Looking for a fun way to celebrate a special occasion? Or maybe a new experience for a get together with friends in SF? Or another foodie event?
Themed high teas at Jade Chocolates in Chinatown might be the ticket. For my birthday this year Cacaopod took me to Jade for their afternoon tea service. We had a wonderful meal and afterwards got a tour from owner/head chocolatier Mindy Fong. Before we left we did a little chocolate shopping too. A great way to celebrate getting older.
Jade Chocolate’s Chinatown location has been serving themed high tea for a little over a year now. The current theme is “In the Dining Car: The Golden Spike Era,” and in the short introduction by our server about the theme she explained that we would be having a meal inspired by the cuisines of the Chinese and Irish who built the railroads and foods served in Pullman dining cars.
We were first served tea because of course — it’s in the name. The tea, Irish Breakfast, was a blend of Ceylon and Assam teas. It was a non-bitter black tea with a little floral in it.
First course: Railroad worker savories
When the server brought out the first course I think I found out why it’s called high tea — the food was stacked on a 3-tier tray. It included items inspired by all 3 cuisines mentioned in the intro.
The Corned Beef Hand Pie with Dipping Gravy was Irish inspired with the pie filled with corned beef, carrots, and potatoes. Chef Scott McTaggert elevated this classic work pail lunch by flavoring the cornmeal crunch crust with rosemary and adding fennel (or maybe star anise for a Chinese inspired addition?) to the dipping gravy for a pleasant licorice bump.
It was suggested we start with the warm options on the tray so we proceeded to the Potato Cheddar Soup next. While this was also Irish inspired it had a mushroom flavor in addition to potato and cheese.
Our server had told us that when they were building the railroads the Irish were paid $35/month while the Chinese were paid $30/month plus they were responsible for their food and lodging. So rehydrated mushrooms are featured in some of the dishes because the Chinese brought a lot of dried foods with them to their worksites.
Moving on to the cold dishes we tried the Cucumber Cream Cheese & Winter Mushroom on Pullman Brioche Tea Sandwich. The cucumber mushroom filling was a tasty cool contrast to the warm soup and hand pie but I have to do a shout out to that Pullman brioche — it was a very light textured mild flavored bread but nothing like WonderBread — it was the best white bread I’ve ever had.
I also want to make an aside about how comfortable the seating was. The cafe is not a large space but we didn’t feel crowded. The ceilings are high which made it seem more spacious and the chairs were so comfy they felt like they were made for lingering.
With the cool cucumber sandwiches we also ate Chop Suey Cabbage Salad. Inspired by the old school American Chinese dish, the cabbage salad contained crunchy noodles, 2 types of cabbage, yellow bell pepper, water chestnuts, mushrooms, and slivers of ginger on top. It was a good combination — crunchy and refreshing — with cracked pepper adding some heat.
Cacaopod remarked on a commonality between the 2 cuisines: Both include root vegetables — Irish uses potatoes, Chinese uses ginger — but one is mild while the other is spicy.
Topping the tower were Buttermilk Scones with Whipped Butter and Rhubarb Ginger Jam. The server told us that rhubarb is one of the most popular ingredients in Irish desserts — and we already talked about ginger.
The jam was a slightly greenish golden color. It tasted a little floral but mostly ginger. It wasn’t tart like I expected, the flavor reminded me of ginger ale. The scone was excellent and had a crunchy sugar top. It was a nice mild combo.
Some of the food items were available for takeaway like the soup and scones. I wish they sold the ginger rhubarb jam too. I haven’t seen that combination before and I really enjoyed it.
Pullman Dining Car Palate Cleanser
After eating all that food, we were pretty full — and there was still a dessert course to go. In-between they served us a palate cleanser inspired by Pullman Dining Car menus.
Pullman was the luxury American train service. The National Park Service has a nice overview if you are unfamiliar with Pullman and their dining cars.
The overview doesn’t talk about the fact that Pullman porters — the people who hauled travelers’ luggage, assisted them on the train, and served their meals — were Black. While the jobs started with low pay and bad working conditions, once the Pullman porters formed a union, the job became a prestigious one in African American communities and helped build the Black middle class in America. They even have a Pullman Porter Museum in Chicago.
The palate cleanser was called a Tea Collins and described as a non-alcoholic version of a Tom Collins. It was served in a tall shot glass decorated with a slice of lime. It was a bubbly sweet lime and ginger ale experience which Mindy told us was made with simple syrup flavored with juniper and rosemary to mimic the flavor of gin.
Before the second course, our server brought out the dessert tea selection: Lychee Rose Green Tea. It was distinctly lychee and rose but mild. The floral taste evoked memories of summer vacations. And me — the no florals please foodie — thought it was so yummy I bought a bag of it to go.
Second course: Pullman dining car sweets
Before the second course tray appeared, Chef McTaggert and the staff brought me a strawberry shortcake with a candle on top to celebrate my birthday. Once I blew that out, the second course proceeded with 3(!) desserts.
We were totally full from the first course but as they say there’s always room for dessert so we soldiered on.
We started with the small Water Crackers with Cheese, Fruit, & Jam. The fruit was mango and it was topped with a few shreds of fresh mint. It was a nice light combination that encouraged me that I could finish this meal.
The next dessert, Apple Tapioca Pudding, was a warm tapioca pudding with chunks of cooked apple, soft tapioca pearls, and cinnamon sprinkled on top — a nice variation on warm apple pie.
A tour came in while we were eating — they didn’t come into the cafe space, they hung out in the shop and the back of the space. Mindy gave them a little run-down on Jade Chocolates and the building, and then people in the tour shopped while asking a lot of questions about the chocolate.
We asked Mindy about it later and she said that they welcome tours and have been getting more and more tours the longer they are in the space. Since they are on Grant Ave., tours pass by everyday. Just another reason the move to Chinatown was the right one for Jade.
Our final dessert was the very large Bisquick Strawberry Shortcake. A fun fact we learned at tea was that Bisquick was invented by a porter in a Pullman dining car. And while I usually prefer things made from scratch I have to say the Bisquick biscuit was really good with a light crumbly texture.
The Strawberry Shortcake was delicious with lots of whipped cream drizzled with macerated strawberries and stuffed in the crumbly biscuit — a classic dessert that was just a shade too much for me to finish but I enjoyed as much as I could before admitting defeat.
When both of us had reached the end of the line we sipped our Lychee Rose Green Tea and agreed how nice it was to end the meal with a light tea. Kudos to Mindy for the tea selections — they were the perfect accompaniment to the meal.
Après la fête
After the meal Mindy showed us around the rest of the space and told us about what else they are doing/offering.
If a tea service is not your thing or you can’t make a reservation you can come and enjoy a drink anytime from Jade’s Apothecary Bar. In addition to tea, they serve coffee drinks, house-made soda drinks, lassis, and their newest beverage: Halo Halo, a shaved ice drink from the Philippines. They also make a variety of unique sundaes using their teas and other drinks as flavorings. And they have house-made baked goods like cookies, brownies, and scones.
Mindy told us that lots of Europeans come in for coffee and they get visitors from all over the world — a prime spot in Chinatown 2 blocks from the Dragon Gate will do that. She has noticed that even though they offer a wide variety of drinks, people tend to want what they had before, like the Europeans ordering coffee.
Mindy loves mango lassi so she decided to offer it at the bar. Lots of Middle Easterners order it, she said, but not many other visitors. People do venture out of their comfort zone sometimes: Dalgona coffee — the whipped coffee that went viral on TikTok— got popular at the bar during COVID. She is hoping people will give Halo Halo a try too.
The space is very pretty and calm inspiring with color blocked walls of yellow and green, and gold stencils of lotus flowers and chrysanthemums. Mindy designed the whole space with special attention to the paint colors (another thing we learned at Jade was that yellow was the color of emperors — even forbidden for a time for other people to use — so Mindy wanted to incorporate a lot of yellow in the space) and all the finishes — like the live edge wooden counters and gold stencils. She also did some of the work herself like hand stenciling the flowers on different surfaces throughout the space.
Another special treat for us at Jade was a backstage tour of the downstairs area where their 2 kitchens and a private dining room are located.
Mindy told us that the building Jade is in was the first built in Chinatown after the 1906 earthquake. It was completed in 1907. They had to build it fast Mindy said because SF wanted to move Chinatown waaay out to Hunters Point. Glad that never happened.
Before showing us where Jade magic happens, Mindy took us on a quick detour. As a pre-central heating building, the basement included a coal cellar. The coal is long gone, but the coal chute from the street above into the basement still exists. We could hear people walking on the sidewalk above.
Underneath the store/cafe proper is storage space, a private party area, and Jade’s 2 kitchens: one for chocolate and the other a hot kitchen for food preparation. The 2 kitchens are separated by plexiglas so the hot side stays hot and the cool side stays cool.
Mindy was happy with the good sized kitchens where she has room for all her chocolate gear including a chocolate panner and a brand new enrober that was currently sitting upstairs in the cafe because they hadn’t figured out yet how to get it downstairs. I suggested they use the coal chute, but Mindy says it no longer opens to the street.
In front of the hot kitchen is a large area that can host private parties of up to 22 people. The space has a different, more energetic vibe than upstairs what with the views of the working kitchens and paintings by Mindy’s daughter who inherited her mom’s creative genes.
As we wrapped up the tour we asked Mindy what’s new/coming soon. She told us the next tea service theme would be Hawaiian Cowboys, which sounds fun.
Since they have been doing themed teas for a year now Mindy told us that while it was slow after Valentines Day, the teas are getting more popular. And they were very popular in winter, especially the Chocolate Winter Wonderland.
“I don’t want to repeat menus,” Mindy told us. “I have a lot of ideas but preparing the themes takes a lot of time. We will mostly will likely repeat a Christmas theme and a Native Peoples theme for fall and winter, but the menu will always be different.”
She is always looking for new concepts in addition to her own ideas. She told us that the Golden Spike theme was her husband’s idea. And she is currently planning a wine based theme because Chinese workers built the original wine caves in Napa. Mindy said while the Chinese connections are meaningful to her not all the teas will have Chinese influences.
She mentioned the Ohlone Land, Chocolate Winter Wonderland, and I Left My Heart in San Francisco (centered around SF food inventions like tetrazzini and Green Goddess dressing) as non-Chinese themes they’ve done. She wants to expand themes to include other Asian cultures and other types of themes like the literature inspired “Alice in Chinatown” she is developing which sounds fantastic.
We also wanted to know if there was anything new chocolate-wise at Jade. Mindy told us she was working on a new line of bars with San Francisco themes. The first 2 were already available for sale at the shop even though she was still working out the packaging.
The 2 bars — Sourdough and Fortune Cookie — looked similar. They both used bittersweet chocolate and they both had visible baked goods inclusions, but one was savory and the other sweet.
The Sourdough bar was the savory one. In addition to bits of crunchy sourdough it included a lot of seasonings: garlic, onion powder, marjoram, thyme, basil, oregano, and sea salt.
Oregano was the dominant flavor initially and the croutons gave it a sourdough yeasty taste. The bar also tasted garlicky. The many savory flavors didn’t go over well with the group I shared it with. The consensus seemed to be that the inclusions should be simplified. There were too many savory flavors and that wasn’t something they would look for in chocolate. This seems like it could be a fun bar for adventurous foodies.
The other bar, the Good Fortune, was more of a crowd pleaser. In addition to broken fortune cookie bits, the bar was flavored with the Lychee Rose Green Tea we enjoyed with the tea service.
It had that same good distinct lychee rose flavor but this time in chocolate. It was a nice mix. The crowd liked it but some wanted it in a different darker chocolate.
Mindy didn’t tell us how big this line of bars will become but she did tell us the next ones will be one inspired by SF’s native Blum’s Coffee Crunch Cake (a lemon chiffon cake coated with coffee flavored whipped cream and pieces of honeycomb coffee candies). And a bar called Laughing Sal’s Pink Delight inspired by the bricks of bright pink popcorn that used to be sold around SFBA at places like the zoo and Playland at the Beach. While changing tastes led to the demise of this iconic local childhood treat, Mindy is planning to use the newest chocolate, ruby chocolate, and popped sorghum to make something newer generations will like.
I wonder what other SF iconic foods might be included. It’s-It ice cream treats? The Buena Vista’s Irish Coffee? Tommy’s Margarita? Rice-a-roni? I am so curious about this new line! And it’s a great idea for a chocolatier in a prime SF tourist location.
In addition to the bars we bought a box of bonbons and some Jade snacks — I think Jade makes some of the best chocolate confections around. We got our favorite — Rice Paddies — which are chocolate covered bundles of rice crispies, toasted almond pieces, and chunks of chewy dried mangos. So good they are dangerous.
We also got the Pearls of Wisdom which are caramelized hazelnuts coated in dark chocolate then given another coat of chocolate this time a pearlized white chocolate. These were a big hit with my tasters. They thought the pearls were visually stunning (so shiny) and they liked the crunchy caramelized hazelnut in a generous amount of chocolate.
We passed around the bonbons and the ones the group liked best were the Kalamansi Lime with its light, citrusy flavor; Sunflower which was crunchy and salty with a nut butter taste; Miso Caramel, a savory, soft caramel with a ganache-like texture; and the Olive Oil and Yuzu, a very aromatic citrus with bits of zest in a white ganache.
If you can’t get to Jade in Chinatown, you can buy their chocolates and teas online. Chocolate Covered carries some Jade bars, and Jade still does a few special events like the Pixar holiday event for their employees. But if you want the full Jade experience you’ve got to make the trip to Chinatown.
And of course I can’t recommend their tea service enough. “In the Dining Car: The Golden Spike Era” menu is available until July 2. The next theme, “Paniolo: Hawaiian Cowboy Life,” will run until September 4. In the fall “Ohlone Lands” returns with a new menu, and for the holiday season “A Victorian Christmas” debuts. You can make reservations online on Jade’s website.