Posted by The LunchMen Thursday, September 23, 2010

Tank and I were lined up in the Boneless Fried Chicken formation and ready to score some baby limas and buttered squash at The Trap, when Spoony called in an audible to the “Bite of the Week.”  For the uninitiated, the Bite of the Week is pretty self explanatory – it is a weekly column in the Free Times dedicated to some delicious dish or meal here in our fair city. This week our friends at the Free Times suggested the Banh Mi (pronounced bun me) at Tea on State Street in West Columbia; so when Spoony gave us the signal, we made like Marcus Lattimore and rushed on over.  Ah, sports... the great metaphor for life.    
When we arrived, Spoony was resting impatiently, but comfortably, in a white retro modern ball chair enjoying the sounds of house music played from a nearby Peavey.  The highlight of the stylishly modern, Asian inspired furniture and décor was a striking mural depicting a stormy Vietnam.  The menus set in gilded frames were also a nice touch – an interesting, if unoriginal, contrast of modern and classic.  Overall, the clean lines and uncluttered space with exposed brick and blacked out ceiling beams made for a refreshingly different atmosphere.  One practical note: Tea is a no go for parties larger than 4, but with 40 varieties of tea and free wi-fi, the inviting space is ideal for a solo trip.      

The Lunchmen aren’t into reinventing the wheel (but we are into clichés), so we’ll set the table by shamelessly quoting our Free-Times inspiration penned by Jonathan Sharpe:

Tea’s house banh mi sandwich is a baguette stuffed with “BBQ pork”, a marinated and seasoned, thick-cut slice of pork resembling ham that is cooked on a griddle, along with cold cuts of steamed pork and head cheese — which is not a cheese but rather a cold cut made from slow-simmered pork head meat suspended in aspic. The well-sourced bread is crusty on the outside, soft on the inside, and spread on one side with paté, the other with butter. Completing the sandwich: slices of cucumber, jalapeño, cilantro and shredded daikon radish and carrot pickled in a light Asian dressing. If you’d rather choose your own adventure, there’s a build-your-own option on the menu. As for the bubble tea, owner Thuy Thach suggests choosing flavors that complement, such as honeydew jelly bubbles with coconut-flavored milk or coffee bubbles with almond-flavored milk.

We were greeted at the counter by Tea’s friendly proprietor.  She was patient with our rookie questions, and helped us navigate the menu.  Tank aptly noted that she seemed comfortable and at ease, unlike new restaurateurs we have encountered that are awkwardly eager to please.  We concluded that this ain’t her first rodeo.  In the grand tradition of the Lunchmen – and with a lot of help from our new friend – we diversified our order.  Tank opted for the House Adventurer described above – mostly because he thinks it is cool to eat headcheese.  To be honest, Anthony Bourdain convinced me headcheese was cool a long time ago... I’m just not cool enough yet to incorporate an amalgamation of swine dome and ear jelly into my regular diet.  I’ll get it next time, though, promise.  This time, I opted for the Chicken banh mi seasoned half and half with lemongrass and 5 spice, while Spoony chose the Chili Lime Shrimp banh mi. 

To round things out, we sprung for the Milk Tea: Tank went Almond and I went Mango with lychee jelly.  As they say, when in West Columbia...   A curious Tank also couldn’t resist the Shrimp Chips.  Undeterred, perhaps emboldened, by the proprietor’s warning that they were “an acquired taste,” Tank enthusiastically ordered the treat after taking one look at the package.  

We started in on the shrimp chips before we even made it to the table.  I’ll be the first to admit that my palate has its limits, but I enjoyed the shrimp chips.  I would definitely rank it above other Asian treats that are decidedly less palatable, among them: beef tendon, corn flavored and shaped ice cream bars, stinky tofu, and other “treats” I’ve encountered in my travels.  The crispy fry shaped chips were light and salty, with a satisfying, shrimpy aftertaste. 

As for the milk teas, we weren’t fans.  I’m sure they are expertly made and delicious for those accustomed to such beverages – but the Lunchmen prefer a robust coffee or tea to the super-sweet milk teas.  We were also a little unselttled by the jellys traveling up the extra wide straw. 

The sandwiches, on the other hand, were just plain delicious.  The marriage of pickled vegetables, spice, and meat on outstanding bread was a harmonious one.  The spice was assertive without being overpowering, complemented the clilantro and vegatables, and even made the sweet milk tea much better.  The lemongrass half of my sandwich stood out for its bright flavors, though the Chinese style 5 spice was also excellent.  

Tank seemed pleased with his sandwich as well – remarking at the heat from the jalapeno and relishing in his decision to hold off on the Sriracha.  The flavors simply work too well to be bastardized with Sriracha.  Tank noted that the headcheese worked into the other meat flavors, and didn’t stand out against the barbecue pork.  Next time, the Lunchmen may deconstruct the sandwich and sample the parts individually to get a full appreciation for how well the ingredients come together.  Spoony’s chili lime shrimp, while good, took third to the House Adventurer and half and half chicken. 

All in all, Tea gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from the Lunchmen – there are three new Banh Mi fans in the Metro.  We can’t wait to make it back to try more of the menu like the spring rolls and the numerous varieties of loose leaf tea.

- The Publican

1 Responses to Tea

  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. Tea is wonderful. It is so great to be able to get Banh Mi in this region. The house adventurer is the way to go, it is seriously delicious.
    Great Blog!


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Rabbit, Tank, and The Publican are three dudes just trying to get through the work week here in Columbia. Rabbit is a Columbia native, Tank is from Charleston, and The Publican hails from Greenville. Rabbit's favorite lunch spot is the No Name Deli on Elmwood, where you may find him putting down a grilled chicken salad and a side of vinegar pasta. The Publican usually wants to find food to cure his all-too-common hangovers. Tank claims no favorite lunch spot - he lives for the thrill of the hunt.