For most of my adult life, I was a coffee drinker, black and brewed at home as a means of staying awake through novel after novel in college, during long drives, throughout long brunch shifts, and whenever else I felt like having a cup. After almost two decades, my stomach started to churn from the acidity, even when I added milk, so, reluctantly, I switched to tea. My go-to is Uncle Lee’s Imperial Organic Green Tea, which is medicinally bitter, easy on my stomach, and doesn’t leave me with a headache like some brands of green tea. Despite what you might expect, the transition wasn’t difficult. I’m not as chipper and energetic as I was on coffee, but I’m awake, alert, and free of debilitating acid reflux.
I remember what I learned about tea from beverage reps during my years as a server: The various healing properties, brewing methods, and flavor profiles. The different steep times and ideal water temperatures depending on the tea, the relationship between caffeination and fermentation, the antioxidant content and antimicrobial qualities. I remember one vendor’s description of a Russian Caravan blend. “Smoky,” he said, “like a campfire,” but to me it smelled like a fresh Band-Aid, though it paired well with a Russian tea cake. Despite this education, I never warm my mug up or give the leaves a pre-steep rinse. I just toss a bag of green tea in hot water, and usually I’ve finished the tea before it’s had a chance to cool off.
Located in an adobe building that, depending on who you ask, dates back either to 1895 or 1839, The Teahouse Santa Fe—opened originally by Dionne Christian of Revolution Bakery—became a full-service restaurant in 2012 after it was purchased by restaurater Rich Freedman and a group of investors, who expanded its menu of teas and pastries to include various iterations of eggs Benedict, paninis, sandwiches, salads, and desserts. It also features eggplant parmigiana, an Italian-style brisket, lasagna Bolognese, and a chicken pot pie with polenta parmigiana crust, reflecting Freedman’s culinary excursions throughout central and southern Italy.
It was a bright day, warm enough to sit on the patio, when my partner and I arrived forty-five minutes before closing. Assured that there was plenty of time, we were promptly seated at a table beside a bud-sprouting cherry tree. A layer of clean gravel lined the patio floor, and I enjoyed the movable feel of pebbles beneath my shoes as I looked over the menu.
During my slow transition to tea, I also moved from the Midwest to Las Vegas, New Mexico, where there’s an effort to keep the town’s historical charm from dissolving into what locals see in Santa Fe, particularly on Canyon Road, with its high-end galleries, boutiques, and restaurants. I especially sense this resistance from Las Vegans with generational ties to the land, wary of any development funded by wealthy outsiders. As a new New Mexican, I carry this knowledge with me whenever I’m on Canyon Road, keeping an eye on the narrow street for oncoming traffic, pedestrians, and double-parked delivery trucks while enamored by the convergence of Indigenous, Spanish, and Anglo histories that resemble a similar convergence of histories in my own native country.
With centuries-old adobe structures decorated with lush ristras and bright-colored old-wood doors, Canyon Road has been one of the quintessential images I keep in mind of New Mexico, along with thousand-year-old pueblos and gradient layers of desert mountain landscapes below vast skies. I imagine artist colonies, adobe missions, and precolonial footpaths. I try to imagine what previous generations would think about the capricious events of the last three hundred years, as well as what the next three hundred years have in store.
Pear and brussels sprouts salad with a side of mac and cheese.
Patio at The Teahouse on Canyon Road.
The Teahouse tea menu is extensive, offering select teas with names like Silver Needle, Thousand Mile Aroma, and Hairy Crab. We ordered the Buddhist tea, or Fo Cha, a green tea that became popular among Buddhist monks between the sixth and seventh centuries for its mind-clearing and stimulating properties, well suited for meditation. We also ordered the King of Duck Shit, or Ya Shi Xiang Dan Cong, a revered oolong named for the attempt to guard its cultivation method from outsiders. For food, we ordered a panini with chicken breast, brie, fig jam, and arugula, with a cup of cream of mushroom soup; a mixed green salad with brussels sprouts, dried apricots, pistachios, and fontina cheese; and a side of mac and cheese.
The food was a far cry from the New Mexican fare we’ve become familiar with. The creamy texture of the brie and the round sweetness of the fig jam complemented the bitter arugula, the crunch of the grill-pressed bun, and the subtle tang of the chicken. The salad was huge, with a caramelized sear on the brussels sprouts, salty bites of pistachio, gummy apricots, and the ripe aroma of fontina cheese. The mushroom soup was hearty and nourishing, and I couldn’t help but regret not asking about a side of Italian brisket to mix into the gooey mac and cheese. For dessert, we ordered a strawberry shortcake, served as a buttery, house-made scone layered with fluffy whipped cream and cold strawberry slices.
The Buddhist tea had a pale, stony-green hue much lighter than the green tea I make myself, and it smelled like the bamboo grove I passed on my daily commute when I lived in Texas. The nutty taste of toasted rice on my first sip made me ashamed of the cups of tea I bungle on a daily basis, and for a moment, I committed to taking my tea practice seriously, to honor proper traditions rather than hurrying through motions. The King of Duck Shit was even more pleasing. Floral, aromatic, and tasting of honey and longan—which I’ve only ever eaten as a boy touring San Francisco’s Chinatown whenever family from Manila came to visit. The tea was smooth and left my breath feeling light and airy, and I wondered, if the story of its name is true, how long it took for the secret to get out.
Jason Conde is a writer and educator. He lives in Las Vegas, New Mexico, with his partner and their daughter.