The Panama Hotel Tea & Coffee House

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The Panama Hotel Tea & Coffee House

Get a lesson with your tea at this historical shop.

  • The Panama Hotel Tea & Coffee House

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    Except when French intellectuals are present, cafes and restaurants don't lend themselves to the commemoration of bad moments in history. Where's the Turkish cafe devoted to the massacre of the Armenians? The Panama Hotel Tea and Coffee House doesn't just remember, it thrives on a lugubrious moment in Seattle's pastthe internment of the people in the city's bustling Nihonmachi (or Japantown) during World War II. When Seattle artist Jan Johnson bought the dilapidated rooming house 16 years ago, she didn't know it had been home to generations of Japanese immigrant workers until she discovered piles of clothes and dishes, boxes, and mattresses and springs in the basementbelongings left behind as whole families were snatched from rooms and "interned" by federal marshals. Johnson kept the sad cargo and turned the building into a hotel, museum, and tea shop. Half a century on, as the Bush administration locks up Arab American immigrants without trial, the hotel serves up a sobering cup of tea and history. Note that Johnson's emphasis is on "preservation" rather than "refurbishment." The tables and chairs she kept all date back to Nihonmachi's heyday. The walls are adorned with pictures of Asian immigrants at work (but few images of leisure; perhaps there was no time for play?) The tea selection is eclectic rather than Japanesea nod to assimilation over resistancebut ask and you'll receive a refreshing Japanese genmai cha, green tea with toasted rice kernels ($4 cup/$6 pot). Enjoy a cup as a digestive after a meal. As many as 40 different teas from China, Japan, India, and Sri Lanka ($2-$4 cup/ $5-$6 pot) fill the glass jars on the front counter, alongside chocolate-covered mint cookies (95 cents), French butter croissants ($1.50), and two kinds of panini ($7.50). One notable blend is the jade oolong from Nantou, Taiwana pale, smooth ambrosia, traditionally taken without milk (though a teaspoon of sugar is permissible). Note that oolong leaves are a pale brown. Green tea is heat-processed soon after picking to arrest oxidization and preserve its color. The darkest black teas, like English breakfast, are blended with the blackest fully oxidized leaves. Oolong is a balancing act; a great oolong reconciles the flavor and robustness of a full black tea with the lighthearted freshness of a greener tea. It's strong enough to keep you awake while curled up with a book on a rainy Seattle afternoon. Yet it reaffirms your faith in the age-old restorative properties associated with its greener, more wholesome cousins: longevity, good health, spiritual well-being, and a well-centered chi (literally "life energy"). A dark tea, on the other hand, is a revolutionary's brew. Chairman Mao enjoyed the occasional cup of Lapsang-souchong, a smoky, complex tea, and the Panama's black peony rosette has hints of the same, not to mention enough caffeinated Marxist vroom to send you on your own Long March through the International District. The rosette is an artisanally shaped tea from Anhui, China. It gets its name from its leaves, which are tied, by hand, in the shape of peonies (coincidentally, Chairman Mao's favorite flower). House tasting notes promise tones of wine and molasses. I found it earthy and ripe. Be warned: Adding milk or sugar to this blend is sacrilegious and will elicit looks of scorn and puzzlement from a usually attentive and helpful employee. Some of the internees may also inadvertently turn in their American graves. Don't do it! If milk and sugar is your wicket, then settle for a good, strong cup of golden Assam from Assam state in India. Steep for no more than two or three minutes, add milk (a good splash) and sugar (two to three spoonfuls), and you'll have a tea lattethe best way to drink this blend. THE MENU ALSO features the usual teahouse staples: a darkish Indian blend described as the "Bombay market" and an excellent Earl Grey. The Bombay market is not the Indian masala or spice tea that's often served at South Asian restaurants. It's more along the lines of a breakfast blendhigh in caffeine with lots of color. It has more character than the Assam; try it with a wedge of lemon and a teaspoon of sugar. Ask the server to pour it on ice and add sugar for a truly bracing iced tea. Before leaving, take a good look through the glass window in the floor in the back of the teahouse. You'll stare directly into a box of old clothing in the basement. An old blue parka and a black-and-white checked shirt look up from the past, faded reminders of the nameless Japanese internees whose ordeal the teahouse commemorates. If you're lucky enough to check in on the weekend of a tour, you'll be let into the holy of holies, the basement itself. Bring a camera, in the best Japanese tradition, and be a good tourist. There's also a nonfunctioning sento, or traditional Japanese bath. Whereas bathing in the West is about cleansing the body, in Japan, a good bath cleanses the soul. It's a communal or family activity, accented by polite back scrubbing and family ritual. Since the sento is nonfunctional, you may only look at it. But that's OK. Learning the suffering of others, over a good cup of tea, will cleanse your soul, too. food@seattleweekly.com

     
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