By Valerie Vinyard
Enough with coffeehouses. It’s time for teahouses to have a moment.
During the past year, Tucson has experienced a brewed awakening in tea. Inviting teahouses in Midtown Tucson are ample to sip hot, cold and icy versions.
Emily Gastelum, a Pima Community College communications student, wasn’t always a tea lover. Over the years, however, her mindset has changed.
“I feel like tea’s pretty relaxing,” says Gastelum, 19. “It brings more energy to your immune system. It’s a Mexican thing, I guess. It’s the first thing your mom ever tells you.”
Gastelum visits Starbucks to get a tea fix and rates the chain an 8.5 out of 10, but “I feel like I could try better.”
“I plan to go to more local tea shops. I feel like they have new herbs where people can benefit.”
Here are three that stand out.
Ni Hao Tea
4726 E. Broadway Boulevard
Ni Hao, which means “hello” in Mandarin, is a small store tucked in a strip mall next to a Planet Fitness.
The shop, which features boba tea, opened in February 2020. Customers can sit at well-spaced tables inside as well as choose to play a variety of board games while they sip their drinks.
“I didn’t like tea before I started working here,” says manager Nicole Goldman, a UA student majoring in American Sign Language.
Now her favorite is the strawberry lemon green tea, which she described as “super refreshing.”
“We have a wide variety of high-quality drinks,” Goldman says. “We try to make our drinks the way the customers want.”
Goldman said boba, which is an Asian root that takes about 90 minutes to cook, is made in-house daily. Ni Hao’s signature drinks include fresh brown sugar boba milk (tiger milk boba), ceremonial-grade matcha latte and real cream cheese tea. In addition to boba, Ni Hao offers traditional teas.
Customers choose a Thai, green or black tea base for many of the menu options, and an abundance of lactose- and dairy-free options are available.
Guests can also choose the level of sweetness for their drinks. A 24-ounce cream cheese tea with a black tea base and added brown sugar boba ($6.25) with minimal sweetness added was a tasty combination of cheesecake-flavored cream cheese, semi-sweet boba and the slightly bitter iced black tea.
For non-tea drinkers, an array of iced or creamy slushes are for sale.
Seven Cups Fine Chinese Tea
2516 E. Sixth Street
Tea connoisseurs would be remiss to neglect Seven Cups, a longtime institution that opened in April 2004 across from Bob Dobbs at Tucson Boulevard and Sixth Street.
An affable server named Ron seated us at a table inside the peaceful room resplendent with Asian décor, music and influences. After presenting us with substantial hardcover menus, he patiently explained the differences among yellow, white, scented and display teas.
Seven Cups is a traditional Chinese teahouse that offers more than 80 loose-leaf Chinese teas, which can be served either hot or iced. There’s a small area in the front that features packaged teas, tea ware and accessories for sale.
The dining room offers sit-down tea service ($5 to $14) and a menu of simple snacks that include savory and sweet options ($2 to $5). Try a sweet vanilla or savory red bean paste snack ($4). The $2 hard-boiled egg was steeped in tea, leaving the egg with a firm and salty flavor.
Seven Cups Tea House was named one of Travel + Leisure magazine’s Best Places to Drink Tea in America and Best of Tucson in the categories of Best Tea Service and Best Bulk Tea Selection by Tucson Weekly annually since 2004. Tucson Weekly is also owned by the Times Media Group.
2645 E. Speedway Boulevard
Tucsonan Manish Shah has owned Maya Tea Company since 1997, but he wanted to offer neighbors something more.
“He wanted to shake up the tea world,” brand manager Kristin Brakke says. “He wanted to do something different.”
“Different” is Transit Tea, which opened in February to serve patrons out of its store’s drive-thru and pickup windows. Local artists created the artwork. Though there’s no indoor seating, outdoor seating is plentiful on the patio near the walk-up order window.
Transit’s menu features a variety of plain, chai, tea latte, tea soda and tea snow. It even offers a dozen flavors of tasty tea popsicles for $2.50.
Drink prices range from $2.50 for a small plain tea to $8 for a large tea latte with oat, almond or coconut milk. The alluring combination of elderflower, pomegranate and anise flavors that made up the Wanderer black tea ($3.25 for a small) needed no sweetening.
Despite the competition from other teahouses, Brakke says the quality of Transit Tea stands out from the rest.
“They don’t do tea like we do,” Brakke says. “We have figured out a way to brew it where we have turned tea into a shape shifter.”