for some bow ties (deep-fried pastry heavily coated in honey) and a bag of those addictive almond cookies, we stepped into a small, modern storefront with a long counter and seats on one side and shelves of tea canisters on the other. A gaggle of Canadian tourists were seated at the counter, listening closely as a young man served up free samples and described the health benefits of the various teas. At the invitation of co-proprietor Carina, we slipped into seats and were soon entranced by the experience served up.

We were both accustomed to the standard British method of making tea: preheat teapot, bring water to full boil, add one teaspoon tea per cup (or one teabag), and let steep five minutes. As the tea served at Vital was unlike anything we’d ever tasted before, so was the preparation. First you rinse the tea. Yes. Rinse it: put the leaves in the brewing container, add a small amount of water and rinse, then drain off and discard the water. After that add very hot water – just below the boil – and let steep 20 to 40 seconds, then serve the tea. What was even more surprising was that most of the teas at Vital could be used four to six more times with no loss of flavor.

And the flavors: these were a completely different animal from Lipton’s or Red Rose. The jasmine pearl was by far the most fragrant and flavorful jasmine tea we’d ever had. Mango was like drinking a ripe mango. Others reminded us, variously, of grass, spinach, or toasted wheat. We particularly liked sticky rice (a taste and smell exactly like its namesake), bamboo, and lychee black.

Jason (the proprietor behind the counter) explained about the different types of tea and what health benefits each holds. Green tea is an anti-oxidant, calming, and relaxing, as is white tea. We were unfamiliar with pu-erh, which comes in small, tightly compressed cakes. It’s unique because of its underground fermentation method and it becomes smoother with age. According to Jason, it treats digestion, upset stomach, acid reflex, constipation, and cuts grease and fat.

We sampled over a dozen different teas, each served in the tiniest cups you’ve ever seen. What fascinated us was that Jason drank each cup of tea right along with us. He does this all day long and never gets tired of it.

The topic of cost came up. How could it not, when a few of the canisters were clearly marked as selling at $400 or $800 per pound? Jason pointed out that yes, some teas are quite dear; even $40 a pound might sound like a lot. But a pound of tea leaves is a lot of tea; prepared according to his method with multiple reuses, it will last far longer than you would ever dream. You need a very small amount tea to make multiple servings – enough to serve all day long. And not to beat that familiar comparison to death, but if you buy a Starbucks coffee every day, you’re spending a LOT more on one cup of coffee than you would on enough tea to provide you with six cups a day.

Some tea comes in hard-compressed spheres, to be broken apart and rinsed, then brewed. Other types are dried flowers that open up in hot water like an anemone.

There is never any pressure whatsoever to buy; when the Canadian tourists simply got up and left after a good hour drinking free tea, Jason and Carina were serene and unperturbed. They see this as an education and experience. Whether or not you believe in the purported benefits of drinking tea, Vital opened our eyes to new flavors we had never experienced. It’s worth a visit, both for the tasting and for the friendliness and kindness of Jason and Carina.

Vital Tea Leaf, 905 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94133, 415-981-9322, also at 1044 Grant Avenue and 1199 Pacific Avenue. Branches in Seattle. Website here.

Femme de Joie’s first culinary masterpiece was at age 4, when she made the perfect fried bologna sandwich on white bread. Since then she has dined on horse Bourguignon in France, stir-fried eel in London, and mystery meat in her college cafeteria, but firmly draws the line at eating rattlesnake, peppermint and Hamburger Helper. She lives in Shasta County at her country estate, Butterscotch Acres West. She is nearly always hungry. Visit MenuPlease for more.