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Get Your Assam In Gear 

'Cause tea is hot

It's no secret Charlotteans drink a lot of tea -- sweet tea, that is. But recently green teas, Chai, and milk teas have found their way into Carolinian hearts and bodies.

When Wayne Powers opened Tea ReX in South End in 1997, many thought, he told me, that he would fail. Instead he and his tea house have prospered. At Tea ReX, customers "can explore the world of tea, one cup at a time." No doubt, Powers has benefited from the surging popularity of teas. He remarked, "Tea is hot with every pun intended. I think a lot of it has to do with gourmet coffee, which has gotten popular. But people are abusing coffee. It's become a hybrid, an over-roasted, expensive brew. The popularity of tea has coincided with reports from the AMA and other health researchers citing the health benefits of green, black, and oolong tea. Basically anything that is tea. Researchers are discovering what some cultures have known for many centuries: tea is healthy."

One of the most popular tea drinks around town is Chai. Chai, which is also the word for tea in some countries, is a sweetened, spiced drink from India. Although some coffeehouses use, and grocery stores sell, instant Chai mixes, the true way to brew Chai takes at least five minutes.

Chai is made with a rich black tea, such as Darjeeling, but preferably Assam. Whether you use a tea bag or loose tea, black teas take three to five minutes to steep and reach optimum flavor. Loose leaf tea makes a better cup. If you use loose leaf, use a strainer instead of a tea ball. Allowing the tea to freely disperse in and infuse the water makes a better tasting cup of tea. If you prefer teabags, you can find some brands of Chai, such as Stash, which package the spices and the tea leaves within a bag. The least expensive way to spice Chai is to buy a Tea Marsala mix at an Indian grocery store. Three dollars buys you a blend of the necessary Chai spices: black pepper, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg. Some package products add the licorice flavor of anise as well.

After the tea is brewed, spices added, and strained if using loose tea, add some warmed milk or half and half. For more authenticity, use evaporated milk. Finally a sweetener must be added to release the flavor of the spices. Sugar is used in India, honey for Oregon Chai. Demerara is used in trendy restaurants, and a sugar substitute for those on sugar restricted diets. Chai may be served hot or cold.

Milk teas are another popular variety. A new milk tea house has opened in Charlotte, although these popular Asian teas have been served in Asian restaurants around town for awhile. Owners Donna and Frank Van Buren are the trademark licensees of Lollicup Tea Zone, a Los Angeles-based company, which opened in the Colony Place Shopping Center, 7741 Colony Road, in January. The 28-seat Lollicup has counter service, soft seating, whimsical wall murals, patented sealing machines for cup lids, and offers dozens of flavored hot and cold milk teas to which "boba" can be added; slushes; snow bubbles or smoothies; juices; and hot tea. Soon the owners plan to introduce a mocha blast, a healthy variety of green and black tea with non-dairy creamers.

Boba, which is commonly know as Bubble tea, is also known as tapioca tea, boba nai cha, pearl tea, milk tea, bubble drink, zhen zhu nai cha, or tapioca pearl drink. The bubble in this case is actually a small ball of cooked cassava root, which is slightly larger than Israeli cous cous. Donna Van Buren describes the "pearl" as having the texture of a "gummy bear." Special straws are available to suck the small black balls out of the bottom of the tea cup where they congregate. Once exposed to the chill of ice, however, the bubbles become more rigid, similar to gummy bears in the bottom of a Ben & Jerry's ice cream cone.

Van Buren uses powders to make her milk teas in such flavors as almond, coconut, taro root, honeydew, chocolate, lychee, jasmine, coffee, ginger, and more. While black pearls are served at Lollicup, multi-colored pearls are available at Asian grocery stores or online if you prefer to make your own milk tea.

Besides Chai and milk teas, other teas are popular in town. Green teas and herbal teas, of course, are often first choices for ailments or enjoyment.

To learn more about tea and to coincide with the wonderful "The Artful Teapot: 20th Century Expressions from the Kamm Collection" exhibit at the Mint Museum of Craft + Design, Wayne Powers, owner of Tea ReX, is giving a lecture on "Tea, Its History and Its Taste," and a tea tasting on April 7 at 7pm. Admission is $5 members; $8 nonmembers. Call 704-337-2073.

Eaters' Digest

Paluso's Pizzeria has moved into a new 40-seat restaurant with high end stone ovens and plans to reopen on March 25 in the Johnston Road Plaza, 10110 Johnston Road. Owner Mike Paluso will be open for lunch daily and until 10pm on weeknights, until midnight on Friday and Saturday. Free delivery area includes Pineville, Ballantyne, Rea Road, and the intersection of Sharon and Park Roads.

Arpa, the latest concept by Harpers Restaurants, Inc., has opened in the Interstate Tower building, 121 W. Trade Street. On the dinner menu are Paella a la Valenciana, Jamon Serrano, Salpicon de Marisco, Carpaccio de Carne and Queso Rebozado con Miel. All dinner tapas selections can be ordered as entree-sized portions. Wines are primarily from Spain and Italy. Hours: Monday thru Thursday, 11:15am to 10pm, Fridays until 11pm and Saturdays 5pm until 11pm. Prices for tapas range from $1.75 to $12.95. 704-372-7792.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com

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