Tamon Tea is not a secret. Yet after visiting this four-year-old Japanese snack shop in Berkeley, you can’t help but feel like it’s an underdog that deserves a lot more recognition. Found on the ground level of an unforgivingly gray concrete fortress (aka Berkeley Central Apartment Building), this pocket-sized eatery is on a fairly retail-desolate part of Center Street, seemingly light-years away (but in reality, only a block) from the highly trafficked restaurant row across from the Cal campus. Adding to its obscurity, this zone is currently undergoing heavy construction, meaning most of the traffic here is from cars that are passing through or parking in the garage across the way, rather than from hungry would-be customers on foot who happen serendipitously on this little gem.
Online reviews drive many to visit Tamon Tea for the first time (on Yelp, it’s received 4 1/2 stars from more than 130 reviews), but because of its proximity to Cal, Berkeley City College and Berkeley High, its modest decor and cheap prices, it can be easy to write it off as a place mainly for students.
Its name can cause confusion too, because, although it does offer some cold and hot Japanese teas, Tamon Tea is a café rather than a tea shop, where food takes precedence. It offers a fairly wide-ranging menu of sweet and savory Japanese eats. In Japan, tearooms, or kissaten (better known as kafe these days) are the equivalent of American coffee shops or diners, where you can order a menu of comforting fare to enjoy with beverages.
Tamon Tea was opened in 2014 by Hiro Okada as a follow-up to a similar tearoom in San Francisco called Kissako Tea in Japantown. Okada is also the “Coach” behind Coach Sushi in Oakland. The Berkeley eatery differs from those other spots in that it caters to student budgets and tastes, offering more hearty comfort dishes rather than sophisticated and subtlely flavored dishes like sushi or broiled fish. At Tamon Tea, expect bento boxes with karaage (Japanese fried chicken), beef sukiyaki and BBQ pork; takoyaki (battered octopus balls); a variety of udon dishes, curry dishes and don (rice bowls).
Gyu-don, or beef bowl, is a popular quick-meal option in Japan, readily available at most fast-food spots and cafés. I’ve always wondered why such an accessible, affordable and beef-forward dish never took off in the United States the way ramen has. True, the multinational Yoshinoya chain introduced gyu-don to many Americans (and gave us the goofy, lovable catchphrase “Glad to know ya, Yoshinoya!”), but it’s not a go-to for most us, and that’s a damn shame. Gyu-don is made with thinly sliced beef (usually a cheaper, fattier and more flavorful cut of meat), simmered down with onions in a sweet and savory soy-mirin-dashi broth. At Tamon Tea, a generous mound of tender beef slices are piled atop a bed of freshly steamed rice. A small garnish of bright red beni shoga (ginger pickled in a salty, sour brine of red plum vinegar) — the traditional accompaniment for gyu-don — adds just the needed brightness to the dish.
Tamon Tea’s most popular offering is omusubi. Also known as onigiri, these are lightly salted rice balls shaped into a triangle, stuffed with fillings and wrapped in nori (seaweed). Tamon’s omusubi menu offers fillings like unagi (broiled freshwater eel), spicy tuna, shiitake mushroom, mentaiko (spicy cod roe) and curry chicken. One makes a great in-between meal snack; two or three would make a nice lunch, depending on your hunger. The prices range from $2.25 to $3 each, and you can add miso soup and edamame to make a set for an extra $2.
A selling point for omusubi is its portability. While Tamon Tea is cute for a hole-in-the-wall, I wouldn’t say the ambiance is its strength. Dining solo, I ate at one of the café’s four tables set with mismatched folding chairs, and spent most of my meal staring at a plastic yellow bag designed to look like Pikachu that was hanging on the wall as decor. Not surprisingly, most customers get their food to-go.
Another reason to visit Tamon Tea is its selection of fresh mochi and dango, a Japanese confection that’s similar to mochi, but made with Mochiko rice flour rather than from pounded cooked rice. Dango are served on skewers, sometimes covered in syrups or glazes. Mochi, on the other hand, are usually served as individual pieces. Both can be made with or without fillings or flavors added to the rice. On a recent visit, Tamon Tea was sold out of mango and fruit dango, but had one of my favorite types of mochi — sakura mochi, a pink, red bean-filled rice cake wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf. When I asked where the confections were made, I was told that they are imported from Japan, “not from China!,” an important detail for Japanese confection snobs. Other desserts offered on my recent visit include dorayaki (red bean-filled pancake), Swiss roll cake (strawberry or green tea), taiyaki (fish-shaped pancakes filled with red bean) and Choco Monaka (Japanese ice cream sandwiches).
Tamon Tea also sells a small selection of Japanese packaged candies, snacks and drinks, including Puchao soft gummy candies, Karamucho potato chips, Pocky sticks, Choco Pie, Ramune soda and Instant Udon noodles. There are also packets of denbu (sweet dried cod powder that makes a tasty rice topping) available for 10-cents each or small cartons of natto (sticky, slimy fermented soybeans) for $1 a pack.
With the growing number of fancy ramen shops, pricey omakase restaurants and trendy izakayas popping up all around the Bay Area, it’s nice to have an option for affordable, accessible and reliably good Japanese fare. Tamon Tea may not be fine dining, but it is a welcome oasis.