‘Tis the season for tea, whether that means partaking in a refined afternoon variety or standing around waiting to hear your mobile order called. 

Anne Marie Panoringan

Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for eight years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.

Drive-Thru Iced Tea

Artisan, a brick-and-mortar collaboration in Fountain Valley that brings together 7 Leaves Cafe and Tarit Tanjasiri’s Crema Bakery under one roof, was one of five developments I looked forward to in 2021. While the drive-thru concept is currently in soft-opening mode, I stopped by the corner of Brookhurst and Garfield to meet 7 Leaves co-founder Sonny Nguyen and preview Crema’s menu at Artisan to talk shop.

What inspired you to collaborate with Tanjasiri?

Sonny Nguyen: After getting to know Tarit through a mutual friend of ours, it became apparent we shared common values and a spirit of serving our local community. We instantly became friends and participated in community service events such as OCAPICA’s Tastemakers. It became apparent to me he possessed the knowledge of food and bakery while we were good at serving unique quality beverages. The rest was history.

Where was the first location to feature a drive-thru and did it affect business last year?

S.N.: Our very first drive-thru location was developed in Fountain Valley (at Bushard and Warner in 2015), which happens to be the same city we are developing Artisan. 2020 was the year our drive-thru stores saw a great surge in traffic since customers felt more comfortable going through this channel versus walking into our stores.

Let’s talk about tea. What beverage flavors are most requested? Will the offerings at Artisan differ from existing 7 Leaves Cafes, and what is your favorite tea on the menu to sip?

S.N.: Our top-selling drinks are jasmine sea cream, strawberry hibiscus, summer mint and matcha tea. At Artisan our customers will be able to access drinks not currently offered at 7 Leaves Cafe such as our green Thai tea. Currently my favorite tea option, the aroma of this tea after your first sip is unforgettable. 

How does the future look for 7 Leaves?

S.N.: With California opening up again we see our immediate plans are to bring back normalcy to our customers. We want to greet our customers with a smile while following full seating capacities where our customers can enjoy the beautiful and clean ambiance of our stores. We have new markets such as Arizona, Texas, Virginia, Georgia and Florida all planning to open up stores in the near future. Aside from new markets, we plan to roll out new drinks (hot and cold) and some food offerings.

Artisan will formally open July 24 at 10065 Garfield Ave. in Fountain Valley. I highly recommend requesting a Crema croffle (a texture-pleasing hybrid of croissant and waffle) with Nguyen’s green Thai tea suggestion.

My Three Favorite Spots for Iced Tea 

With zero social media posts nor a functioning website, does Orobae even exist? For those who truly want to taste unadulterated, quality tea, the line perpetually runs 10-20 deep at a neighborhood plaza in typically chain-dominated Irvine. If I happen to be in the plaza before noon, I automatically stand out front (they stopped in-store ordering, with an ordering/payment/pickup table outside) and wait until opening. Orobae’s owner takes tea as seriously as Italians take their coffee, brewing from actual espresso machines. My first taste was an aromatic Taiwanese oolong named Rising Phoenix and I’m currently working my way down its list. Bonus: I also usually swing by Mitsuwa, Daiso or my shoe cobbler next door while waiting for my order to be called.

At MOD Pizza, I was addicted to their caramelized pear iced tea from the first time I idled next to the self-serve drink fountain as my pie finished baking. Lightly sweetened, this quick service pizza chain’s house brewed sip is a caffeine-free blend infused with notes of honey, fresh baked pear and the right proportion of caramel. It complements the savory notes of all my custom orders. 

And when I visit Downtown Disney, Earl Grey Lemonade (made with tea) at Earl of Sandwich is an underrated favorite. Earl’s lemonade is their version of an Arnold Palmer – half lemonade/half iced tea – however, they mix bold Earl Grey in place of black tea (which is offered separately for less adventurous types). It is a signature lemonade I consider a genius hybrid.

Afternoon Teas

Over in Cypress, Classics Flowers and Confections has been around for at least 30 years. Initially serving as a flower shop, the expansion to include pastries baked in-house and more has been in place since 2012. Its version of tea service is more flexible than most, allowing patrons to select any half-sandwich on the menu as their base. Then comes a salad or fresh fruit option, scone selection, a choice of pastry in the Classics display case and any tea served hot or over ice. 

Afternoon tea tower from Classics Flowers and Confections. Credit: ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN, Voice of OC

Besides being in a veritable greenhouse of plants and giftable accessories, I was genuinely surprised by Classics’ impressive list of teas to select from. Having dozens of blends at one’s disposal was a blessing and a curse when it came time to decide. Patrons flowed in and out the entire time we visited; some picking up dessert while a few purchased bespoke bouquets that were assembled while they waited. For a last-minute housewarming present or impromptu meal, Classics is ready to serve. 

In Old Town Tustin, Morning Lavender began assembling afternoon tea boxes to go in May of 2020 and they were a hit, selling 300 the first weekend. While the traditional in-person service is currently available again, the cafe within a boutique dress shop continues to sell these aesthetically pleasing sets. Per chief executive officer Kim Le Pham, “As it was a tough time for most of the food industry. We also wanted to continue to support local bakers by including their delicious pastries in the boxes. We launched Mother’s Day weekend and were blown away by the support for our small business.”

A duo of afternoon tea boxes by Morning Lavender. Credit: Photo courtesy of Kim Le Pham

When I missed seeing a dear friend this time last year, I purchased a couple of boxes and drove to her Cypress home, where she had set up a couple of tables and put a pot of hot water on the stove so we could sit at opposite ends and share a distanced meal. Morning Lavender continues to offer the boxes only on the weekends with pre-paid orders. A curated $25 tea box to go includes a quartet of finger sandwiches (salmon & dill, chicken salad, cucumber & mint and creamy spinach), a lavender lemon scone, clotted cream and preserves, a macaron, a mini donut and finally a sachet of Sloane fine loose leaf tea of your choosing.

For a more upscale experience, venture inside Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza. Penthouse-level Knife Pleat brings back its in-person afternoon tea service the last Saturday of each month beginning June 26 from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.. The fine china, white linen $85 experience showcases refined versions of sandwiches (Persian cucumber, egg salad, beet-cured salmon and chicken salad), a duo of scones, seasonal fruit tart, cream puff, Parisian macaron and a Louis XV sweet consisting of hazelnut praline, chocolate cremeux mousse and biscuit and gianduja glaze.  

Knife Pleat gives an outdoor option for their monthly afternoon tea. Credit: Photo courtesy of Knife Pleat

As an upgrade from the $85 offering, you can also order caviar service. If you choose to indulge, go with Chef Esnault’s Golden Reserve Selection caviar, a medium to large bead with a smooth finish.  I treated myself to it a couple of months prior to lockdown as a birthday gift and it didn’t disappoint.

Milk Tea (a.k.a. Boba Tea or Bubble Tea)

Depending on who you ask, the combination of tea with milk and boba can be referred to in a few ways. Sipped hot or cold, the popularity of these types of drinks is its own culture in Orange County. Personally, I rarely add boba to my orders because I consider them filler. There seems to be a new spot opening up every couple of weeks, making it tough to cover every place. So I reached out to friend and social media influencer Hop Nguyen for suggestions (in addition to places I had in mind). 

Boba 101

When you order a boba tea, one typically has to specify temperature, sweetness and ice level. The reason I tend to veer away from most milk tea places is due to the lack of real ingredients. Flavored powders and syrups made from artificial ingredients may have suited my palate 10 years ago, but I’d prefer to pay for real cream, ceremonial matcha or dairy alternatives such as oat milk in a more interesting choice of higher quality tea flavors.

Boba facts:

  • Boba is made from tapioca starch from the cassava plant.
  • Boba is a combination of the Chinese characters for bubble and big.
  • Get boba earlier in the day – fresh cooked rules.
  • A milk tea with boba has anywhere from five to 14 calories per sphere.
  • Boba is a carb heavy substance. In other words boba = fattening.

Of the places Nguyen suggested, Healthy Natural Tea stood out for a brand with multiple outlets. When I visited HN Tea, I requested a mountain rock organic tea latte with a cheese cap (a frothy topping comprised of cream, pasteurized milk, cream cheese and salt) on my phone and pre-paid for contactless pickup. Stating that they only utilize USDA organic teas on its website, I didn’t sense any unusual aftertaste like places I’ve tried over the years, clearly tasting the pure ingredients.

While flavor is most important when determining a favorite, the vessel it came in was of quality design and heft. Despite being more narrow than most, my cup was sturdy when held. The lid for my beverage was designed for sea cream consumption, with a swiveling lid that didn’t require a straw and a sticker attached explaining the proper balance of tea to cream tasted with each tip of my cup.

In my quest to explore newer milk tea places, one destination in Laguna Hills stood out. Elixir Tea Bar is housed within Woodfire Kabob Restaurant. Owner Cire Hensman took a pivot from filmmaking to pursue his tea drinking passion. Transforming a standard cocktail bar into a wizard-themed, zero-proof experience for Muggles (a.k.a. humans, for those not familiar with Harry Potter), Elixir is a creative high-end milk tea bar masquerading as a Dungeons and Dragons-esque bar scene. (Note: Hensman specifically operates Elixir, not Woodfire – although you can order food from the bar and drinks from your table; the billing is separate.)

Going into Elixir with reserved expectations, I find that it isn’t common to locate an establishment where the detailed aesthetic is at the same level as the food or beverage. This is why delicious businesses are often referred to as “holes-in-the-wall,” because the money is primarily spent on fresh ingredients, not elaborate decor. Something else I wasn’t prepared for: learning Elixir sweetens beverages without asking for a level of intensity. Hensman mentors his tea wizards to basically read the client: for instance, if, after chatting with a customer, they find that the customer’s history with tea is comprehensive, the tea maker is more likely to use less sweetener, allowing the tea’s true flavor to shine.

I attempted a tea flight of four beverages, plus samples of a couple more. Prophecy was my favorite of the bunch – a black tea latte enhanced with cardamom, chia seeds and boba. Amulet was a close second with its distinct bergamot flavor. 

Elixir’s magical environment is inspired by the types of films Hensman creates, musing that, “Filmmaking is 90% planning and 10% shooting. So during the planning we were drinking tea every day.” His love for tea spread to the film crew, ultimately prompting him to learn about the tea making process while filming his new movie, “The Prey.” In an ideal world, Hensman’s Elixir will be completely operational in a month. For now, it’s only open on select evenings plus Sunday afternoons at the Laguna Hills Mall.

Amuse Bouches

Preview Review: Good Vibes in Huntington Beach 

Previously known as Bodhi Tree Vegan Cafe, the existing restaurant owned and operated by the Pham family for 18 years underwent a makeover during COVID, updating its concept from an Asian-focused menu to one more culturally diverse in variety yet still herbivore-friendly. What resulted was Good Vibes, an eclectic, surf city vegan eatery tucked beyond the bustle of touristy PCH. A plant-based kitchen and juice bar, Good Vibes’ tagline is “from soul to bowl.” 

Offering a lunch and dinner spread of more relatable dishes expands the restaurant’s demographic beyond traditional, tofu-forward meals. Menu pricing starts at $5 for appetizers and builds up to $16 for a sizzling “steak” rice bowl. We began our meal with a trio of “krabcakes” shaped from artichoke hearts, jackfruit and chickpeas. I firmly believe that if you overthink a dish as you’re tasting it, the food will rarely meet expectations – so I dropped any preconceived notions before the first bite. The texture was slightly different than what I’m accustomed to, but its flavor profile was concise. 

Next up was a duo of soy-based entrees. An Oriental chicken salad was even closer in taste and aesthetic to any lunchtime greens and protein I’m accustomed to. GV’s lomo saltado included the signature aji sauce for a bit of heat, but that was tame compared to the burning sensation received from jackfruit-stuffed Anaheim pepper tacos; we overestimated our spice tolerance on that dish.

Fortunately, the beverage spread at Good Vibes is such that many of its offerings could soothe our palette. When feeling indecisive, experiment with a juice flight that factors all four color-coded offerings. My affinity to green drinks made the kale/cucumber a favorite while our dinner companion preferred a cheery German chamomile and pineapple “stress-reliever” blend. It matched the calming interior envisioned by consultant Mai Khanh “MK” Ly.

For more of a dessert vibe, opt for the Thai tea brulee latte or roasted strawberry date shake – they not only quench thirst and cool one down, but satisfy cravings. While an official opening date isn’t confirmed, I suspect a more formal announcement in the next month. If visiting, be aware the signage out front may still indicate Bodhi Leaf. Good Vibes is located at 501 Main St., #E in Huntington Beach.

A Father’s Day Pick

If Dad prefers an activity over a meal, swing by A Restaurant in Newport Beach for its inaugural “A Classic Never Goes Out of Style” event on Father’s Day from 3-5 p.m. Set in a completely outdoor environment, patrons can enjoy cool vinyl tunes while dad admires a fleet of vintage vehicles. Westward whiskey libations and chilled brews are included in the $25 entry. Hand-rolled cigars will be available for purchase. Stay afterwards for dinner or drop in at A Market next door before it closes at 3 p.m. to pick up a casual sandwich and wine spread for dinner (and remember to load up on snickerdoodles).

Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at ampanoringan@voiceofoc.org.

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