Sometimes something comes along and fills a need you didn’t even know you had.
A need, say, for iced matcha lattes with chewy little tapioca balls in an upliftingly serene space.
When Tea Bar opened in Northeast Portland near the end of 2014, its mission seemed as simple as its name. Owner Erica Swanson aimed to serve a tight selection of high-quality teas in a calming, minimalist atmosphere. That’s it.
She eschewed all the usual tea house tropes — no exotic, Asian-themed knick-knackery, no florid ruffles and chintz. If anything, Tea Bar looked like a sleek, modern, third-wave coffee shop, with a similarly well-curated menu of just a few quality drinks. There are the straight-up hot teas, of course, but also a creative selection of creamy tea lattes, herbal tea tonics and sparkling tea-based mimosas.
I don’t think us Portlanders realized that we had been craving this kind of “coffee house experience without the coffee” until we began wandering in, lured by all the dreamy photos that began populating our Instagram feeds. And after my first taste of a creamy, just-barely-sweetened matcha latte, I found myself constantly looking for excuses to head down Northeast Killingsworth and stop in.
I give Tea Bar full credit for turning me into a matcha fan. I like green tea just fine, but I couldn’t imagine drinking its ground-up leaves. But the matcha they use is carefully sourced from a single Japanese farm, so it seemed too special not to try. It was deliciously grassy without any of the tannic bitterness I feared. Plus, you can opt to have it gently sweetened with one of the housemade syrups — lavender, peppermint, cardamom and vanilla. After one cup I was hooked. And when Swanson added housemade tapioca pearls to the menu, my craving turned into obsession. Finally I could have my chewy little bobas without having to drink the gross, sticky-sweet, artificially flavored stuff you find in most bubble tea shops.
I am now a certified matcha lover, sipping Mizuba at home when I’m not drinking it at Tea Bar. And I’ve even started baking with it, too. Most recently, I took inspiration from my favorite drink at the cafe and made Almond Madeleines with Matcha and Cardamom. The tender, buttery cakes have a hint of grassy tea combined with a touch of warm cardamom, and tiny bits of almond add wonderful texture. They’re really hard to resist, but that’s ok because matcha is a superfood (at least that’s what I tell myself when I’m stuffing my face with madeleine number four).
In just over a year, Tea Bar has secured a spot as one of the city’s favorite cafes. Stop in on any given day and most tables are taken up with people working on laptops, holding business meetings, catching up with friends. And it’s all because Swanson, who’s almost always there, has a knack for knowing just want we want before we even know we want it. Case in point: She’s opening Tea Bar #2 on SE Division later this spring.
Almond Madeleines with Matcha and Cardamom
Makes about 16
Green tea powder and ground cardamom give these tender little tea cakes a welcome hint of earthiness. If you don’t have almond flour, you can grind whole or sliced almonds in a food processor until very fine. It will be a little coarser than store-bought, but still works great.
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup almond flour
1 tablespoon matcha powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 green cardamom pods (or 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Generously butter and flour two madeleine pans. (Alternatively, you can use mini muffin pans and bake at 350 degrees.)
In a small mixing bowl, combine the flour, almond flour, matcha and salt. Break open the cardamom pods to extract the seeds. Crush the seeds in a mortar and pestle until ground into a fine powder. You should have 1/8 teaspoon (alternatively you can use ground cardamom but it won’t be quite as fragrant). Add to the flour mixture.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the eggs and sugar until thickened and very light in color (when you lift the beater, the mixture should fall like ribbons back into the bowl). Beat in the vanilla. With the mixer on low, stir in the flour mixture, stopping to scrape the sides of the bowl when necessary. Add the melted butter and stir just until combined. Allow mixture to sit until it begins to thicken up, about 10 minutes.
Spoon a heaping tablespoon of batter into each of the prepared madeleine molds. Bake for about 10 minutes until the edges are browned and the tops spring back when lightly pressed. If using mini muffin pans, fill two-thirds full and bake at the lower temperature for a few minutes longer.