Best Things: Chai In The Neighborhood.

It was at some point during grad school that I realized I was becoming a true chai connoisseur. Sure, I'd had it before, in Philadelphia where I learned that chai is tea, tea is chai. Chai tea is redundant. Now I know. It was at this tiny cafe off South Street where I first imagined my hypothetical adventures through Middle Eastern history, culture, food, art. I've certainly come a long way since then.

I had also tasted the exquisite home made chai made by my best friend's mother. We used to visit her in New Jersey and she would always make this strong, perfectly balanced tea, with hand grated spices. This was the first time I understood tea as a ritual. I started going to Patel's in Princeton to get my own ingredients for at-home experimentation. With the help of another best friend's English Nan, who gifted me a full Royal Albert tea set, I fell under the sway of proper tea meditation. This is an experience meant to be savored and appreciated, from preparation to finish. 

In school, I needed something to keep me seriously alert for those dense articles on Marxism or Medieval something or other. This elixir would also have to function as a mood enhancer to keep spirits high during the lengthy bouts of misery and self-doubt. I tried lots of things like coffee, Earl grey tea, green tea, coke, coke with lemon, Red Bull, dark chocolate, any chocolate! Nothing ever worked the miracles that chai could work. Since I spent all of my time in the library or cafes I needed to assess my surroundings: the hunt for the perfect chai in Somerville/Cambridge. Over three years I have refined my tastes and finally, narrowed down the top picks. 

Now, there are two categories. Chai latte (warm, wintertime drink) and iced chai latte. These are serious distinctions because an iced chai is abysmal if made with a pre-fabricated mix. A hot chai is less terrible if a mix is used. The problem is that you have no control over the level of sweetness and I loathe sweet drinks. Even hot chocolate should be balanced (go to Burdick's for an exemplary example). I find that I can only drink chai now and only occasionally do I take something else, although I have been experimenting with coffee in anticipation of our upcoming trip to serious coffee lands. Chai is becoming more mainstream although not every cafe has it on offer (nor should every cafe offer what they call "chai"). I do have a hard time finding it sometimes, even in New York City, where one day I could not find it anywhere and was close to a meltdown. 

But, the local winners!


Without a doubt 1369 Coffee House.
The barrista warned me that it was going to be strong since they let the tea steep overnight. It is very strong! I usually get the biggest size and dilute it with more ice. I separate the drink into two cups, one for the next day. This gives me two full days of productivity and euphoria. This is the perfect blend; just a touch sweet (a little honey I think), smooth, spicy, and incredibly easy to drink. Luckily I discovered this the summer that I was studying for the Comprehensive Exams. It truly changed my life (ok, at least my study habits). I owe my good grades and sanity to this iced chai latte! Oh, and try out their blondies and chocolate chip cookies. So good.

1369, Inman Square

This one is tough because I prefer to make it at home, but I'm rarely ever at home during the day. I tried nearly every cafe's version "within a five mile radius." Some were terrible (way too sweet), some were okay, a few were great. Since Alex and I spent most of our time working in cafes, we kept going back to the ones that were comfortable for marathon work sessions and had good food. Sometimes I had to compromise on the drinks. Despite the fact that we're in New England, Boston even, this is not the place for tea drinkers. I remain frustrated that nearly every cafe uses the same brand of tea therefore homogenizing the selection for those of us that are actually interested in the quality of it. There are exceptions of course. But, the best...

Darwin's in Cambridge. 
Not only do they have incredible sandwiches, Swedish Choklad Biskvier, and Florentines, they also make the best chai latte by steeping the tea first and then adding steamed milk, no sweetener. I'm pretty sure it's also the least expensive. This becomes a consideration when you need one every day!

Darwin's, Cambridge St.

The runner up in this category is Flour Bakery. They also steep the tea first and leave out the sweetener. I love their grilled tofu sandwich with tapenade and all of their sweet treats. Definitely recommended.

But the cafe where we spent most of our time was the Biscuit. I thought it was a bakery for dogs (these exist!), so we didn't really discover it until we'd been here a year. Their warm chai is acceptable, maybe a little too sweet, but overall this place was the best for us. Some of my favorites on the menu: strawberry rhubarb pie, iced ginger green tea, and the Helsinki sandwich (smoked salmon on dill bread, good brain food). 

Other go-to cafes in Cambridge and Somerville:
Diesel Cafe (get the shortbread chocolate chip cookie)
Burdick's (get the hot chocolate, also the Melange Du Chamonix tea is quite good and not MEM!)
Crema Cafe (get the London Fog)
Hi-Rise (for sandwiches)
Sofra (the chai here is very sweet, but everything else is always amazing)
Sherman's Cafe (reliably good, healthy, local food)

All of this reminiscing is making me sad to leave these great places behind. But I hear they have cajeta lattes where I'm headed next!

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