Spicy Chai Tea [San Francisco]

I don’t take caffeine generally but a year ago, I broke down and had a cup of Samovar’s Masala Chai with almond milk, their vegan chai. I had only walked by the Mission location, which is gorgeously minimal, allowing focus on the elaborate concoction of various brews. I had resisted going in for a long time, but after seeing a picture, a mere picture, of their roiling copper cauldrons of chai, I hightailed it in there the next chance I got to finally partake.

I had opted for a cup of the masala to drink in the tea bar and was rewarded with a hand-crafted ceramic cup of muddy milkiness. Though the cup was just a tad too hot to hold comfortably with my bare hands, I made due by pulling down the sleeves of my sweater and enjoyed the warmth emanating from the ceramic. I wasn’t that familiar with chai though I knew I’d had bad ones and hadn’t been much interested since . But this cup was different…of course it was different. It had to be…because it came out of a copper cauldron of roiling, bubbling elixir that had cast its spell over me from the 2D pages of a newspaper.

Tentatively, I took a sip - expecting a burning hot liquid and after that, I wasn’t sure. But after a few more less tentative sips, reward. This was spicy! And I found that I really liked the heat coming from the combination of spices - the cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, and most of all, black pepper. Yes, it was spicy and delightful and I started asking to have meetings at Samovar, just to have an excuse to partake in the chai.

In the meanwhile, Chai Bar by David Rio had also opened and I took note of it. Samovar in the Mission is so much more convenient for me than popping over to mid-Market so Chai bar has always been on my list of get-to’s. This week, I had a meeting in that area and planned to have a chai as I had read that they had soy, various nut, and coconut milk options and was excited about a spicy chai with coconut milk. They no longer have the coconut milk option but do have the others. I got what they listed on their menu as the boldly spiced chai with almond milk, which they describe as a very spicy drink.

Samovar in the Mission is a sliver of a tea bar and has spare seating with no room for tables to match the aesthetic. Chai Bar is expansive with an actual bar so you can see the drinks poured/made as well as generous and comfortable seating, with tables. There are a number of 2 and 4-tops as well as a 8-10 person community table. It was very welcoming and certainly encouraged lounging.

When my chai was ready, I picked it up and first noticed the paper cup it came in. There had been someone drinking espresso at the bar with a proper cup and I had made an assumption that I would get something other than a paper cup. There was no reason for me to assume this, other than that I look forward to sitting still with my ceramic hand warmer at Samovar and was disappointed that I wouldn’t have a similar experience at Chai Bar. Still, I had my first sip to contend with, hand and soul warming aside.

That first sip was a good one, which led to another sip, which was a pensive one. I sat for a bit with those first tastes of Chai Bar and thought about how it compared to Samovar. Yes, it was similarly spicy-hot but this was a little different. At Samovar, I definitely enjoy the flavor of those individual spices I listed above. This chai had all of that and it even had something of a floral/vegetal note to it. It wasn’t unpleasant, just different and a bit amplified because it was different. I liked it as well and am glad to know that I don’t have to find Samovar to be the end-all and that Chai Bar is another great option.

I may have to try my hand at concocting this at home. I can save myself a lot of mark-up and I’d like to experiment with that coconut milk option. If that coconut option can work with either David Rio’s or Samovar’s chai blend, it could put an end to frequent visits to either. I can only dream.

Thanks for writing this. I often dream about the chai at Samovar. I don’t know how they get it so perfect.

Do others have other chai recommendations?

I’ve been in a chai frenzy lately and I’ve tried a bunch of them. A brief summary of my chai tastings:

Philz Coffee: Bad, very watery and strangely creamy

Asha Tea House: Foamy, spicy, heavy on the clove, overall delicious. I’ve tried it iced as well and it’s not quite as good.

Paramo Coffee: I don’t know where they get there chai but it’s heavenly. Perfectly spicy and especially good if it’s bad “dirty” with a shot of espresso.

Chai Cart (used to be on market but I think it’s moved): It’s been a while since I tried this but I think I had the rose chai and I remember it being very pleasantly floral. I believe it was less spicy and less foamy than a coffee house chai latte but overall excellent.

I’ll work at Chai Bar occasionally and you definitely get hot chai in their ceramic mugs if you’re drinking it there. They must have given you a to go cup.

I like Chai and regularly make a couple different kinds at home: one with whole/cracked spices and another with a home ground chai masala. I’m partial to the whole spiced one although it takes a bit longer.

Outside of home, I like Samovar’s the most, but a couple of Chai Bar’s are good too (I like spicy chai and their spicy one is my favorite).

Well now I’ve got to go back for the ceramic cup experience. Maybe the next time El Nino dumps some rain…in order to really savor and bask in the warmth of the drink and the environs.

Do you have a recommendation for which black tea base to use at home for a spicy chai? I don’t necessarily like a sweetener in my masala chai as I really like the spiciness to come through. That chai I had was unsweetened. I like that burn from the ginger/black pepper and don’t want to dull it but am also curious about whether the type of black tea and steeping time of tea and/or spices affects the spiciness. For your whole/cracked spices, do you ever toast them a little bit first?

I usually use assam. Do you like the ginger or black pepper spiciness? Fresh grated ginger is key for me.

I’m not sure the tea ads any spice but you definitely want a robust black tea to stand up to the spices. For the whole spices, I’ll toast them first, then ruffly crack and make a mix with the tea leaves (I make a decent amount at a time).

For the chai masala I make something similar to this. She mentions tea in this as well as her mix being “spicy” because of large amounts of black pepper, but I haven’t found it to be too much.

But I really prefer the whole spices to the masala mix if I have time.

There’s an Unvalentine Day Party Sun 2/14/16 from 2-5pm with DIY project and snacks $5-10 donation and 1 Meter Chai (Pop-up) will be selling a 12-oz cup of their chai for $3.25. I might check it out because the Instagram pics look good!


Look at 1 Meter Chai pic on IG:

Whether you are single or taken, take some time to be your own valentine this Valentine’s Day! Come by the store for mimosas, delicious snacks, and fun DIY projects. We’ll have a pop-up from 1 Meter Chai. DeShara Suggs-Joe is launching her amazing chapbook and will do a reading at 3:30pm.

$5 for DIY projects
$10 for DIY projects AND mimosas

All proceeds from the event will go to Girls Inc, a nonprofit that provides educational services for underserved communities.
Sunday, February 14, 2016 from 2:00 PM to 5:00 PM (PST) - Add to Calendar
Viscera - 1542 Broadway Oakland, CA 94612

I have liked the chai at CoffeeShop (on Mission near Cesar Chavez) very much.

The one time I went to the Samovar on Mission, I was treated so heinously by the cashier that I probably will never go back.

Your whole cracked spice version sounds delicious! I will have to try this because I think the freshly grated ginger would be great. I love ginger ales and my favorite is Blenheim’s ginger ale from South Carolina. They have a bottle with a yellow cap that gets most of its flavor and a relatively gentle ‘kick’ from ginger. However, they also have one with a pink cap that has a hot burn to it that I read is from the addition of capsaicin (sp?). That’s my favorite though I know it’s not all coming from the ginger.

I’ll try all of this with an assam and tinker around with it. Thanks for the advice!

I find the prepared bags and mixes and many restaurant versions to be overpowered with cloves.

The secret to great chai is to use evaporated milk! And lots of cardamom.

I grind about 30 whole green cardamom pods in a coffee grinder, toss into 2 cups of water with a cinnamon stick, a star anise, a few cloves, 2 quarter-sized pieces of fresh ginger and some cracked black pepper. Boil, then add a few tsps of Assam tea. Simmer for 5 minutes. Strain, then add 1 can of evaporated milk and sugar to taste ( I like mine sweet). Warm it up but don’t let it boil after the milk is added.

I like ginger ale too! I’m not too loyal but my favorite is probably the Main Root.

My whole spice chai mix is actually from the recipe of the woman who started Oregon chai (I know, I know). I started with that years ago and have adapted it – more pepper, more ginger, etc.

Probably too much for this board, but how I got introduced to chai is pretty good. I grew up a raver (I know, I know) and my friend worked at a coffee shop which had the large Oregon Chai concentrates which he’d take home when no one was looking. Well during the hot summer after partying all night we’d drink so much of that stuff on ice. I think you’re supposed to mix it 1:1 with milk, but we’d go like 3:1 chai mix to milk. I’d actually look forward to the parties ending so we could go drink a giant glass of iced chai.

Why do you recommend evaporated milk?

I use evaporated milk in mac and cheese and grits but have given it no mind for a hot drink. What do you like about it vs. another milk?

If I had a great story like that, I’d love STRONG chai for life too! I wasn’t a raver but a club kid in DC. After we’d finish at the clubs, we’d go to this Mediterranean place that was always open super-late and pig out on mezes. I can’t have dolmas without thinking of that time in my life.

Evaporated milk makes chai that tastes most like the chai I had in India.

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Paramo uses Tipu’s, which I agree is really good. They make a batch of their now product to quickly make lattes with. I believe it’s the brown box but I’ll stop in and ask later (they just opened in my gf’s building so lots of Paramo for us lately).

I’ve been making masala chai at home for the past few months. Since I also favor a spicy chai, I start by throwing lots of fresh ginger, smashed with a mortar and pestle, into the boiling water with my spice mix. I let it boil for a couple of minutes, then add CTC (crush, tear, curl - the tea looks like little pebbles) assam. After another minute or so, I add whole milk and sugar. At this point, I watch it like a hawk since it can boil over rapidly. Two people taught me how to make chai masala: the first person told me to let the milk almost boil over twice before calling the tea done, and the other person told me to let the milk almost boil over 5 times. I average it out and do it 3 times. :wink:

I’ve experimented with whole leaf assam, but I found the taste different from what I had in India. The chai wallah I watched make tea in Delhi used the CTC assam, which I found at an Indian grocery store for a fraction of the price I was paying for the organic whole leaf assam. I want to find some organic CTC assam, and may have to resort to buying it online if I can’t find it at the Indian markets near me.

My spice mix has loads of cardamon, black pepper, cinnamon, and a small bit of cloves and nutmeg. When I have time, I toast the whole spices before crushing them in the mortar and pestle. I make enough for masala for about 5 servings, and any unused portion goes into an airtight container.