The Best Chai in Philadelphia

Find Your Favorite Chai Latte in Philadelphia via Chrystina Noel

This post is here just in time for the heart of fall (at least in the Northeast), and let me tell you, fall is the perfect time to be drinking chai lattes because they are the perfect combination of hot beverage, spiced goodness, and love. That’s right, y’all, I said love.

Two things I should tell you right off the bat. The first thing is that this blog post is going to be a working document. I spent the month of October month trying as many Philadelphia chai lattes as I could before I left for vacation, but there are still plenty more to go. This project has been put on hold for (a) monetary reasons and (b) for a girl who tries not to drink that much caffeine having 2-3 chais per day was getting to be a little bit much. The second thing is that I will not actually be telling you what the best chai in Philadelphia is. How’s that for misleading?

In my many years of drinking chai here’s what I’ve learned…

Actually, let me try that again. In all my 27.8 years of living, here’s what I’ve learned. There’s no such thing as the best anything. There is, however, the most compatible anything. So what does that mean? Remember when you figured out that you’re not looking for the best kisser to date, you’re only looking for the most compatible kisser to date? (That’s not how everyone else thinks about this?) Well, it’s kind of like that. Some people like lots of short kisses in a row; some people like slower, longer kisses; and some like to stick their tongues down each other’s throat.

Wait. Where was I? Right. Chai.

Some people like sweet chai. Some people like spicy chai. Some people really want to be able to taste the cinnamon sticks. Some people really want to be sure there was freshly cut ginger in the pot when it was being made. And some people just aren’t that picky. It all depends on what you like. So the purpose of this post is not going to be to tell you what the best chai in Philadelphia is (although I will tell you my favorites at the end), but I will plot them all on a chart (as consultants do) and let you decide for yourself which is the best chai in Philadephia. (How’s that for risk mitigation?)

So let’s start at the beginning. Where did this project start? Well, there’s a lot of information out there for coffee drinkers. Where to go, what to order, what to expect, etc, but if you’re not a coffee drinker, you’re pretty low on options when you get to the coffee shop. You’ve got hot chocolate, hot tea, chai lattes, and if people are feeling really fancy, maybe some spiced cider. (Also. Let’s get this out of the way right now, you wouldn’t ever say chai tea. Chai is a word used for tea in many languages that is derived from Mandarin Chinese (thanks, Wikipedia).) So in my last 10 years in Philadelphia, I haven’t really had to make any decisions about my beverage when going to a coffee shop because there’s only been one answer for me: chai latte.

But some of them were sweet, some of them were spicy, and I was never quite sure what I was going to get. So I decided it was about time I did some research. (Not that this was going to stop me from getting chai anywhere, it may just alter the location I suggest for my next coffee meet-up.) And here we are.

As of November 1, 2016 I have plotted 21 chais on the chart. And learned a little bit more about buying chai in Philadelphia.

About the Assessment

  • When asked my milk preference, I defaulted to whole milk.
  • I decided to plot three separate variables: spiced, spicy, and sweet. Sweet makes sense. When you think of spiced think spices. Think of cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and star anise. When you think of spicy think of pungency or the heat you would find in a chile pepper. In chai this effect is usually created with ginger.
  • Each variable was ranked on a very intricate system. There were 9 levels: Low-, Low, Low+, Medium-, Medium, Medium+, High-, High, and High+. They’re exactly what they sound like and all kind of relative to each other.
  • It was unclear to me during this experiment if it was better to taste the drinks one-by-one or to compare a few at a time. The problem when you taste many types of chai in a row they all sort of start to taste the same. That said, when you taste one at a time, it’s harder to compare them.

Nook Bakery & Coffee Bar

15 S. 20th Street

I love finding new coffee shops near work, when I walked in I loved the vibe of Nook. There were some people working, some people catching up with friends, and there was even a large group of ladies meeting for one cause or another. They use a premade, powdered, chai by the name of Chai Tea Latte Spiced Chai Mix. They also have a pumpkin-spice one for the fall! In addition, they have a masala chai tea, that they can steep for 4 minutes, and then add steamed milk (dairy or non-dairy types available).  This chai is prepared unsweetened, allowing the customer to add their preferred sweetener (sugar, sugar substitute, or liquid honey).  They also offer macadamia nut milk, one of the few cafes in the area to do that!

Regular – Spiced: Medium, Sweet: Medium, Spicy: None

Chai Lattes in Philadelphia via Chrystina Noel

Chapterhouse Café & Gallery

620 S. 9th Street

This is another coffee shop I should have visited a long time ago. What a great location, with so many cute tables setup. Great for working! This is going to be added to my list of regular places. They use a locally-made chai concentrate, specifically Chaikhana Chai.

Spiced: Medium, Sweet: Medium, Spicy: Medium

Chai Lattes in Philadelphia via Chrystina Noel

The Random Tea Room & Curiosity Shop

713 N 4th Street

This is quite the place. The tea menu is pages long and not for the faint of heart. (Although they do have a shortened list for people who find it difficult to make decisions, which is super helpful.) Their chai recipe is homemade and has been perfected for years. They keep a recipe book at the front desk and each morning whoever opens the store starts to make the chai. They add all the spices and freshly cut ginger to water and let it steep. Then they add milk, cinnamon sticks, and more anise star and let it steep. And then they add rose water, vanilla, and brown sugar. This chai is both an experience and a kick in the pants. The cold chai was a little bit too intense for me because they let the chai sit even longer in the spices before serving it, but the hot chai was on point. They also sell chai popsicles. Because why not?

Spiced: Medium, Sweet: Low, Spicy: Medium+

Old City Coffee

221 Church Street + Reading Terminal

This was my first time at this coffee shop and came recommended by a co-worker (but for their excellent coffee, I still figured it was worth trying though, and I was right). How had I never been down Church Street before? So cute. Their chai is also homemade. It is made with homemade ginger and spices. Overall, the level of spices reached an almost smoky taste for me.

Spiced: High, Sweet: Medium, Spicy: Low+

One Shot Coffee & Cafe

217 W George Street

One Shot is one of my favorite coffee shops in Northern Liberties to get some work done. They have an excellent second floor with all sorts of fun tables to choose from and excellent natural light. Their chai is also homemade. They use tea leaves and spices to make their own concentrate and then steep it with milk right before serving.

Spiced: Medium, Sweet: Medium, Spicy: None

Philadelphia Chutney Company

1628 Sansom Street

It wouldn’t be a true chai tasting if you didn’t hit up a few Indian restaurants in the process. The Indian restaurants always have a great balance of spices with sweet, and they’re usually the ones to add a little spice. The Chutney Company is one of my favorite lunch restaurants in Center City, and it’s good to know I can get an afternoon beverage to take back with me for when I’m starting to crash.

Spiced: Medium, Sweet: Low+, Spicy: Medium

Joe Coffee

1845 Walnut Street, 3200 Chestnut Street

Yet again, I mentioned that I’ve worked in the Rittenhouse area for years, and somehow this was still one of the coffee places I hadn’t made it to before. I was happy to see that it was just your average neighborhood coffee shop (sometimes I worry Rittenhouse is going to be too fancy for me, but this place was perfectly balanced in charm and local). They also use a premade concentrate for their chai, specifically Kilogram Tea’s organic masala chai, an infusion of naturally sweetened black tea and spices because of the ratio of spices.

Spiced: Medium, Sweet: Low, Spicy: Low+

Chai Lattes in Philadelphia via Chrystina Noel

Soy Café

630 N 2nd Street

As the name says, this is a vegan café. The menu looked absolutely wonderful, and I can’t wait to go back, but for now we’re just talking about the chai. Their chai is made from tea leaves and brown sugar, and just as the name suggests, soy milk.

Spiced: Medium, Sweet: Low+, Spicy: No

Le Pain Quotidien

Multiple locations

I may have cheated a little bit. I went to Le Pain Quotidien in Washington DC. But I confirmed with them that the chai was made the same. They informed me that they make their own chai from tea leaves, hot water, and maple syrup. Then they let it steep overnight. When a customer orders the chai, they choose the type of milk to be added, and the chai is topped in cinnamon. Also, fun fact, everything in this chai is organic (including the milk options!) except for the cinnamon on top.

Spiced: Medium, Sweet: Low-, Spicy: No

Lombard Café

542 Lombard Street

This is another café I didn’t visit until this assessment began. It was small, but cute. For their chai, they use the Oregon Chai (the most popular chai concentrate choice from those sampled to date). I find the Oregon Chai to be sweeter than your average chai concentrate. Also, if Oregon chai is your jam, you can totally buy this at certain grocery stores. Like Trader Joe’s. (Check out my How to Host a Chai Tasting Party post to learn more about what concentrates you can easily buy in-store.)

Spiced: Medium, Sweet: High, Spicy: No

Cosi

Multiple locations

I had to try as many of the chain restaurants as possible to make sure that I get the lay of the land. Cosi also uses the Oregon Chai for their concentrate.

Spiced: Medium, Sweet: High, Spicy: No

Chai Lattes in Philadelphia via Chrystina Noel

Higher Grounds

631 N. 3rd Street

What a fun coffee shop. They’ve got a lot of seating and a great vibe. These guys also use Oregon Chai as their concentrate of choice.

Spiced: Medium, Sweet: High, Spicy: No

Chai Lattes in Philadelphia via Chrystina Noel

Bluestone Lane

1701 Locust Street

This place came recommended by a friend for their fabulous cold almond milk chai. That said, I had to stick with the theme for the sake of the experiment and order a hot chai. The barrista took the time to explain to me (and was very proud of ) their detailed chai-making process. I learned that Bluestone Lane actually uses two different chai mixes for their hot and cold chai. For the hot chai they steep the tea in water ahead of time to create an in-house concentrate. The tea leaves of choice come from a brown bag of Prana Chai Masala blend. The default milk for this beverage was soy milk.

Spiced: Medium, Sweet: Low-, Spicy: No

Chai Lattes in Philadelphia via Chrystina Noel

Starbucks

Multiple locations

It wouldn’t be a chai-tasting assessment without plotting the Starbucks chai. For a while, Philadelphia was a test city for a new, unsweetened chai they were considering. Thank goodness it didn’t make it out of the test phases (I was ordering a grande six-pump-one-pump-classic chai to try to account for the flavor imbalance.). Lucky for the rest of you, it didn’t make it out of the testing phases and nobody else will have to deal with that. We’re now back to the original chai, the Tazo chai (even though I believe their other teas have now switched over to Teavana). You can actually also buy the Tazo chai at Target. And it comes in a variety of flavors. (Check out my How to Host a Chai Tasting Party post to learn more about what concentrates you can easily buy in-store.)

Spiced: Medium, Sweet: Medium, Spicy: Low+

Milkcrate Café

400 E. Girard Avenue

This was my first time at Milkcrate Café. I’ve been told that they actually sell records in the basement, but somehow I missed that part of the experience. (It was still pretty early.) These guys also choose to use the Tazo chai.

Spiced: Medium, Sweet: Medium, Spicy: Low+

Elixr Coffee Roasters

207 S. Sydenham Street

I’ve been to Elixr numerous times, they’re one of the few coffee locations I’ve found between Broad Street and Rittenhouse that has a pretty good chai. It’s a great place to meet up with a friend because of its prime location. They also use a premade concentrate for their chai: the spicy oolong chai from the chai company.

Spiced: Medium, Sweet: Medium, Spicy: Low-

Chai Lattes in Philadelphia via Chrystina Noel

Bodhi Coffee

243 S 10th Street, 410 S 2nd Street

This is one of my favorite little cafes to do work. And the light is fantastic (at least at the Washington Square West one). These guys make their own chai concentrate using tea leaves from The House of Tea.

Spiced: Medium, Sweet: Low+, Spicy: Low-

Chai Lattes in Philadelphia via Chrystina Noel

Saxbys Coffee

Mulitple locations

There’s a place in my heart for Saxbys. Everybody that I’ve ever met who works at Saxbys has been absolutely fantastic (and it doesn’t hurt that they sponsored the first PHLbloggers conference). They use a chai powder made by David Rio called Tiger Spice for their chai.

Spiced: Medium+, Sweet: Low+, Spicy: None

Square One Coffee

Multiple locations

The original Square One is located in Lancaster, PA. Recently they branched out and opened a few locations within the city of Philadelphia (although the Lancaster ones have asiago bagels, so if you can ever get your butt out there I highly recommend it). These guys make their own concentrate in Lancaster and send it out to the other store locations for use.

Spiced: Medium+, Sweet Low+, Spicy: Low

Greenstreet Coffee Roasters

1101 Spruce Street

These guys also make their own homemade chai at their roasting plant in south Philly near 20th and Washington. They had previously tried other concentrates and locally made chai options, but ultimately ended up deciding that they wanted one that was less sweet so that the sweet/spiced balance was more even. (Success!) The best word I could come up with while drinking this chai was “crisp,” (maybe with a hint of vanilla?) which was perfect for a chill fall day.

Spiced: Medium, Sweet: Medium-, Spicy: Low

Good Karma Café

Multiple locations

Good Karma Café actually has two different chai options on their menu: a spicy ginger chai and a honey vanilla chai. For each of these they use a concentrate made by Third Street – the spicy ginger and the honey vanilla, respectively. (That said I’m seeing now that Third Street also makes a chai decaffeinated red tea latte, Good Karma I would like to push for that one.) You can definitely taste the ginger in the spicy ginger and there is a subtle taste of honey in the honey vanilla.

Spicy Ginger – Spiced: Medium, Sweet: Low, Spicy: Medium+

Honey Vanilla – Spiced: Medium, Sweet: Medium, Spicy: Medium

 

Chai Lattes in Philadelphia via Chrystina Noel

IndeBlue

205 S. 13th Street

While IndeBlue is definitely more of a sit-down (Indian) restaurant, you can totally get a chai to go from the bar. This chai is also homemade and tasted like it just came out of a crock pot of goodness.

Spiced: Medium+, Sweet: Low+, Spicy: Low

Steap and Grind

1619 Frankford Avenue

This was also my first time at Steap and Grind. When you walk in, they have dozens of tea canisters against the wall to choose from and you choose the leaves you would like in your tea, then they steep it, and then they add milk if you choose a latte option. I chose the masala chai, but they also had coconut chai, spicy chai, smoky chai, and dirty chai – you can even get a tea done as an espresso-infused latte, how’s that for variety? Oh, and fun fact, their sweetener of choice is agave. Yum.

Spiced: Low+, Sweet: Low, Spicy: None

Chai Lattes in Philadelphia via Chrystina Noel

Menagerie Coffee

18 S. 13th Street

This is another one of my favorite places to hunker down and do work for the day (although it’s a little too loud to make phone calls). They also use a premade concentrate for their chai: the rishi tea masala chai.

Spiced: Medium, Sweet: Medium, Spicy: Low-

Chai Lattes in Philadelphia via Chrystina Noel

So what does that look like overall? Well, let me tell you:

 

An Analysis of Chai in Philadelphia

Four things to note about this chart:

  1. The area of the circle represents the amount of spiced the chai was.
  2. Each chai was approximately the same level of spiced, so it wasn’t worth plotting on the axis. This means that all of the chai lattes I’ve tried in Philadelphia are spiced, so you don’t need to worry about whether or not they’ll be spiced, because they will be. Henceforth, you should only use this chart to decide on the level of sweet and level of spicy that you want your chai to be.
  3. There’s not a huge difference between chai lattes only one circle apart. It’s a very gradual scale.
  4. If there’s a circle behind a circle the one with the label pulled to the side is the one in back.

So what does that mean for you? If you like spicy chai, go ahead and seek out one of the dots at the top of the chart. And if you don’t like your tea super sweet, stay away from the ones on the right of the chart. (Remember though that if it’s not sweet enough you can always just add some sugar, agave, or your other sweetener of choice.)

What’s next on my list to try? I’ve got a whole list of places: Café Ole (147 N. 3rd Street), Lucky Goat Coffee House (888 N. 26th Street), OCF Coffee House (2100 Fairmount Avenue), Sitar India (60 S 38th Street), Green Line Café (West Philadelphia), Manakeesh Café (4420 Walnut Street), Function Coffee Labs (1001 S. 10th Street), Gleaner’s Café (917 S. 9th Street), Chhaya Café (1819 E. Passyunk Avenue), Plenty Café (1710 E. Passyunk Avenue), Ultimo Coffee (2149 Catherine Street), The Living Room Café (701 S. 5th Street), Rally (701 S. 7th Street), and Chaat + Chai (1532 Snyder Avenue).

So which chai was your favorite, Chrystina? Well, as I said before I don’t believe in ranking the best chai, but I do believe in favorite chai in Philadelphia. I like a chai with a spicy kick that’s not overly sweet or exceptionally spiced. My top 5 (in no particular order, as of November 1, 2016) were:

  • The Random Tea Room
  • Joe Coffee
  • Square One
  • Good Karma – Spicy Ginger
  • IndeBlue

If any of the cafes are reading this post and feel like my analysis of spiced, sweet, and spicy is incorrect, please let me know and I’ll be more than happy to try it again.

All that said, my favorite chai concentrate I’ve tried to date is the bhakti chai, so if anybody knows where that one is served in Philadelphia please let me know immediately.

Now that I’ve told you all about my chai experience I’d love to hear about your Philadelphia chai experience. Which is your favorite?

If you don’t see your favorite chai place on the list (or the to-visit list), absolutely let me know in the comments below and I’ll add it on.

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  • This is amazing, I will definitely have to seek out some of that homemade chai! Thank you for the thorough and thoughtful research. 🙂

    • You’re very welcome! It was QUITE the hardship 😉

  • Molly Manson

    Ha! Since I’m really not interested in chai, whether it’s in Philadelphia or elsewhere, I didn’t read all the reviews. BUT, I went to the website just to see your chart.:) (Neither it nor the pics showed up on my email.)

    • Hahaha. I’m glad you came just for the chart. That was my favorite part of the whole post. Weird that the photos didn’t show up via e-mail. Was there an option to right-click and select “download pictures” or maybe there was a bar at the top of the email that says “download pictures” ?

      • Molly Manson

        Well, doh! There is a “show-images” button that I could have clicked.

  • Lisa

    Oh wow. It sounds like I need to get up to Random Tea Room! I’ve been turned off by chai in recent years due to the proliferation of the Oregon Chai mix. I’m just not that into it. I love knowing that so many places make their own! And I’m glad you mentioned the asiago bagels at Square One. Still my favorite!

    • Yes, you should definitely check it out. And yes, I feel the same way about the Oregon Chai, so I’ve just started asking people what kind of chai they use before I order one. Which sounds like of snobby, but I haven’t had a problem yet… plus I’m sure there are way more detailed coffee questions people ask.

  • Okay so I’m in Elixr right now so I’ll need to taste it for myself! I love chai lattes and since moving away from Center City, I rarely get to sit in a good coffee shop! I love your list!

    • Haha, thanks so much! Let me know what you think! I’m definitely intrigued to know how my low-, low, low+, etc ranking system translates in other people’s brains.

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