Friday, November 28, 2014

Where We Eat (and Drink): Naga Tea

Thanksgiving is a time of gluttonous delight for most Americans. We overeat to the point of discomfort and then spend the days following wallowing in the aftereffects of our poor decisions. This year, I preplanned better than in the past. I went on a diet. A tea diet. It worked like this. Eat no breakfast, drink a tea filled with boba for a lunch time meal, eat no dinner. I didn’t start the week of Thanksgiving with this diet in mind but once Naga Tea entered the picture, it just made sense.

Naga Tea is the brainchild of two recent University of South Florida (USF) graduates. Peter earned his master's degree in entrepreneurship. Carl is a medical science student prepping for the MCAT and medical school. Both of them are of Taiwanese descent and grew up in the boba scene that began in that country.

In Taiwan, tea lounges are like convenience stores. There is one on every corner. Peter and Carl wanted to bring that aspect of their culture to the States in a more authentic way than what is currently offered. That’s where the idea for Naga Tea began. To make this idea reality, the two
spent time abroad researching the latest tea innovations, taking classes in tea preparation and coming up with recipes for their products. Since tea is a big thing in the USF area of Tampa, the two
needed something to set their brand apart. They did this in a couple of ways. First they imported all
their tea straight from Taiwan. You want the best? Get it from the best. Second, they played around with boba recipes until they found one that tasted fresh and worked to enhance the tea. Nothing worse than a good tea being ruined by bad boba. Third, they found ways to make their recipes fun and unique. Who wouldn’t want to try ice cream tea? Or mint chocolate chip tea?

Naga Tea is located on 56th Street in the same strip mall as Sawatdee Thai. It offers four types of tea.
The first two types, fresh and herbal, are very similar. You can order either of these teas hot or iced or even turned into a latte. The different fresh and herbal teas are located in the containers that you see lined up on the counter when you first enter Naga. You can open any container and smell the fragrances of the tea inside. Flavors include dragon green, naga black, oolong black, tie guan-yin, pink lavender, mint chamomile, rose garden or black forest. JFur, who accompanied me on each of my trips, started her initial visit with the rose garden. It had a nice rosy flavor but she found the tea itself to be a bit bitter. The third type of tea available at Naga are milk teas. These include a choco milk tea and the aforementioned ice cream black tea. To read a review of the milk teas, check out Carlos Eats blog as he is much more familiar with them than I am. The fourth type of tea Naga offers, and the one I’m most familiar with, is the fruit tea.

The fruit teas are the reason I visited Naga Tea three days in a row and why I kicked off my tea
only diet. Currently Naga offers eight flavors of seasonal fruit tea. These include grapefruit, kiwi,
green apple, passion fruit, lemon, mango, orange, kiwi and pineapple. Carl and Peter came up with
these specific flavors by visiting the farmer’s market, buying a variety of fruits, and experimenting with blends. Some fruits they tried were disasters. Some are still works in progress. Some, like strawberry and watermelon, will be available when the season is right. For now, these eight are the ones that are in season and taste (and look) the best.

On a recommendation by Carlos (of Carlos Eats who invited me in to taste what Naga Tea had to
offer) I started my Naga experience with a lemon green tea with boba. The fruit teas are made by
mixing green tea with fresh fruit, a bit of fruit juice and a small amount of syrup (for coloring
purposes). The lemon tea tasted like smooth lemonade when it first went down with a hint of
tea in the aftertaste. It was good, not great (to this day, it is still my least favorite fruit tea). I have never had boba before so I have nothing to compare Naga’s version with, but J-Fur tasted it and raved, “This is the best Boba I’ve ever had.” I believe her too because she has ordered boba every time we’ve visited Naga. She doesn’t get boba at any other tea lounge.

                   Seasonal Guava Tea

J-Fur expressed an interest in the kiwi tea, so we ordered one of those for our second go round (since
Carlos and Naga had invited me in for a tasting, our first five teas were on the house). One sip of kiwi
and I forgot all about the lemon tea. It tasted like a kiwi popsicle with a nice balance of sweet and tart. Mix in the fact that there were small seeds and chunks of real fruit and very little tea aftertaste
and you’ve got the perfect drink. At this point JFur uttered the words that made my diet real…”Mix
in some boba and this would be like a meal.” She nailed that one.

Speaking of sweet and tart, that grapefruit tea does it like none other. J-Fur ordered this on our third
visit, with boba, and she loved the fact that it dabbled equally in the worlds of sweet and tart. I’m
not a grapefruit fan at all but when I tried it, I recognized the beauty of what sat in her hands.

                 Grapefruit with Boba

Update: May 2015, they now have finger food like Zucchini Fries

The final two teas I’ve tried are the pineapple and green apple (update, I've also tried the pomegranate, strawberry and peach). I hoped that the green apple would have a tart/sweet mixture like the grapefruit, but it didn’t, or at least it wasn’t as pronounced as the grapefruit. The green apple was more sweet than anything. Good, just not what I was expecting from it. My problem with pineapple juice that can be purchased at the store is that it has such a strong, almost unnatural flavor to it. The Naga Tea pineapple fruit tea does not have that same problem. The addition of the tea waters down the pineapple flavor enough so that it feels like a perfect balance of fruit and tea.

     Strawberry Tea with Boba

So, if you are keeping track at home, that means I really loved the kiwi, grapefruit, strawberry, peach
and pineapple. The green apple is very good, but a step down from the other ones. The lemon is...not my cup of tea.

Naga Tea has big plans in the future. They hope to expand. They hope to add food . They plan on rotating in seasonal flavors and holiday specials as well. All exciting things that I can’t wait to see. For now, they are sticking to what they’ve been doing. What is that? For me, its making the best fruit teas, hell, the best fruit drinks I’ve ever had. Oh, and helping me maneuver the gluttony of Thanksgiving in a much more manageable way.

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My experience at Naga Tea works perfectly with the sound, and images, from Emergency Tiara’s new video “Around“. The song (and video) explores the circular nature of love. It is one that eventually loses all sense of beginning and end. It doesn’t matter what started us or what will finish us, when you are in the moment the only thing that matters is the constant whirring of existence. Naga and I have been in a relationship like that ever since we met.