The Wharf’s new playful, pint-sized cafe packs in options for bouncy Taiwanese teas, oversized onigiri rice balls, and sweets like tiramisu and whimsical waffles.
E-Tea, which opened last week in Milk Bar’s former home (49 District Square SW), is the latest member of Chinese restaurateur Leopold Liao’s growing D.C. tea family that includes Beautea in Georgetown and Secretea in Foggy Bottom. The name E-Tea riffs on his young daughter’s obsession with her big-eyed E.T. toy, not to mention Liao’s own love for the 1982 cult sci-fi flick.
A mural near the pick-up counter depicts the grinning extraterrestrial sitting in — what else— a boba tea cup. Starry pendant lighting and deep blue tones add to the galactic vibe in the small, rectangular space buzzing with EDM music. Liao tells Eater he just signed a lease for a second E-Tea downtown (1712 I Street NW) in the former Wicked Waffle space. He hopes to open at the foot of Farragut Square in the fall, banking on office traffic to bounce back by then.
E-Tea opens with fruit-based flavors like blueberry lemon black, grapefruit or white peach oolong, and yuzu green, mirrored with a milk-based category for strawberry, coffee, brown sugar, and matcha tea options. The rainbow-colored lineup, ordered hot or cold, runs $4.75 for small (16 ounces) and a dollar more for large (22 ounces). Squishy mix-ins sucked through a thick straw include chewy tapioca pearls, coffee and lychee jellies, sweetened red beans, aloe vera, and mango-flavored popping bubbles (spherification of fruit juice).
A milk-based tea with floaty tiramisu best captures his mashup menu, he says.
“This is unique — Asian flavors combined with a Western dessert,” he says.
Silky tiramisu in its true form reappears behind a pastry counter alongside other to-go sweets made by his baker wife who’s “always wanted to have a desserts place,” he says. Globe-trotting treats also include chocolate-studded croissants stuffed in adorable unicorn-printed bags and rows of fluffy, rectangular Napoleon. Big Belgian waffles, topped with dollops of whipped cream and bright strawberries, are an early best seller. He plans to add matcha, taro, and cherry blossom cream flavors for spring.
The one-page menu also saves space for onigiri, or Japanese rice balls wrapped in seaweed. Liao, who was a sushi chef for three years in Shirlington, supersizes the typically bite-sized snack at E-Tea into portable handhelds, packed tightly with purple sticky rice and ingredients like spiced tofu, spam, shrimp, or ahi tuna ($8.95 to $10.95). A vegan “Sassy Tofu” comes with spiced tofu, lettuce, radish, dried cranberries, and sesame dressing, while pork sung (shredded Chinese jerky) fills out the “Funny Pig.”
Liao also supersizes ramen at his year-old Basebowl Ramen in Navy Yard, which serves 18-inch bowls full of steak and shrimp to go along with a new sushi menu. His noodle portfolio also includes Chinese-leaning Reren Lamen & Bar in Chinatown and Georgetown. He picked the Wharf for E-Tea due to its lack of affordable grab-and-go options, and he plans to educate the neighborhood on teas and do giveaways for decorative kettles lining the boba bar.
“In my house I have 40 to 50 kinds of teas,” he says. “We drink it like water.” His favorite is white tea, which helps with his diabetic sugar levels.
On weekdays at E-Tea, there’s a buy-two-get-one-free deal through March. Daily hours are 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and guests can order via QR code at the store (there’s no website yet). Just one week into service, he’s already getting repeat customers. That includes Moon Rabbit’s Vietnamese chef Kevin Tien and his staff, who tell Eater they go on break whenever they can.
His ultimate E-Tea customer, of course, is the director of the first alien movie he ever saw.
“If [Stephen Spielberg] is in D.C. and knows about it, he might stop by – you never know,” he says.
He’s looking for a replica of the same bike E.T. rode in the movie to up the theme upon entry.