It was late afternoon. I turned the corner onto a main street. Ug. I could move again after being caught in the cramped alleys of TianZiFang in the French Concessions of Shanghai. I read something once that said that 80% of the tourists would be in 20% of the places. Well I had found all 100% of everything within the tight passages of TianZiFang. It was fun…to an extent. After having just ducked into a secluded coffee shop in search of a shred of quietude, I retracted back out to the drove of tourists upon seeing the cheapest coffee was $7. I may not be Chinese, but don’t insult me. So I started looking for an exit in the form of a main boulevard. As soon as I got out and regained my sanity, I started walking west in hopes of running into my next destination without having to stop and get my map out. I glanced up and saw that the totem pole of vertical advertisements, hanging from the side of the building, inviting people back down one of the alleys was a sign that says, “hillbilly tea.”
Immediately recognizing the sign having the same design as the well known Louisville, Kentucky hillbilly tea establishment, I had to check it out. Down the quiet alley, passed an unnamed cafe, and up a flight of stairs and I found Shanghai hillbilly tea. I caught the manager, Derrick, as he was opening and asked incompetently if hillbilly tea was a chain. Low and behold, the original and only other one is in Louisville. After discovering that Derrick was also from Louisville, he invited me back that evening for a tasting event. He said that a lot of expat (expatriates) would be there celebrating a birthday, and several of them were from Louisville too. He also told me that they plan to open 3 more locations for a total of 5. He didn’t say whether they would be in the U.S. or abroad. I snapped a couple of pics and jauntily walked away amazed at how small the world can be.
Later that night I returned, curious what I’d find. I got the table at the end of a long row full of rowdy expats. The place was pretty packed, but because of it’s small size it remained an intimate affair. I observed the massive group of early thirty somethings as they rambunctiously talked about sports. At home I would have found it obnoxious, but I loved it so much this time around. It felt like home. I looked around at the unpolished concrete wall, heavy timber gabled roof, and mason jars coving the exposed filament light bulbs and admired how cool this place was with its subtle Appalachian-like accents. I felt right at home in Shanghai. I drank four different types of iced tea in a mason jar. I paid extra to get the bottomless glass. It is the closest thing I’ve had to a “free refill” in a long time. I ate the “Pork and Pone.” It was pulled pork over a piece of cornbread, but a lot more cuisine-y that I can describe.
It wasn’t long before I edged into the convo with the pretty blonde New Zealander next to me. She asked if I was a food critic by the way Derrick greeted me, and I explained myself. If she is reading this, she’ll get a kick out of the description of my dinner in the last paragraph. Upon hearing my origin, she called her friend Emily from Louisville down to our end and we talked about back home. We discussed the secluded nature of both locations of hillbilly tea. Then we began tossing out different idioms of the English, the Kiwi’s, and the Americans. They shared their hooch with me. We compared moonshine and cheap Chinese mash liquor. I sat by as they ate their courses, and then out came the birthday cake. I joined in singing “Happy Birthday” to Emily’s husband.
It wasn’t my party, and I didn’t want to intrude, but I did feel like they were as warm and welcoming as one could be in speeding a dinner with a stranger. I immediately remembered that it was Friday night and if I were home, I’d be sitting in a restaurant much like this one, with some friends. I missed the comforts of companionship. Then I thought, I have never made it around to trying the hillbilly tea in Lou, but I have always heard great things. It is first on my list of returning home activities. I hope it is half as good as the Shanghai H.T. On that note, I do miss brunch, as upper crusty of an event it can be at times. I was always a Harvest guy: a similar Louisville brunch staple.
I left refreshed and was again amazed at how small the world could be. Just for an evening, I got to feel like an American again, but even better! I got the nostalgic food, the hospitable company, and the culture of a world of expats. I told the Kiwi girl that I missed America everyday, but I was certain that I wasn’t ready to go back just yet. I don’t think even I realized that to be a true statement until it was gone from my mouth. I am glad for my evening at hillbilly tea. It was like an oasis on this journey through uncharted land. I am fueled up with sweet tea, pulled pork & cornbread, and American hospitality and ready to explore again. And while it can be a small world at times, there’s still much left to be seen. Maybe I’ll run into the third location later down the road.