LAWRENCE, Kan. – To say that Lawrence is a college town is an understatement: Roughly 30,000 college students make up about a third of the city’s population. Although Lawrence’s many independently owned tea shops were closed when a World Tea News reporter arrived late one evening, the main street was still bustling with patrons of restaurants and bars.
House of Cha is located just off of the main street, so about half the tables were full despite the late hour. Joleen Freeman, the personable, enthusiastic young woman who was running House of Cha when I visited, described Lawrence as a “little Austin, Texas,” and said that a large international student base makes House of Cha both a successful business and an entertaining place to work or visit.
Perhaps it is this combination of college-town surroundings and international influence that resulted in the tea room’s unusual dichotomy of tea: bing cha pu-erh cakes line the walls, shelves are filled with large Chinese-style canisters of oolong from the owner’s in-laws’ tea farm in Taiwan and Yi Xing teaware adorns the counters, yet bubble tea is heavily featured on the menu and the store signage.
It’s rare that a tea business crosses the line between “serious” and “fun” so boldly, so I inquired about it. Freeman informed me that the claim of “the best bubble tea guaranteed” on the banner outside isn’t just ad-speak. Forget artificially flavored syrups – at House of Cha, they brew fresh tea concentrate for their boba three times a day and cook imported, raw Taiwanese tapioca pearls daily.
Even I was temped to try it (despite having sworn off bubble tea forever after a particularly terrible experience), but I opted instead for some of their directly sourced Snowy Moon Oolong (from the last picking of winter in the Chinese calendar), a bowl of house-made soup and a side of matcha-dusted pumpkin seeds.
The oolong was smooth, floral and distinctively buttery. The vegetarian soup proved to be a welcome break from highway food, and the matcha pumpkin seeds left me wishing I’d ordered more of their tea snacks for the road.
I left at 10, when the tea room closed. House of Cha – with its calming atmosphere and caffeine-rich oolong and matcha pumpkin seeds – was just the boost I needed for a late-night drive through the Kansas grasslands.