Near her hometown of Shenyang, China, 6-year-old Lola Zhao used to run around her uncle’s tea shop while her father engaged in the ritual of sipping tea with friends. She recalls the traditional Chinese string music that played in the background, resonating Zen-like emotional expression throughout the place as patrons drank their relaxation elixir. Today Zhao—now 23 and the tea sommelier at Cha Garden in the newly opened Lucky Dragon Casino & Hotel—hopes that her guests will enjoy a similar convivial feeling.
“When they drink tea, I hope they feel relaxed and happy,” says Zhao, who spent the past year serving tea at Chinatown’s Niu Gu restaurant, the perfect preparation for her position. The senior at UNLV’s hospitality program says she enjoys studying tea and sharing her knowledge with customers. Her mentor, Lucky Dragon beverage director Joe Muscaglione, says, “When I first met Lola, I was really impressed with her passion and love for tea.” Curated by Muscaglione, the extensive tea list offers 50 of the best from China, many of them rare and all extraordinary. The teas are sourced from small family-owned and operated farms, and all are free of herbicides and pesticides.
“Many people don’t know that all teas come from the same plant. How it’s picked and processed is what separates white tea from green, black, oolong, yellow and Pu-ehr.” – Lola Zhao, Lucky Dragon sommelier
Cha Garden’s list, which ranges in price from $10-$58 per pot, is categorized by tea types: green, black, white, yellow, oolong and Pu-erh. Discerning tea drinkers can enjoy learning about the exact geographical location, elevation, growers’ names and more about each tea’s flavor. For a tea novice, the list can be slightly daunting; still, Zhao maintains that gaining a little friendly education while enjoying a pot at Cha Garden can contribute to the overall tea experience.
“For example, many people don’t know that all teas come from the same plant. How it’s picked and processed is what separates white tea from green, black, oolong, yellow and Pu-ehr,” Zhao says. She hopes to help customers gain a better understanding of teas and at the same time explore other regions and even try something a little more esoteric.
And like a sommelier, service is also very much a part of Zhao’s role. “We serve each tea gongfu style, assuring our guests the perfect tea experience,” she says. Gongfu is a ritualized preparation and presentation of the tea. Officially, the gongfu tea service is a 21-step process that takes careful practice, hence the name—a play on “kung fu.” From pouring the water into the kettle, washing the tea leaves and warming the cups to serving, it’s a beautiful cultural art form that gives tea the respect it deserves.
Zhao also assists guests in discovering their new favorite tea. “Part of providing our guests with the perfect tea experience is to listen to what they like and learn if they are willing to try something new,” she says. Zhao’s knowledge about the various regions, flavor profiles, the intricate steps of the ceremony and the history of growers are just a few of the skills she offers.
But unlike a wine sommelier, tea somms are not known to practice pairing tea with food because it simply does not happen in China. The notion that certain tea styles pair well with certain foods is an entirely American one. Nonetheless, Zhao says, teas can enhance certain foods, and she is willing to offer pairing guidelines: “White or green tea with salads and fresh fish; black tea with pungent cheeses; dark oolongs with meat; and Pu-erh with oily foods,” Zhao says. “These are all wonderful pairings.”
For those who want to step outside the box and explore more off-the-beaten-path varieties, there are, of course, more obscure teas. Qinba Wu Hao green tea is one of them.
“It’s grown in the Shaanxi province at more than 2,200 meters in elevation on the selenium-rich soils of Daba Mountain,” Zhao says. “Daba is listed as one of WWF’s [World Wildlife Fund] eco regions in the world. Qinba is picked for us usually around the third or fourth of April. It’s the purest tea in China.” Lucky Dragon is the only place in North America where you can obtain Qinba.
While perusing the tea list, one might also come across Ya Shi Xiang Dan Cong, otherwise known as “duck shit aroma.”
“We have this extremely high-quality tea in limited quantities,” Zhao says. She contends that the taste and fragrance are far more pleasurable than its name. Guests will also discover its origin, which has increasingly become more important to consumers. “Today, people want to know about what they eat and drink—where it comes from, how it’s made, whether the product is chemical free or organic. … Most teas in our market are unidentifiable, origins unknown,” she says. “This is changing and changing fast.”
At Lucky Dragon, Zhao is available in the evening on Wednesdays and weekends to unfurl the mystery of each cup, and she hopes that guests will leave Cha Garden each time with a greater appreciation for high-quality tea.