Yeah, so after I posted a long time on trying to find tea houses, I found a list on the web, in chinese, of what seemed to be a pretty intense list of tea shops on the web. After doing a bit of research to eliminate the boba shops I vowed to visit them all. So that sort of turned into the Times article that just came out (my first! Whoppee! etc.), and because of various things I wasn't, er, permitted to post on anthing related to the article before it came out - but now that it has, I wanted to add some things that are, er, a bit too direct and impolite for, er, general publication. That I think are important. Because I've been severely obsessed for about 3 months, and I want to share the fruits of my obsessiveness.
So, tea buying:
Ten Ren sucks major ass. This was my first stop for tea, and the tea shop that most people are familiar with, and I liked the teas enough, but after visiting other shops and tasting the same varieties elsewhere, I realized that Ten Ren's teas ranged from good-ish to terrible, and all were severely overpriced. Their $120 teas were barely the quality of other places $30 teas. I still like their Ten Wu, and their Dragonwell is good enough for cheap, but largely, that stuff is rank. Their Pouchong - which, at other places, is sweet and slightly bitter and pure - tastes like rotten tobacco. Their Tung Ting - which is otherwise a very nice tea - is actually undrinkable. Ick. I've actually thrown 10 bucks worth away.
In Chinatown, right by the original Ten Ren, there is a Wing Hop Fung. Lots of teas. Big mail order service. Also *terrible*. They store their teas in *glass*. This is like storing your red wine uncorked. Sunlight destroys.
Good places: Ten Li in Fountain Valley, that I have spoken of before.
Dat Sun Ginseng in Little Saigon, for the Dragonwell. Incredible Dragonwell. Christ. Paid $120 a ib for it. ($13 bucks worth has lasted two months of occasional drinking and is still going.) Completely worth it.
Chado Tea House is an interesting case. They get the most press. They are British/Indian tastes. Their Darjeelings, fer example, are the goddamn best I've ever had. I mean, beautiful, complicated, everything, challenges cabernets, wow, christ. And the black Chinese teas - especially the Keemun - which is stuff that the Chinese don't drink and make largely for export, I'm told - are excellent. But their Chinese green teas and oolongs are pretty sucky. They're picked for a kind of bland sweetness and nuttiness that brings them closer to the British/Indian tea-taste, and completely don't have the whole vegetal-bitter-green/sweet growing thing.
So, my favorite: Valley Tea and Coffee at Atlantic and Valley. Quick story. I'm buying my gaiwan at the shop. I ask the woman selling me if she knows a good tea shop. "Ask my dad," she says, and points over at the old guy wrapping up my gaiwan.
The old guy looks me up and down. Then he turns and looks at my companion - white - very suspiciously, and turns back to me.
"Try the supermarket," he says, pointing to the Ranch 99 across the mall. "They have teas."
I frown. "Ick. Those teas are terrible."
He pauses a while. "Errr, try the Ten Ren over there." He points.
I frown. "Uhh, I don't really, trust them. I don't think they know their stuff."
The girl giggles at me. The old guy nods curtly and grabs a business card and draws me a little map. "All right, go here. They have good tea."
"Is this where you get your tea?"
"No," he says, "I fly to Taiwan every year for my tea. But this place is good."
That's how I found Valley Tea.
They have absolutely kick-ass Pouchong - beautiful - and exceedingly good High Mountain Oolong for doing a gong fu service in a yi-xing pot. But beware - this is a Taiwanese place. So the Taiwanese teas are good, but the mainland-style teas are - at least the ones I've tried - iffish. Especially their Ti Guan Yin, which is crappy.
The high grades are worth it. And if you are nice to the lady, she'll go in the back and fetch the latest shipment, instead of giving you what's in the cans in the front.
Oh - last note - LA water is the death of tea.