Will Cheese Tea Take Off in the U.S.?
Fromage lattes are popular in Asia, but are they worth all the fuss?
If I were a tourist, emerging out of the 7th Street/Metro Center subway station in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles for the first time, I'd immediately duck into Little Fluffy Head Cafe, a brightly colored tea shop five blocks south of the subway stop.
L.A.’s downtown neighborhood continues to pitch dramatically between its rough and seedy past and its new status as an up-to-the-minute nexus of culture and cool. It can be more than a little overwhelming for anyone, especially a first-timer to the City of Angels.
Little Fluffy Head Cafe, with its seating that looks like edible candy dots and walls dedicated to esoteric design magazines that no one you know actually reads, boasts a familiar Instagram aesthetic. What is also familiar, at least at first glance, is the variety of colorful and creamy teas on offer, each topped with a white frothy cap. That cap, however, is not what you think it is.
Instead of whipped-up milk, it’s made of cheese — melted cream cheese, heavy whipping cream, and "a pinch of Himalayan pink salt," to be exact. What’s more is Little Fluffy Head is the only place in DTLA where you can find this particular beverage. It's the kind of baby-step outside of the norm that sets off your sense of adventure in a new place. A bit of liquid courage, if you will.
Cheese tea: What the hell is it anyways?
On a recent weekday, I arrived at Little Fluffy Head when they opened at 11 a.m. looking forward to trying something truly new. My friend Jill tagged along and we began by sampling the three main cheese toppings — cream cheese, creme brûlée, and white cheddar — each of which can be paired with any of the black, green, herbal, or milky teas on offer. Though the cheddar was the one I was initially most squeamish about, it turned out to be delicious, so I opted to pair it with a rose tea, one of the fruit flavors they recommend first-timers start with. Jill opted for the same but with the cream cheese topping.
Owner Jenny Zheng, who opened the cafe in the summer of 2017, is dedicated to heightening the experience of drinking a cheese tea. The store has its own signature lid, which Zheng, who studied bioengineering at UCLA, designed. It features a bisected spout which allows the cheese to ease out just before the tea for the perfect mouthful.
Unfortunately on the day we went, they were out of the special lids, so we had to drink our teas with a straw. It wasn’t ideal, and catching the little bits of hard cheddar that fell from the the bottom of the head made me feel a bit like a baleen whale diving under an iceberg hunting for plankton.
The fluffy head — as the cheese foam-cap is called — and the distinct way it rests sturdily on top of the tea, catches the naked eye enough to inspire questions, which we learned firsthand while perusing downtown with our drinks in hand.
After interrogating us about our teas, the man behind the counter at The Last Bookstore vowed to pick up a cup of matcha, as well as a copy of my friend Meghan's debut novel. Others, like Tam, a woman from Vietnam who served us our lunch at L.A. Cafe, reacted with a scrunched face when we told her what we were drinking.
"That will never catch on in Asia," she told us. "Asians don't eat cheese by the pound the way Americans do, which is why Asians have much better skin."
I didn't have the heart to tell her that, in fact, the trend started in southeast Asia and is still wildly popular there. In countries like China, Taiwan, and Malaysia, people wait in lines for upwards of two hours for the cheese tea. By contrast, Jill's and my attitude toward the tea was that we were glad to have tried it but wouldn't go out of our way to try it again. However, the social interaction it inspired — one of the healthier aspects of this new culture where even beverages are used to convey status and exclusivity — was quite refreshing.
A week later, as I rushed to Whole Foods one evening, I passed by Little Fluffy Head just as the neon yellow sign in its window popped on. I thought of all of those people on the other side of the world who lined up by the dozens just for a cuppa. Surely novelty alone couldn't sustain those numbers. So, I decided to try just one more tea, this time drinking it the way it was intended: with the secret-weapon lid.
And, I figured while I was at it, I'd swing for the bleachers and order the most popular drink on the menu: the Dirty Mess. The cheese tea is milky and chocolatey with a creme brûlée cap and Oreo crumbles sprinkled on top, with optional boba on the bottom.
I ordered it to-go and, once back outside, slowed my walk in order to sip deliberately. The chocolate tea was creamy and subdued, and the creme brûlée was thick, crunchy, and salty, keeping the whole thing from being too sweet. It wasn't regular tea, or a milkshake, or even a dessert, but its own thing entirely.
As I drank the cheese tea, I looked up at the tall buildings surrounding me and noticed new murals, which may have been there for months, I just never took the time to lift my eyes from the ground to notice. I leaned against a wall to watch dusk settle in, the City lighting up against the night sky. Sometimes trying something different in a familiar place can make everything seem new again.