Maybe Imperial Tea Court couldn’t exist anywhere but here. Open since 2006, the North Berkeley teashop represents a perfect convergence of East Bay tastes, an authentically Asian experience with a Slow Food soul.
Tucked away at the back of Epicurious Garden—a Gourmet Ghetto food court that’s proved a tough sell—Imperial is worldly and disheveled, with skinny, brainy counter guys who are, like, Chinese majors or something: a perfect fit for Berkeley. And yet, its mostly northern-style steamer snacks and stir-fries can seem startlingly good for a place that seems to crouch way out of sight, like, well, I hate to say it, but here it is: like some inscrutable genius or somethng. What the hell?
In 1993, Hong Kong native Roy Fong was importing teas for restaurants. He opened his first retail shop at the edge of San Francisco’s Chinatown (it closed in December 2007). His second, in 2003, was in the Ferry Building Marketplace. Fong and his wife, Grace, offered some dim sum dishes there, but code restrictions prevented cooking over open flames, ruling out wok cooking. The Berkeley shop offers two columns of dishes on its regular menu, and half a dozen chalkboard specials. The space opens onto Epicurious Garden’s sweet little upper terrace (you can sit outside if you want), with rosewood tables, a concrete floor stained the color of old jade and, on one side, a long open kitchen.
While Roy Fong is immersed in the importing business — he has an 18,000-square-foot warehouse in Oakland where he sorts and finishes tea leaves, including roasting—Grace oversees the San Francisco and Berkeley shops.
That means influencing the menu, which tilts in the direction of Beijing, where Grace was born. Northern-style food may be unfamiliar to Americans more familiar with hybrid Cantonese or the kung-pao fireworks of Sichuan. The dishes here center around wheat-flour preparations: pot stickers, scallion pancakes and noodles. Some contain tea, or organic tea-seed oil Fong imports from China. Sometimes even the leaves themselves.
That’s the case with Dim Sum Shrimp Dumplings, one of only a couple of dishes that extends the menu southward. “I only asked for one Hong Kong dish,” Roy Fong told me by phone. “If a dim sum place can’t do shrimp dumplings well, they shouldn’t be open.” Imperial Tea Court’s are delicious: semitransparent wrappers filled with a mixture of chopped wild-caught shrimp and whole leaves of jasmine tea. The jasmine adds only a very subtle fragrance—really, it’s the shrimp’s freshness and the delicacy of the wheat-starch wrappers that puts these over the top.
Sturdier house-made wheat-flour wrappers enclose Dragon Well Dumplings. The pork-shoulder filling has a nubbly texture, and shares the wrapper with a liquid shot of dragon well green tea. It’s a moisture thing, sauce for the meaty filling rather than flavoring, though the taste is subtly flowery and ever so slightly tannic. They’re tasty, especially dipped in a slurry of soy sauce, black vinegar, and chunky chile oil spiked with star anise. They have a homemade quality that’s rare in Chinese restaurants.
Rare, too, is the Fongs’ commitment to organic and sustainably raised ingredients. All the flour’s organic, milled at Giusto’s in South San Francisco, and the pork and beef have the imprimatur of Niman Ranch. Because they buy in small volume, the Fongs find themselves making daily shopping runs to Berkeley Bowl or Trader Joe’s for organic vegetables, tofu and other ingredients.
Of course, organics are little used in strictly cost-conscious Asian restaurant kitchens. But, as tea importers, the Fongs’ focus on sources spills over into food ingredients. “We did our food this way because of tea,” Roy Fong said. Frustrated with the inconsistent quality of leaves from Chinese brokers, Fong began developing relationships directly with growers 20 years ago, paying them to grow and harvest tea the way he wanted it.
In the Berkeley shop, tea infuses in a gaiwan, the covered, dish-like cup that nestles snugly in its saucer. The leaves stay in the cup—you push back the lid slightly so you can sip without harvesting a mouthful of leaves.
If you’re uncertain about what leaves to order, ask the server for his top picks. Superior Green Oolong has a vegetal richness reminiscent of Swiss chard; reddish-black leaves of Aged Puerh give up a delicious whiff of garden compost tinged with camphor.
Either would be perfect with vegetarian Fresh Steamed Buns, nicely chewy bao stuffed with minced black mushrooms and shredded mustard greens. I wanted my Green Onion Pancake to be flakier. As it was, the scallion-flecked cake was a tad doughy in the center, ringed with blisters.
Entrée-size Tea Oil Chicken tasted bright and tangy. Shredded against the grain before being tossed in a hot wok, the meant managed to be both tender and chewy. Its heavily vinegar-laced pan sauce—an emulsion with tea oil—was a homey version of steamtable sweet and sour. It came with a heap of organic brown rice.
There’s no doubt about Imperial Tea Court’s homiest dish. House-made Hand-Pulled Noodles were thick and chewy, and showed up in a charming variety of widths. The meatless version came with a scant broth, a little cap of steamed cabbage and red chard and a spoonful of solids fished from the chile oil. If you’ve ever wondered what Beijing-style mom cooking was like, well, this is it. —John Birdsall
Imperial Tea Court. 1511 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley (in the Epicurious Garden food court). 510-540-8888; imperialtea.com