Official or not, there’s no doubt that the world believes that tea is the national drink of China. While black tea (often oolong) is the staple in California Chinese restaurants, you’ll find an astonishing variety of teas if you step into one of Chinatown ’s small tea shops. You can enjoy a hot cup of tea in these, and buy yourself a pound of loose-leaf to take home with you. Most tea shops also sell lovely imported teapots and other implements of proper tea-making.
At the Red Blossom Tea Company (831 Grant Ave., 415/395-0868, www.redblossomtea.com , Mon.–Sat. 10 a.m.–6:30 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.–6 p.m., $10–20) you’ll find top-quality teas of every type you can think of and probably some you’ve never heard of before. Red Blossom has been in business for more than 25 years importing the best teas available from all over Asia.
For the tea-adventurous, the blossoming teas, specific varieties of oolong, and pu-erh teas make great souvenirs to bring home and share with friends. And if you fall in love, never fear; Red Blossom takes advantage of Bay Area technology to offer all their loose teas on the Internet. (Sadly, their website isn’t scratch-and-sniff, or they’d probably run out.)
Another option is Blest Tea (752 Grant Ave., 415/951-8516, http://hk.myblog.yahoo.com/blesttea , tasting $3). This shop boasts of the healthful qualities of their many varieties of tea. You’re welcome to taste what’s available for a nominal fee, to be sure you’re purchasing something you’ll really enjoy. If you’re lucky enough to visit when the owner is minding her store, ask lots of questions—she’ll tell you everything you ever needed to know about tea. Be aware that the Blest website isn’t particularly English-friendly.