L.T. Sue Co. Tea Room in Hanford's Historic China Alley
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Your Cup of TeaFebruary 2015
By Fache Desrochers
Photos: Jacki Potorke
This February 19, celebrators of the Chinese New Year will bid goodbye to the Year of the Horse, and ring in the Year of the Sheep. Chinese Spring Festival — also called Lunar New Year — is one of the grandest and most important Chinese festivals. If you are in the mood to get a taste of this tradition, you’re in luck: a wonderful emporium is quite literally steeped in Chinese culture, history and flavor, and it’s right here on our West Coast doorstep. Welcome to the L.T. Sue Co. Tea Room.
Located in Hanford's historic China Alley, the L.T. Sue Co. Tea Room was founded by Arianne Wing and Steve Banister as part of their ongoing efforts to revitalize this historic district. The Tea Room is named after “the first and oldest” Chinese herbalist in the Alley, Mr. L.T. Sue himself. “We started the Tea Room partly in honor of L.T. Sue, because he was the original herbalist here,” explains Wing. “Also, because teas are good for you, and I just love them.”
Wing is not only a tea connoisseur, but an artisan as well. She and partner Steve Banister craft all of their own blends, and the result of their effort is a truly incredible tea mecca, boasting a selection of more than 100 teas to tempt everyone from the die-hard loose leaf purist to the most casual brew novice. A delicious menu of handcrafted fusion fare is also available, with fresh specials invented daily. And in keeping with their philosophy of prioritizing local offerings as much as possible, many of the L.T. Sue Co. teas boast elements sourced directly from the Valley. “We try to use local ingredients in our blends wherever we can,” says Wing. “We also have our San Joaquin Valley line of teas, where we use entirely nuts and fruits that are grown here in the Valley.” This line is a collection of five premium blends, which was recently honored with the top award at 2014’s Fresno Food Expo.
But the L.T. Sue Co. Tea Room is about much more than exquisite loose leaf. The Tea Room’s vibrant presence in China Alley is part of Wing and Banister’s ongoing passion project of revitalizing this historic quadrant. And like so many things in China Alley, said project is not without a rich history of its own. Wing and Banister are long-standing members of the Taoist Temple Preservation Society, an organization founded in 1972 by one of Wing’s uncles and a few of his associates with the goal of protecting and restoring China Alley’s Taoist Temple. Their efforts were fruitful: today, the temple houses a fascinating museum where artifacts and stories collected from China Alley can be enjoyed, and the organization’s efforts to revitalize the Alley in its entirety are still going strong.
These preservation efforts are close to Wing’s heart, as her family roots extend through China Alley with an astonishing reach. Beginning in 1883, Wing’s great grandfather opened a noodle house in the Alley, which eventually evolved into the Imperial Dynasty restaurant. This upscale establishment gathered many accolades and honors as Wing’s uncle Richard delighted palates with dishes like his award-winning escargot, and her uncle Ernie amassed an acclaimed wine collection for pairings.
Sadly, the Imperial Dynasty’s windows have been dark since 2006. And then in 2011, China Alley was listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. This designation propelled Wing and Banister to expand their revitalization efforts into an Alley business, and in 2012, the L.T. Sue Co. Tea Room brought one of the Alley’s long-quiet structures to life. In addition to providing a delightful menu and preserving the cultural tone of the Alley, the very existence of the L.T. Sue Co. Tea Room is a step forward for China Alley’s future, as 20 percent of the tea room’s profits go toward the Taoist Preservation Society’s efforts to revitalize the Alley.
Preserving the legacy of her family and cultural history is by no means easy, but Wing and Banister remain committed, sustained by the Alley’s incredible history and inspired by ideas of what it can mean to future generations.
“What I think is important about China Alley is that it’s really living history,” says Wing. “It’s California history, it’s early Chinese immigrant history. And in America, we are almost all immigrants, aren’t we? So ours is kind of a quintessentially American story.”
L.T. Sue Co. Tea Room & Emporium• (559) 583-8379
402 E. 7th Street, Hanford • Tues-Sat 10-6pm
www.LTSue.com • www.facebook.com/LTSueCo