Soft blues music greeted me as I entered this remarkable hidden gem on West 10th Street. I found the current New York Times hanging on a rack and a case filled with bags and tins of tea. Before settling into a cozy corner with Tom, the photographer from Manhattan Sideways, I met the extraordinary couple who own the store, ready to guide me through a tea adventure. I immediately thought to myself, this might be the best kept secret in the Village, but I am sure it will not be for long.
Federico Ribeiro and Elena Liao met at Highlands, just a short distance away, in 2009 while both were having a drink at the bar. Elena already had a deep passion for Taiwanese tea and wanted to bring the product, along with her knowledge, to Manhattan. Elena moved to the States from Taiwan when she was thirteen but she loves returning “home,” and has a good connection with the farmers. “I drank tea all my life; it is the national beverage in Taiwan.” Whenever her parents had company, tea was served. Federico enjoyed cooking; he had worked in several top restaurants, including Per Se, but was eager to learn about the history of oolong tea. Thus, the two began traveling together, visiting Elena’s parents in Taiwan and spending time with tea farmers. With their strong education and sense of aesthetics, the two decided to open their own charming space.
Elena had a tea company for four years prior to opening Te. She had been selling to restaurants, attempting to offer a more intensive program, but she recognized that she was not reaching enough of an audience. She had increasingly felt that in the States, there was a great awareness and appreciation for coffee and wine, but not so much for tea. She became determined to change this by giving people a more “sensitive experience.” The city lacked places to find oolong tea. “There was a real void, and in a city where you can find just about anything, I felt that one should also be able to find my tea.” In 2016, the couple opened their magical shop with a focus on Taiwanese tea.
Te has about twenty different types of Taiwanese tea. They all come from the same plant, but differences in processing result in distinct categories: oolong, black, green, macha or white tea. The level of oxidation determines the tea’s color and how strong it will be. Elena told me that she chose to focus solely on the tea from her homeland – “otherwise it would become overwhelming.” She went on to share that she “read and read and read – I educated myself.” By meeting with the farmers, however, and returning every year in May (the harvest season), she is able to taste the leaves as they are first picked and can control what they are receiving back in Manhattan. “I am always learning so that I can be certain that I am providing my customers with the best possible product.”
Everything about Te is well thought out and Elena and Federico work quietly and professionally to be sure that each patron has the exact experience that fits his or her needs. When we sat down and ordered a pot of tea, we were told that whenever we needed more hot water, we simply had to tilt the cover to the side, and that would signal that we needed our pot filled. There was no need to disrupt our conversation. For the customer who wants to settle in at one of the few small tables and work undisturbed on their computer, they are welcome, as is the person who would like to sit and have an elaborate tasting with Elena.
For Tom and me, we were eager to hear the couple’s stories and to become a bit more educated about tea. Elena sat down and happily described every aspect of the world of tea, clearly demonstrating her passion and knowledge. Presenting us with a small soft leather book that contained the tea menu, Elena flipped through the pages, describing some of her favorites. When I spoke with them, Federico and Elena had only been open for a couple months, and they were very pleased to be able to say that they already had regulars. “People love to come in and sit down and chat about tea.” I do not think that Elena could ask for anything better than that.
Although they feel that they are constantly trying to “reinvent” themselves, depending on the needs and desires of their audience, I believe that Elena and Federico have already found a fantastic formula. Oh, but I did not mention the food! The menu is tiny, as Federico prepares each dish by hand, but the few items could not be any more perfect. I had a simple red leaf salad with a light olive oil dressing, toasted almonds and freshly grated parmesan. I savored every bite. Tom had never tasted anything quite like what he ordered – Tortilla de Patata. Federico said that it was just potatoes, onions and egg. I chimed in, saying, “kind of like a quiche without the crust,” but Tom insisted that it was nothing of the sort. All he could mutter was “out of this world.” Even the sourdough Portuguese bread served alongside my salad was outstanding, but that, we learned, is because Federico makes it himself.