The Bartender Diaries – Dr. Tea
I arrive at the Tea Garden at 11:15 am. I was supposed to be there at 11:00. I hate being late. I take a deep breath and put on my “professional face,” which was just contorted into my “stressed out LA driver face,” 25 seconds earlier. I walk in with a big smile, shake Dr. Tea’s hand, note the orange lab coat, pull out my notebook and get my pen poised for action.
“Let’s sit down and have some tea,” he says. I’m ready to start scribbling interview notes when I look up to see he’s calmly peering down at me, with a little smirk. I’ve barely had a chance to focus my eyeballs after speeding along the 101, tearing down La Cienega and fumbling through my purse for bottom-feeder change to stuff in the meter. I only came up with a nickel and three dimes. Crap.
“A lot of the passion is centered around reading my clients,” Dr. Tea explains, knowingly. “Ninety percent of the time, I’m right.”
Yeah, he’s right. I could use some tea, and a minute to “center.” I take a cool sip of a pomegranate-strawberry-raspberry-hibiscus-rooibus blend placed in front of me, and the muscles between my shoulders and neck drop down about an inch.
He steps behind the counter to begin the demonstrations and asks, “Have you tried a Capa-tea-no?” I shake my head. It’s still a little groggy. If a capa-tea-no is anything like a cappuccino, I want one.
Dr. Tea eyes me as if he’s heard my mind’s grumbling. “I was a 15-cups a day coffee drinker,” he says, buzzing between the cupboards and hot water machine and tea canisters lining the walls. “Drinking ‘coffee-tea’ will change you -mentally, physically, spiritually.”
My defenses go up and I inwardly assure myself that I’m not seeking to change. Apart from losing 20 pounds, sleeping though the night and re-connecting to inner-peace-loving-Goddess, I have no aspirations to change a thing.
“Roasted oolong is the closest to a coffee bean. Instead of coffee every day, people could have “coffee-tea,” he says and goes on to explain that unlike our favorite Starbucks or Coffee Bean drinks, the Tea Garden’s “Capa-tea-no” has only 45 calories, 0 grams of fat. Ok, he’s got a point.
Dr. Tea’s "real" name is Mark Ukra. He claims that his family has been in the tea business for more than 240 years - specifically in the area around Baghdad, until the 1930’s. His personal goal is to take tea from being the 6th most popular drink in the U.S. to the 2nd most popular, as it is in the rest of the world.
Ukra first opened the Tea Garden in Venice Beach in the late 80’s, then expanded to Brentwood in 1993. Less than two months ago, he opened doors to its current location on Melrose (former site of Elixir). Watching him behind his "bar," pouring, swirling, blending, stirring, concocting liquid delights, the similarities between what he does at Tea Garden and what a skilled bartender do are very similar: charm, entertain, satisfy. Dr. Tea has become a "Teatender" in my notes.
Referring to himself as a “nose and palate man,” Ukra says he’s enjoyed cooking since childhood and considers himself somewhat of an expert in champagnes, wines and scotches. He’s also got a romantic streak, which comes out when he sings the praises of his favorite beverage:
“Little did I know how sexy tea is! I found that when I ordered a pot of tea on a date, instead of an espresso, women saw me as kind, gentle, a listener.” His smirk returns, with a hint of mischief, “Tea became my secret ‘sexy’ weapon.”
Speaking of sexy, how about the faux-desserts Dr. Tea whips up in his blender? His Chocolate Mint Ice Cream (made from chocolate mint tea, soy milk and ice) has only 60 calories. And, his Orange Sherbet has only 50.
In addition to health benefits from its anti-oxidants, Dr. Tea sees tea as a useful culinary and cocktail ingredient. “Tea brings out the flavor in everything,” he declares. “It is the single most perfect plant nature created.”
He explains that people seek stimulation from unhealthy sources such as caffeine, nicotine, marijuana and cocaine may want to consider tea’s pleasure enhancing qualities. “Tea has L-Theanine which enters the body from the small intestine and stimulates a feeling of happiness and bliss.”
Which brings us to cocktails. Dr. Tea’s version of a Pina Colada (pineapple and coconut teas) would be a more healthful (and lower calorie) version of a traditional drink. Just blend the tea, soymilk and a little rum, garnish with a pineapple wedge and pink umbrella - and voila!
Basically, any of his teas can be incorporated into tea cocktails, and several bars around LA have been taking heed. I’ve developed a few for recent events – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. In fact, the tea trend has been going strong around the country for a while now, as you’ll see in the May issue of my monthly cocktail column in Northern Virginia Magazine, and this Liquid Muse Blog write up on Zen Green Tea liqueur, from February.
“Everything here is a mirage,” says Dr. Tea, spreading out his orange arms, gesturing toward the four walls of his tea store, and the beautiful Zen garden in the back. “The Tea Garden about teaching and guiding. It’s not about selling.”
“Yeah, suuure,” I think, as I walk out of the Tea Garden with 2 free samples of tea, a bunch of new drink ideas and a joyful heart. (Doh! His point is well made, again!)
I reluctantly admit to myself that by the end of this interview with Dr. Tea, I’ve become a believer. I didn’t even cuss (too loudly) when I peeled the parking ticket for an expired meter off my windshield.
Tea may have already changed my life.
*Want to recommend a subject for The Bartender Diaries? E-me at: natalie-at-theliquidmuse.com
** Keep an eye out for The Liquid Muse Cocktail Show’s upcoming Webisode, featuring this visit with Dr. Tea, filmed by Margaret Howell.