But hospitality at a restaurant rarely comes without cost, and in Portland it is mostly just Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants—plus maybe the odd hotel lobby—that still maintain the cozy ritual of complimentary tea.
Always one to look a gift cup in the leaves, we wondered: Whose free tea is the best in town?
And so we gathered up the leaves, where possible. Multiple restaurants declined to sell their free loose-leaf tea blends for home brewing—it’s harder to buy free tea than you’d think—but five restaurants in this year’s Cheap Eats guide were kind enough to oblige.
Our favorite response, however? The ever-honest server at Powell Seafood Restaurant refused to sell their free tea at any price, because it was a low-quality bulk tea that arrived in a large carton. She referred us instead to multiple Asian groceries in the area, insistent that we not bring home cheap tea.
But as for the teas we did get? We asked local tea expert Steven Smith—founder of Tazo and Stash, not to mention his eponymous Steven Smith line of teas (1626 NW Thurman St., 719-8752, smithtea.com)—to join Martin Cizmar, Brian Panganiban, Rebecca Jacobson and Matthew Korfhage in a considered tasting of free teas, using Smith’s fancy porcelain set. Smith examined the leaves of each tea, invited us to smell the tea both dry and after steeping, and gave each tea first a drink, then a shallow slurp to pick out the flavor notes.
“There are no teas here that anybody should be ashamed of as a free tea,” said Smith, “although I might question paying for some of them.”
A. Pho An Sandy
Pho An was loath to part with a portion of its tea when asked, because they buy just enough to serve to their diners, though we were able to beg a personal-sized portion for a buck. The same jasmine tea, however, can be bought at Lily’s Market (11001 NE Halsey St.)
The leaves: Jasmine, a good sort, with quite large, still-bright flowers amid the leaves.
The smell: “A bit smoky.” “A little bit of cat pee.”
The taste: “Middle-of-the-road jasmine.” “Fresh floral notes.” “Pretty good for free tea.”
B. Simply Vietnamese
Alone among the restaurants, Simply Vietnamese’s loose-leaf tea came packaged: It’s Quoc Thai Voi Vang, with a golden elephant on the front. The shop was willing to part with a bag for $3. The server was friendly and quick to agree to let us take some tea home, but didn’t hide his amusement: It is a strange thing, insisting on buying free tea.
The leaves: Lots of sticks and stems, dull-colored, with visible oxidation on the leaves.
The smell: “Toasty.” “Smooth. “Biscuit-y nose.”
The taste: “Haylike note.” “You’d almost think it was herbal.” “Some soapiness.” “Makes me think of bath water.”
“That’s good jasmine tea, right?” our server said when we asked if we could buy a little of their free tea to take home. The shop filled up a large takeout container with the tea, likewise for $3.
The leaves: Jasmine, very earthy smelling, but again the jasmine flowers remain pleasantly light instead of being brown.
The smell: “Not much going on in here.” “Smells like jasmine.”
The taste: “Wheat-y.” “A little soapy.” “A little more aromatic, more jasmine [than Pho An Sandy’s jasmine tea.]” “A solid free tea.”
D. Pure Spice
A paper bag with the tea was available for—you guessed it—$3, after a little finagling. The hostess/server went back to ask the owner whether it was all right before selling a bit of the loose leaf tea. We repeat, should anyone want to follow in our footsteps: Asking to buy free tea is a strange gesture.
The leaves: Quite green, much more so than the others, with no oxidation, and tightly rolled like expensive kuan yin tea.
The smell: “Broth-y.” “This is a flavor that’s going to open up.”
The taste: “Pleasant.” “Gentle.” “Food’s going to run right over this tea.” “No defining flavor.” “Easy to sit and drink all day.”
WINNER: Yen Ha
Yen Ha parted with so much of its odd-sorted tea that the massive, plastic-sackful of shrubbery convinced more than one of our editors that I was stockpiling marijuana at my desk for Willamette Week’s recent pot issue. Nice of Yen Ha, nonetheless, to be so generous.
The leaves: A dark, random-seeming, unpromising sort, full of sticks and stems.
The smell: “Creamy and rice-y.” “Smells like oatmeal.” “Like Rice Crispies Treats.”
The taste: “Sweet, spicy.” “Reminds me of rice, noodles, pad thai.” “Rice-y and peanut-y.” “Maybe almonds?”
Steven Smith on Yen Ha’s tea: “I’ve actually been looking for a flavor like this in a different leaf.”