I'll give your chai a try

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The first weekend after I arrived in Sydney, my friends and I dropped by The Coffee Club, a chain café in Australia and New Zealand (and apparently Thailand too!), where I spotted three glorious words: chai tea latte. Now, supposedly select Starbucks in Taipei carries the chai tea latte, but I've yet to see it. There's no pumpkin spice latte, no Cinnamon Dolce Latte ... you have your basic coffee concoctions and various tea lattes, including the green tea latte and a rose-flavored one.

So when I was reminded that I was about to be reunited with my cinnamon-y, autumny-but-good-for-all-seasons love, I set out to have as many chais as I could while I was Down Under and rate them.

Hands down, the worst chai I had was also the very first I had, at The Coffee Club in Sydney. It was watery, barely spicy. It was like vanilla sugar water with a dash of cinnamon. And it came in at something like $4.50 AUD, which at the time was probably $4.50 USD, but closer to $5 USD now. And completely not worth it.

Between Australia and New Zealand, here is my list of best chais ... altogether, I probably had 10 or more:

I know this isn't chai, but it came with the chai ... this is a date scone -- very popular in New Zealand

1. The Skyline Café, Wellington, New Zealand

The Skyline Café is set at the top of the Wellington cable car track, across the way from the Wellington Cable Car Museum and just a few more steps from the Wellington Botanic Garden and the Carter Observatory. Unfortunately, I can find just about nothing on the internet confirming this place's existence -- save for a quick mention on the official Botanic Garden site. It's a cozy little glass shop hidden not far from the cable car entrance, with just enough seating and baked goods in glass cases and beneath bell jars on cake stands. But I hopped in here quite late on a Saturday afternoon, just as it was getting ready to close, and the girl at the counter was more than happy to make me a chai tea latte and warm up a date scone for me. She even answered my clueless questions about the weather and wind in Wellington. The chai itself was the perfect ratio of spicy to creamy, and absolutely heartwarming at the top of that windy hill.

2. Esquires Coffee, Auckland, New Zealand
Intersection of Hobson Street and Victoria Street West

New Zealand is definitely leading in this battle. I found Esquires Coffee while heading towards Denny's (which I ended up not being able to get into, literally) on the outskirts of the Central Business District in downtown Auckland. I was tired and hungry and just  looking for a place to sit and cool down and grab lunch while lunch was still being served. While I was in New Zealand traveling alone, I found myself never quite that hungry at lunch, so lunch consisted of soup and a chai tea latte many days. That day was no exception. I'm pretty sure I ordered a tomato soup that day, along with my chai tea latte. Esquires is a chain in New Zealand and in many other parts of the world, including the United Kingdom. I was drawn in by the sign on the door that said "free wi-fi!" (A rare and precious thing in New Zealand and most of Australia.) But apparently you needed a card for it, which I didn't know until now.

The chai was big, if I remember correctly, and served in what seemed more like a soup bowl than a cup. It was served with a little biscuit (also if I remember correctly), which I thought was a sweet touch. I don't remember any other particulars about it, such as price (probably in the $4-$5 NZD zone, or about $3-4 USD) or taste, but I know I made note that it was the second best I'd had!

Chai tea latte from The Goods in Sydney
3. The Goods, Sydney, Australia
253 Crown Street

Ah, finally. I ordered a chai tea latte with my egg skillet scramble at brunch on a Sunday morning, and both were absolutely delicious. The chai was frothy and rich. I can't remember how much it cost, but it was probably in about the same price range as all the other chais -- $4 to $5 AUD. The ambience of the place was fantastic: proper tables up front and more plush ottomans and odd-shaped tables in the back room, where the walls were lined with used books. We perused Australian travel guides while waiting for our food, some from the 90s, some from the 80s, some in French ... spotted a few Anita Shreve books and an edition of a Harry Potter book.

Chai tea latte from Mini Espresso in Perth
4. Mini Espresso, Perth
Store 50, London Court

There's a little cobblestoned arcade in Perth's Central Business District that looks more like Prague (or England, as they want you to believe) than any other part of the city. In it is a handful of souvenir shops, travel shops, gourmandise-type shops and eateries. Again, how I met little Mini Espresso (indeed very mini) was a story of hungry, lost, sweaty, tired, low-blood sugar leveled girl meets the first place that didn't look intimidating. Which is an understatement for Mini Espresso. It's practically a walk-up espresso stand built into the make-up of the arcade. There was a little chalkboard sign outside, a bench and some built-in counters for customers, but that was about it. The girl who helped me out was extremely friendly, even in telling me that there were no more toasties (toasted sandwiches?) left for the day. I was hungry and desperate, so I settled for a chai tea latte and a slice of gingerbread.

As I've written before, the gingerbread was the richest, most buttery gingerbread I've ever experienced. The chai wasn't the type that was so much rich as it was flavorful -- cinnamony and sweet and warm on a rainy fall afternoon. Apparently they have quite the loyal following in Perth, but luckily for me and my tummy, this did not seem to be the case that day ... eliminating the intimidation factor completely and leaving me, ultimately, very satisfied.

5. Dunk Café, Auckland, New Zealand
297 Parnell Road

So I'd read all this stuff about Parnell, one of Auckland's artsier neighborhoods. I thought ... me, artsish ... why not. When I arrived (after getting lost, natch ... artistes are not known for their sense of direction!), it was raining AND I was sweating and there wasn't the type of art I had in mind. There were secondhand clothing stores, sure. Antique shops. A few art galleries. A lot of hair salons. But mostly, it seemed like a sleepy little antiquing community. I needed to collect myself before even beginning to attempt the walk back to downtown. (I know buses exist, but please believe me when I say I trust my legs and terrible sense of direction more than I trust my instincts when it comes to navigating a city via its bus system. New York City included.)

After looking at a bunch of chalkboards while walking up and down Parnell Road, I settled on the least restauranty looking café I saw, which was this one. It had a nice little modern look to it, with cushioned seating along its walls. The guy behind the counter was extra charming as I spent my time deciding between pumpkin soup (oh, the potential ... but I didn't want potential. I wanted happy warm soup in my stomach) and potato leek soup. Then, of course, I ordered the chai. He asked me if I wanted it sweet or spicy. "Spicy," I said, almost automatically. Then I realized how that may have sounded and pathetically added, "as long as I can add sugar to it myself ..." Man, am I full of blabber that could double as unintentional pick-up lines. Well, the soup was delicious. And the chai was very good. It was indeed more gingery than it was sweet, so I had to add a packet of sugar to it myself, but it was a very nice change from all the other creamy, light, cinnamony chais I'd been having. This one had bite and warmed me up pretty quickly (if the soup with the nice chunk of French bread hadn't already done it).

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