Rethinking Chai at Pip's Original

Housemade spice blends offer the perfect pairing for this neighborhood café's fried-to-order mini doughnuts.

By Kelly Clarke February 3, 2014 Published in the February 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

Crisp, fried-to-order mini doughnuts already make Pip’s Original a cult favorite for sweets-craving locals, but the cheery NE Fremont Street café’s sleeper hit is its quartet of heady, deftly spiced chai teas. Jamie Snell, who owns Pip’s with husband Nate, trundles in cartloads of Saigon cinnamon sticks, tiny chamomile buds, and tobacco-sweet black cardamom pods from east-side Asian market Hong Phat each week to marry with Indian, Chinese, and Thai teas and steamed milk. Her boldly flavored and well-balanced creations, named for alt-country pioneers and 1930s movie starlets, have become the café’s chosen love match for its sea salt and honey-drizzled doughnuts. 

“Most chai just tastes like potpourri with sugar in it,” says Snell, who also owns the Lamb’s Table Catering Company. “I wanted ours to have the same depth of flavor as Indian curries...but sweeter.” After boiling down her spices, Snell steeps teas into the mix, adds sweeteners, and filters each brew three times. Her involved chai alchemy isn’t revolutionary—it just tastes better.

1. Ginger Rogers 

“It’s basically pumpkin-pie spices with fruity Kashmiri chile and malty Assam tea,” Snell says of her most classic chai blend. But that description downplays the sweet, complex bite of this crystallized- and dry-ginger powder keg. 

2. Emmy Lou

Sweet but never cloying, this delicate floral sip suffused with lavender, chrysanthemum, ginger, fennel, chamomile, and honey sourced from Pip’s Fremont hood is an herbal steam bath for your face. “It’s the Calgon of chai,” says Snell with a laugh. 

3. The King & I

A vibrant sunset hue hints at the traditional Thai tea that forms the base of this woodsy, fragrant chai. “There’s nothing Indian about it,” Snell says. Green cardamom pods, pandan, and tongue-tingling red prickly ash mingle for a dreamy, lingering finish. 

4. Bootstrap

With its strong tobacco nose, this robust blend is a polarizing cup, thrilling and repelling drinkers with its “grandpa’s cardigan” aroma. “People who like bourbon and stout, they love it,” Snell adds. That smoky hit comes from black cardamom and Lapsang souchong (a Chinese black tea smoked over pine needles); cinnamon, clove, and unrefined palm sugar lend a sweet backbite. 

See photos of Pip’s mini-doughnut machine and house-blended chai in our slide show below!

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