Monday, June 20, 2011

Random Tea Room, Random But Delightful

I have been wanting to check out the Random Tea Room for quite some time, as it has been recommended to me by a number of people as being one of the best places to experience tea, especially in the Chinese tradition, in the Philadelphia area. I finally checked it out this past thursday. Here is a photo of the storefront, at 713 North 4th Street:

The Random Tea Room & Curiosity Shop is located in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia, due northeast from center city. It is easily accessible from the Spring Garden stop of SEPTA's Market-Frankford Line (Blue Line), which is how I got there. Street parking is not too hard to find in this neighborhood in case you want to drive.

The neighborhood is interesting; like most of Philadelphia, it is fairly dense, with old and often ornate housing. This area has recently become "trendy" for better or for worse, and has had some newer housing built which, in my opinion, does not fit well with the architecture of the area. But the Random Tea Room and its immediate surroundings look relatively unmarred by modern architecture.

The inside of the shop was quirky, and I mean that in a lovable sort of way. It's a tiny space, but it has been artfully arranged so as to create a number of different nooks and crannies with different feels to them. The window is lined with cushioned window-seats, and there is a chess-board table, a larger round table where I sat with my friend, and some other seating around the other corners.

The Tea:

This place has a good and well-balanced selection of different types of teas, with several black teas, green teas, whites, oolongs, and Pu-erhs, and a good representation of different styles and regions. It is a pure tea lover's store; there are a few flavored teas but they are mostly of the traditional varieties, Jasmine of the Chinese teas, and Earl Grey of the British-style teas, so as not to agitate purists too greatly. There is also an interesting selection of herbs, including quite a number of pure herbs, and several blends, with an emphasis on the medicinal properties.

The tea is also sold loose by the ounce, and prices are very reasonable.

We ordered Bi Luo Chun, and it was served in this unusually large gaiwan:

We were given a tea timer, but we were given a bit more leaf than would be optimal for this timer so we settled on briefer steeping times. The tea was delicious. One thing that immediately jumped out at me about the tea was that it had not been selected for western tastes, which often tend towards sweetness and avoid sharper qualities. I felt clumsy using the gaiwan, due to a combination of its large size, and my lack of experience using one, and I spilled a little (although that's what the tray is for), but it was fun.

I recall a long time ago buying a small amount of Bi Luo Chun from Teavana. It was aromatic, pleasing, there was some complexity to the aroma. But was sweet...and just...not edgy enough. I also have some very inexpensive Bi Luo Chun in my cupboard and it's a bit more complex but just a bit. This Bi Luo Chun was edgy, and I loved it. In addition to the sweet, grassy tones, there were some deep, fruity aromas as well, and an almost skunky (in a pleasant way, if that makes sense) herbaceous quality.

I also took a picture of this hourglass tea timer; it wasn't the most practical timer, but I thought it was very cute and random, fitting with the theme quite well:

I would like to come back here soon, and I would heartily recommend this place to anyone looking for either a good tea experience, or just a pleasant dose of randomness.


  1. I actually like the tea timer, because it says
    'light', 'medium', and 'strong'. it at least gives you some guidance, but lets you choose how long you'd like to steep. usually you are just given a timer that is counting down. so still not perfect, but definitely better than most i have seen.

  2. This is actually a really good point! (Apologies for my very slow response here!) I think when people are very new to tea, they are often thinking about what the "correct" way to brew is, and a key thing for them to learn is that brewing is a matter of personal taste, and that optimal brewing varies for different teas. Also, it seems common sense to me, but some of the less scientifically-minded people, and people less familiar with food and drink preparation may need to have it pointed out to them that longer steeping times results in a stronger cup. And this timer helps to clarify some of these things.