Location: Vital Tea Leaf, 905 Grant Avenue, San Francisco (Chinatown)
"What you doing here?" Kenny, the tea master, facetiously probed as I sat down at his tea bar alongside other customers. "Oh, just.....joining you guys," I answered. "Reason?" he asked, chuckled, and said to the crowd, "People usually come here for no reasons." He continued on with his tea-tasting ceremony, meticulously brewing "silver needle" tea and describing its medicinal benefits. "You know what Teavana is? The Panda Express of tea shops," Kenny slighted Starbucks' sister company, as he poured for tea-curious spectators. "What does strawberry tea taste like?" an audience member asked, pointing at one of the gigantic tea jars behind us. "What does STRAWBERRY tea taste like?" the tea master pensively repeated, and in the same breath, wisecracked back, "Coconut!"
That's how my tea tasting experience went. When people hear the term "tea tasting," they might often think of the solemn Japanese tea ceremony or the sophisticated English high tea involving delicate pastries and a long sheet of etiquette rules. At Kenny's tea house, it was more like hanging out at a comedy club, watching an insult comic unleashing his sardonic tongue while ever so gently pouring you tea. At one point, he even pulled a prank on a tea-tasting participant who briefly left her phone at the bar and went to browse for tea sets. He hid the phone behind his water boiler, letting us onlookers witness it with utter amazement. The victimized lady, of course, went into a panic mode when she realized her phone was gone. But before long, the stealthy tea man returned her property with a little grin, saying, "Lesson learned, never leave your belongings unguarded."
Needless to say not everyone would find his buffonery amusing. Some people scurried out of the shop halfway through and I couldn't blame them. How long did I stay? Over an hour. I would have left sooner if sarcasm and practical jokes were all Kenny had to offer. But as borderline inappropriate as his sense of humor is, the man really knows his teas. The tea tasting is completely free. He doesn't pressure customers to buy. And if he likes you (he did seem to like me!), you might get some complimentary tea to take home (he gave me a bagful of Imperial Yellow). In case you don't have time to sit and sip, just opt for "Happy Ending" tea. What is it? Well, in Kenny's own words, "it's when you come in, order some tea, pay the money, and get the heck out!"