Review: Tea House Formosa, where millennials go for tea and snacks

The first time I stopped by Tea House Formosa on Buford Highway, my friend and I found a quiet nook and ordered a pot of Rose of the Orient: green tea delicately scented with rose, marigold and cornflower. She poured from a lantern-shaped porcelain pot. We sipped from dainty white matching cups and filled our table with an assortment of snacks: tea eggs, tempura-fried green beans, hand-cut taro fries, springy little bao sandwiches.

We had a second pot and ended our tete-a-tete with a lemon tart baked in a shortbread crust flecked with ground black tea. So civilized, so elegant.

The next couple of visits, things got a little crazy.

Along with the nibbles, my guests and I drank tall glasses of cold, brown-sugar milk tea; iced oolong topped with clouds of fluffy whipped cream; black tea with peaches and (at my request) gelatinous ovals of “custard pudding” that had to be broken up before the drink could be slurped through a straw. I was on the verge of adding red-bean topping to the latter until I babbled to the cashier that I thought it might be “too much.” She gently concurred.

Such are the pleasures of camellia sinensis leaves, as brewed, steeped and poured at this trendy Doraville tea room. Owned by Taiwanese sister-and-brother partners Winnie Peng and Tao Huang, the bright, minimalist space is a favorite gathering spot for young Asian-Americans who come to sip teas swirled with milk or flavored with fruit; teas topped with cream, salted cream butter or vanilla ice cream; teas reimagined as floats, slushies and lattes; or just old-fashioned pots of hot tea.

Tea House Formosa is a classic example of a next-generation Asian-American business. Peng and Huang’s late mother ran a Chamblee tea shop, Jinhuchun Tea Co., from 1998-2005. In an email, Peng told me her mother served Atlanta its first bubble tea, in 2000. When the siblings decided to open their Doraville spot, they sought to bring tea into the 21st century.

Most customers, it seems, don’t visit Tea House Formosa for a big meal. (For that, there are innumerable options nearby.) More often, they gather for quiet conversations, to study or use the free Wi-Fi. They linger over their drinks and peck at little fried bites from the kitchen, or perhaps something sweet.

However, if you are feeling ravenous, or just curious, you can build a more ambitious meal by mixing and matching from among the bao, rice burgers or bento boxes.

If it’s your first visit, or you aren’t sure what you want, the cashier might suggest you find a seat, spend a few minutes with the menu, then return to the counter to place your order.

The steamed buns (aka bao or baozi) come filled with pork belly, fried or teriyaki chicken, ginger pork or sliced grilled beef, and dressed with tomato, romaine, onion, pickle and bell pepper. These are not the most dazzling bao fillings in town, but they will do.

Fried chicken is good just about any way. A large bone-in breast is pounded flat, breaded, fried, sliced into strips that look like chicken fingers, sprinkled with spicy seasonings, and plopped in a basket for skewering. (It’s delicious; just beware those bones.)

A crunchy chicken cutlet, stuffed in a bao or a so-called “rice burger,” is wonderful. In bao form, the cutlet recalls a Japanese katsu or Chick-fil-A sandwich; the rice-burger version is a messy, Big Mac-like concoction down to the special, Thousand Island-like sauce.

If you are looking to fill up, the “rice burger,” so named because the protein is sandwiched between rice “buns” that have the texture of griddled hash browns, is a better value. (You can get the burger stuffed with any of the bao fillings.)

Just be sure to pair it with an order of the green beans or oyster mushrooms. Similar to tempura but without all the batter, they are terrific, as are the fried squid balls, which are garnished okonomiyaki style with a sweet soy concoction, Kewpie mayo and wispy bonito flakes.

Don’t expect the bento box to be the sort of gemlike, pickle and fish affairs of the Japanese. It’s more along the lines of a classic Taiwan Railway meal box, traditionally served with a pork chop, which is the way I had it here, though you may opt for pork belly or that all-purpose chicken cutlet. The large, bone-in pork chop was carved into strips and splayed over lightly gravied rice with cabbage, marinated green beans, half a boiled egg and other tidbits. On the side: A bowl of barely seasoned seaweed soup is like a tea from the sea.

On a winter day, should you find yourself on Buford Highway or at its nearby Buckhead malls, feeling a bit of holiday fatigue or melancholy, pull into Tea House Formosa for a quick perk-me-up. A pot of lavender green tea will wake you. To comfort you: a $4 bowl of Lu Rou Fan, a Taiwanese staple of minced pork sauce over rice.

In sum, this sibling venture is a thoughtfully conceived East-meets-West gathering spot for millennials that makes everyone, even curious old Westerners like me, feel at home. I believe that Peng and Huang’s mother would be very proud.

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