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South Side First Look: Hi Tea

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Mar 12, 2007 3:00PM

2007_03_hitea_prime.jpgTea is a hot commodity these days. With almost as many varietals and blends as coffee, better organic farming practices, less acid, and health benefits galore, it’s becoming a welcome alternative to the morning cup o’ joe. John Daley first found this out during two trips to Sri Lanka after college. Later, when he was working in Washington, DC, he sipped tea when his workmates were downing multiple cups of coffee every morning. From those nascent awakenings, Daley decided to dive headlong into the world of tea, soaking up every bit of knowledge he could.

Daley now applies that knowledge and passion for tea in his new addition to the growing dining scene in the South Loop. Open for nearly two weeks, Hi Tea is a tea/coffee store and sandwich shop that’s already attracting students, families, and tea drinkers from the neighborhood and beyond. In visiting, you’ll learn a little bit about the art of tea and get a nostalgic look at a Chicago that only seems like yesterday. Entering the store, you’ll find tea services of varying price levels and quality for sale, a painting of a camellia sinensis plant (the common tea bush) in the entryway alongside artifacts and knick-knacks — antique speakers, an old policeman’s uniform, classic Chicago television programs from the ’50s airing on plasma screens, and cool jazz pumped through the sound system — from a Chicago some of us only know from books or the sepia-toned memories of our parents.

2007_03_hitea_owners.jpgThis sense of history and nostalgia comes easy for Daley (pictured, second from right, with manager Heather Horner, and partner Dino Bezanes and Tom Bezanes. A fourth partner, Andy Pappas, is not pictured), considering the integral contributions of his family to the city’s fabric. His father is Cook County Commissioner John Daley; among his uncles is one we refer to around these parts as "His Elective Majesty," Mayor Richard M. Daley. But sit down and talk to Daley for a spell, you come to the conclusion that he and his partners are just folks from Bridgeport, bringing a sizable amount of that neighborhood's can-do spirit to another small business. From what we saw on our visit, the signs point to Hi Tea having a marvelous upside. The food here offers nice twists on standard coffeehouse fare, and the tea is top notch. Our full review of Hi Tea is after the jump.

2007_03_hitea_tea.jpgHi Tea offers 54 different blends of loose-leaf tea, all selected by Daley and his partners. Different blends are placed on special daily. As we mentioned earlier, you can also buy all of your basic tea service accessories here, from bags and mesh infusers to vintage tea services. We often have a taste for yerba mate, and were surprised to find Hi Tea carries two varietals on the menu. Gentler on the stomach than coffee and black teas, yerba mate has an herbal, grassy flavor similar to green tea. Our almond cocoa mate had a prominent, heady malt flavor. Splashes of cream and raw sugar brought the almond to the forefront. Cup liners at Hi Tea are made from cork. It’s a welcome and different aesthetic touch from standard paper liners, and one keeping in line with ownership's focus on the art of tea. However, cork expands when heated, and our cup liner kept slipping off until the temperature of our mate cooled. If you're hesitant to drink tea, don't fret. Hi Tea has a full-service espresso bar with unique takes on latte art. A Zummo machine is at the ready for fresh-squeezed juices.

2007_03_hitea_entree.jpgHi Tea has a fully functional kitchen serving up mouth-watering soups and sandwiches. All sandwiches are served with the house's signature jicama apple slaw, the brightness and sweet flavor of which is muted under an oil-heavy vinaigrette. All that was forgiven with our selection of a turkey and gruyere baguette. The inclusion of oven-roasted tomatoes and a citrus vinaigrette made this sandwich a winner. This sandwich was coupled with a hearty bowl of creamy roasted carrot soup. This soup had a rich, buttery texture and an undeniably sweet carrot flavor.

Artwork adorns every available bit of wall space at Hi Tea, most of it from local Bridgeport artists. Daley said that the plan is for most of the artwork to rotate on a monthly basis, with the exception of a couple pieces which are on permanent loan and complement the shop's atmosphere perfectly.

South Loop residents looking for a tea fix should give Hi Tea a try. Hi Tea is located at 14 E. 11th St. They're open Mondays through Fridays from 7 a.m. - 9 p.m., and 8 a.m. - 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Their phone number is 312-880-0832 (TEA). Drop on in, sit a spell, and say hello to Daley, Horner, and the Bezaneses.