Even 15 minutes before its midnight closing, Teahouse on Shepherd has nary an empty table. One would think a tired employee would grimace at anyone new walking in the door, but the guy on duty is surprisingly friendly. Someone uninitiated to the bubble tea scene could easily waste these last few minutes looking over the menu, which has more than 100 offerings, from lemon kumquat dried plum black tea (#151) to peppermint honey green tea (#66). Luckily, the top sellers are highlighted on the wall behind the counter, and it's from there I make a quick selection: coconut cream tea, no tapioca. One sweet sip, and I understand everyone's good mood. It's an instant pick-me-up, either from the sugar or the caffeine.
There's two groups of Asian teenagers playing cards, but either these kids were raised by librarians or Teahouse has some magical acoustics, because they're quiet. They don't run around the room or shriek loudly -- they just play their friendly games around tables pulled together. While Spanish pop plays in the background, other customers read thick books or hunch over laptops. For a few minutes it seems like the midnight closing time is just a suggestion and Teahouse will quietly hum along into the wee hours. But soon enough, people stand up and make movements toward the door, having sucked the last chewy tapioca ball through their oversize tea straws, and employees are quick behind them to lift up any empty chairs.
But no one seems ready to actually go home, and the teens hover near the crowd of artsy Montrose-types still blithely filling the outdoor tables, intent in their coffeehouse conversation. Eventually, keys are grabbed, goodbyes are hugged, and the magnetic pull of this small, serene Chinatown-offshoot is broken, at least for tonight.