Tea Garden is about tea and savory foods (like potstickers and noodles) that have a nice chew. Dhanraj Emanuel.
Tea Garden4685 Convoy St., Suite 110Kearny Mesa858-277-8988 The recent unseasonably warm weather has passed, but while it was here, it caused a highly abnormal and most unfortunate side effect—it almost killed my appetite. All I wanted to do was drink iced tea, eat ice cream and graze on cold fruit out of the fridge. Sitting down to a full meal didn't seem at all appealing, but I didn't want to miss out on the camaraderie and pleasure that comes with sharing food around a table with friends.
So I made the rounds at my favorite tea houses, which all popped up in the last few years to capitalize on the pearl, or boba, tea craze. Many Asian cuisines involve pleasantly chewy-textured foods, from springy ramen noodles to pliable desserts made from glutinous rice flour. But the Taiwanese, who invented tapioca bubble tea, have a word that sounds like “Q” to describe foods with this quality.
The boba tea craze has waned a bit overall, but its popularity remains at a fever pitch in Kearny Mesa, where throngs of teenagers crowd these snack shops, whose vibe falls somewhere between a café and a bar.
The most recent among them is Convoy Street's Tea Garden, which opened last year and is notable for a large and varied food menu beyond that of a standard tea house's lineup. There's free wi-fi, comfy couches, magazines and board games. It's like being in your living room, except someone else brings you drinks and food whenever you're peckish.
When I need a lot of thirst quenching, I'll get a fruit-flavored iced tea and try to conquer my own personal Matterhorn, a mountain of shaved ice topped with a choice of fresh fruit, flavored jellies and sweet red beans, drizzled with condensed milk and crowned with a scoop of ice cream. I like the piña colada-flavored combo of fresh pineapple and coconut jelly. The small size is enough for three people to share, but I'll sometimes make it my meal along with a savory snack.
The impeccably fried popcorn chicken is, thankfully, nothing like the Colonel's. The chunks of juicy chicken thigh have an airy cornstarch coating and come out grease-free, with a fragrant sprinkling of salt and white pepper. Pan-fried dumplings are also good, though the homemade dough varies in quality and thickness depending on the day. Sometimes it's nearly perfect, rolled just thin enough to be tender to the bite but still have a nice chew—or “Q.” Sometimes the dumpling's skin is so thick that its crisped bottom requires serious jaw-work to penetrate.
When I'm seeking warmth, I like to wrap my hands around a cup of hot milk tea, made here with non-dairy creamer—since many Asians are lactose-intolerant—and a flavored syrup or powder. The almond milk tea is deliciously nutty, but the coconut milk tea flavored with coconut powder lacks the strong taste and creamy richness that real coconut milk would bring. A pot of loose-leaf tea—with varieties ranging from smooth, lightly roasted high-mountain oolong to earthy pu-erh—is $5.95 and serves two.
Heartier entrées include fried rice and stir-fried noodles, plus braised dishes like homestyle tofu and Taiwanese three-cup chicken, simmered in soy, rice wine and sesame oil. The food here is less refined than at a restaurant but hits the perfect price point and portion size for students and the budget-conscious. Tea Garden is quiet during the day and can get packed and buzzing at night, and, to my taste and experience, it beats Starbucks every time.
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