Friday, October 10, 2008

The Great LA Chai Hunt

I discovered chai lattes during the fall quarter of my sophomore year of college. As a born and bred Southern Californian unaccustomed to bone-chilling winds and sub-zero temperatures, Chicago falls and winters were murderous to my thin skin. I spent seven months out of the school year with a perpetual coat of goosebumps. Unless of course, I was suffocating in an overheated lecture hall, or downing a hot beverage.

My friend Kyna was the one who first turned me on to chai. I hadn't yet acquired a taste for coffee and was bored by the tea bag, but still needed something to sip when I thought my fingers were going to fall off from frost bite. Then, when I was at Kyna's parents' home for the Thanksgiving holiday, she pulled out a canister of Big Train chai from Trader Joe's. She made us each a cup, and as I savored the creamy, sweet and spicy beverage, I knew I had found the perfect antidote for my cold weather blues.

Chai got me through the rest of my three years at Northwestern and continues to be a comfort for me whenever the temperature gets low enough in Los Angeles. Sipping a foamy chai latte brings me back to one of the happiest times of my life. It reminds me of my good friends, of our marathon study sessions at Borders Cafe in Evanston, and of my sophomore year dorm room, where I made myself a cup of chai every afternoon after class.

Throughout the past three years that I have lived in LA, I have tried many chai lattes in my quest for nostalgia and comfort. I'm not sure that I have found the "ultimate" chai latte yet, but I am always on the hunt for the perfect blend of sweet and spicy. As of now, the version at Aroma Coffee and Tea in Studio City is my favorite. My current list (a rival to Laist's Top Five Chai Lattes) is as follows:

1. Aroma Coffee and Tea (4360 Tujunga Ave, Studio City) - Creamy, sweet and subtly spiced, this latte is more decadent than savory. While it is an indulgent treat, it is not cloyingly rich, and pairs well with any of Aroma's baked goods. I highly recommend the freshly chocolate chip cookies as a companion piece.

2. Groundwork Coffee Company (1501 Cahuenda Blvd in Hollywood/2908 Main Street in Santa Monica) - While obviously made from a mix, this chai also passes my creamy/sweet test, and is delectable either iced or hot.

3. Massimo's Mudspot (759 S. La Brea Ave, Los Angeles) - Made from Tiger chai mix, this chai has serious bite. Regardless of the size ordered, they use the same amount of mix, so request a larger size to lessen the potency of the spices. If it is still too intensely flavored, check out the Cacao chai which is akin to a spicy hot chocolate - rich, creamy and oh so delicious.

4. Coffee Bean - While it pains me to admit it, on a rainy day, a Coffee Bean chai latte tastes pretty darn good. And it should with a big old scoop of their famous vanilla powder packed into the cup. At 220 calories for a small nonfat version, it's definitely an indulgence, but sometimes I enjoy giving into temptation. And when I don't, I just request that they use 1/2 the vanilla powder.

5. Novel Cafe (212 Pier Ave. and 2901 Ocean Park Ave. in Santa Monica/1101 Gayley in Westwood) - Because I have downed 200+ cups of Big Train chai throughout the past six years, I know a Big Train chai when I taste one. Novel Cafe's vanilla chai is undoubtedly made with the BT vanilla chai mix, and that's not a bad thing. Unless you are like me, and have a bag of the stuff at home. (Note: Big Train chai can be purchased on-line or in the Nordstrom's cafe at the Grove)

6. Starbucks - Made with Oregon chai mix, the Starbucks version is nothing that is going to knock anyone's socks off (unless you aren't wearing any to begin with), but it's a decent latte nonetheless. It is not nearly as sweet as Coffee Bean's version, but the spices are more discernible as a result. I've heard a rumor that it is possible to get a Pumpkin or Eggnog chai around the holidays, but I have yet to taste an adulterated version of the standard 'bucks' chai.

7. Peet's Coffee Tea- Insufficiently flavored, all I tasted was milk when I gulped down a cup at the Peet's on Larchmont. Severely disappointing -- especially considering how much I enjoy the other lattes and teas on the menu.

8. Milk (7290 Beverly Blvd., West Hollywood) - My only encounter with this chai was from a single sip I took of a friend's iced beverage, but it was more than enough. Sickeningly sweet with an odd aftertaste, it was quickly apparent that Milk doesn't shine at everything containing dairy. (Even if their banana dulce de leche ice cream is one of the best flavors of ice cream I've tasted in LA.)

9. Urth Caffe (2327 Main Street, Santa Monica/267 S. Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills/8565 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood) - While I adore Urth Caffe's honey vanilla latte and wide range of loose leaf teas, their naturally decaffeinated chai latte is abominable. My experience with the hot version left me with a mouth full of unsweetened warm milk, and my experience with the iced version nearly scarred me. It just tasted off -- like milk gone bad. Very very bad. Yes, it is spicy, but not pleasurably so. Even though I was on a date and was playing the whole "I'm-not-a-snob" game, I could barely stomach more than a few swallows. Those few sips left a foul imprint on my tongue for the rest of the night. (I'm still making my mind up about the date.)

Still on my radar: Susina Bakery, Literati Cafe, Intelligentsia Coffee

Where do you find your favorite chai latte?


Esi said...

I'm more of a coffee gal than a tea gal (although TJ's pomegranate green tea is a must have every morning), but I recently discovered the chai lattes and love them! I am so impressed with how much you get out in LA!

Futile Sniffer said...

I also prefer coffee, but I remember always hearing about the best chai being at the Equator in Old Town Pasadena ( The Equator was in the the Brady Bunch movie, Very Brady Sequel. It's the scene where Marcia and Greg are at a coffee shop with dates trying to make each other jealous (but their dates think they are complete weirdos). And then Jan comes in with her "date" but is actually a life sized doll and people think it's some ridiculous art installment. Classic scene.

If you're going to be on that side of the city, I would check Swork out too (it's in Eagle Rock). I think Swork has the best Vanilla Lattes in the city (like Coffee Bean they also use powder). Also, LA Mill Coffee which is less than a mile away from Intelligentsia in Silverlake is worthy too. :)

Futile Sniffer said...

Actually, I just looked at the Equator website and it's not the Equator it used to be and that I remember. Looks like they revamped it. So I have no idea if they still even make chai. :(

Diana H. said...

Thanks for the tips! I've heard of Swork and have been meaning to get to LA Mill for breakfast/brunch one of these days -- I'll have to check them out! (Right after I cross FO off my list!)

Ashley said...

You know these don't beat Teaism!