I’ve been keeping an eye on Hi-Tea ever since the Quizno’s on 110 Bush Street was suddenly replaced with papered-up windows and a “NO TRESPASSING” sign. Even the name was intriguing. Would it be bubble tea? A frou-frou hot tea place? No one seemed to know, and Googling only turned up a now-defunct Chicago chain. But since I work nearby, it was easy to keep a running diary in my head. Hey, I can peek through the tarps now. Hey, that logo looks like it belongs in some one-off airport eatery. Hey, look, a box from Pier 1. Hey, what’s with the gelato signs? And why did the security guard tell me it was going to be frozen yogurt?
They’ve only been open a week and I’m still not sure how to describe this place. The walls are sunflower yellow and purple. The cuisine is Vietnamese-centric, but the wall art is a mix of blown glass, square block printings and red and black tile. The floor is striped grey and black. Their printed menus are bilingual — English and Chinese — but don’t include any information about Hi-Tea itself, including its name. (Pin that on your office bulletin board and weeks later try to remember who it belongs to.)
Hi-Tea feels like it’s trying to be a cleaner, hipper version of a quick, cheap Chinatown eatery, but as with their decor, their menu lacks focus. Despite the number of entrees they offer, it remains mostly limited to beef, pork and chicken. Out of over 40 different entrees — including salads — half have beef in some form, and one is technically vegetarian. Hell, I half-expected them to have beef gelato. And for a place with “tea” in the name, offering a variety pack of bagged Numi and a handful of bubble milk teas hastily scribbled onto a whiteboard feels like a bait-and-switch.
Despite or because of its weirdness, I visited three times in their first week.
The peach milk tea was much too syrupy and sweet, and not very cold. Somehow I finished it, but mostly because it was the end of the day and I sat watching the staff mess with the menu displays on the flat-screen TVs over the counter — which, as of the end of last week, were still not in use.
Mid-week, I braved the lunch crowd and ordered a seafood rice dish, and only after I paid and had moved over to the waiting area did one of the perky girls behind the counter run up to me and tell me she was sorry, but they were out of seafood. She then suggested a beef dish.
“Sorry, I don’t eat beef.”
She suggested a chicken dish.
“Sorry, I don’t eat chicken either…”
Too bad for them, there wasn’t a soy cow in sight. I got a refund and went next door to Noah’s Bagels.
I ended the week giving Hi-Tea a third chance, and tried the mocha chip gelato. They use Fiorello’s, which I’d never had. It wasn’t gelato so much as thick ice cream, but the chips were fun to crunch and the flavor had a strong chocolate/coffee bite to it without being too sweet. Funny how the time I was most satisfied with a visit there was when I bought something they didn’t even make themselves.
Did Hi-Tea open too early? Possibly. Is their menu vegetarian-friendly? About as much as this one steak house I went to in St. Louis. Does it look like an early hit with the FiDi set? Judging by the crowds, yes. Despite its first week bumps, it has great location and potential. It’s not easy to find an eatery with an entirely courteous staff, so they have that going for them. They just need to figure out what they do best, do that, and not try to do a million other things as well. And maybe print their name and address on the menu — and offer at least one dish with tofu.