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Eyes on chai: One writer’s quest to find a decent chai latte on campus

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Chai

An essential part of touring the UW is learning that you are never more than two minutes from your next cup of coffee. This is a big check in the “pro” column for caffeine-addicted prospective students, but there are also people, like me, who either don’t or can’t drink coffee. For me, the drink of choice is a chai latte, which is usually one of the only coffee-free options at little kiosks and even bigger cafes.

Back in April, I started a quest to find the best chai latte on campus. There were setbacks (finding out I was lactose intolerant in May, then summer break) and the list of cafes kept changing as construction happened and places closed and opened. But eventually I managed to try every chai latte on campus, and I can bring you a comprehensive review and some recommendations of where to go. 

First, I need to talk about how I determine a good chai latte. I’m pretty picky about what makes one good. I prefer it spicy to sweet, which is a tough thing to find in Seattle where the redundant Starbucks Chai Tea Latte is the baseline.

Beyond the whole spicy-sweet thing, which is a matter of taste, a chai latte is at its worst when it doesn’t have much flavor. My guiding principle was mostly how flavorful it was. If you’re going to spend somewhere around $5 on this drink, it might as well taste good.

After looking at a list of cafes on campus, I narrowed down the 20 or so cafes on campus into three independent cafes — Parnassus, City Grind, and Off the Rez — and two groups, HFS and Starbucks. 

HFS

Let’s start with the basics, the HFS chai latte. The majority of cafes on campus, from Etc. to the Husky Grind to Microsoft Cafe, all use the same chai concentrate mixed with your choice of milk. These cafes usually carry a more limited menu of milk alternatives, an important note if you’re lactose intolerant and are picky about which non-dairy option is best. (It’s oat milk.)

While HFS serves Starbucks coffee, they either use a different chai concentrate or make their chai lattes differently because there are significant differences in flavor, which is why I separated the two. 

The HFS chai latte was the beginning of my journey, mostly because I was tired of it. It’s pretty bland, and more milky than either sweet or spicy. There’s nothing interesting about it, and it’s really not worth just under $5 unless you need to use up your meal plan.

Starbucks

The Starbucks chai latte is the baseline for this project. It’s the perfect example of what a chai latte tastes like in Seattle. Sweet, maybe verging on too sweet, but with enough flavor that you aren’t incredibly disappointed with the experience of drinking it. 

Starbucks has limited milk alternatives, like HFS, and both soy and almond milk change the flavor profile of the chai a little bit. They make an already sweet drink a little bit sweeter, so that’s something to take into consideration. 

I am not a particularly big fan of the chai lattes at Starbucks, but it’s definitely one of the better options on campus because the flavor exists more than anything you can get at an HFS location. 

Parnassus

Parnassus has two options for a chai latte: sweet and spicy. This sounded promising until I learned that the “spicy” chai is more like drinking hot milk with a weird aftertaste, if that aftertaste is someone yelling “anise” in another room. 

What Parnassus does have, however, is a greater range of alternative milk options, so you can get a chai latte with a more sustainable alternative than soy or almond. 

The sweet chai is honestly not a bad drink, it just doesn’t have one of the key elements of chai: spice. It’s hot and sweet milk reminiscent of a vanilla steamer. 

You can also get the sweet and spicy chais mixed together, which is the best option, but Parnassus is more about the atmosphere than anything else and that matters more than how good your drink tastes. 

City Grind

City Grind sells a decent chai latte that isn’t too sweet. However, it’s pretty average when it comes to chai lattes in Seattle and on campus. You most likely won’t have to wait in much of a line which is definitely one of the benefits. They also have a wider menu of dairy alternatives, which is a definite plus and makes the walk toward West Campus more worth it. 

Once you’re done, you can also go check out the Henry Art Gallery, where the cafe is located, which definitely makes City Grind one of the cooler spaces to grab a chai latte, even if the drink itself is nothing special. 

Off the Rez

This cafe in the recently reopened Burke Museum is more known for its Indian Tacos and frybread than its chai latte. And it should be, as the food is really unique compared to other campus offerings.

But I went there for the chai latte anyway because I was on this quest, and I had a deadline. 

Again, the chai latte isn’t exactly what I’m looking for. It’s definitely on the sweeter side of the chai spectrum, but it was enjoyable enough. But Off the Rez is more about the food than the drinks, and it’s definitely worth checking out with a stop by the Burke. 

The verdict: Don’t bother with UW chai lattes. There are a couple places to get a chai latte on the Ave that are much more worth your time than anything I tried on campus. 

Tea Republik has several different chai latte options to choose from. Their Kama Sutra chai is their spiciest and definitely my favorite of the list. 

It’s a little pricey and they have limited non-dairy options, but I find Tea Republik worth dealing with the symptoms of lactose intolerance for. Beyond that, it has a chill atmosphere, some unique food options, and is one of my favorite places on the Ave. 

Poindexter Coffee, on Northeast 45th Street and Brooklyn Avenue Northeast, also does a good spicy chai and has a larger list of milk alternatives. Again, it’s a little pricey, but I am willing to shell out for a better drink.

I am also willing to take the light rail to Beacon Hill because that’s where I’ve gotten the best spicy chai that I’ve been able to find in Seattle. It’s absolutely worth it to head to The Station, which is just across the street from the Beacon Hill light rail station, for their Hot 16, a chai latte with cayenne. If you go here, in addition to getting a delicious drink, you’re also supporting an awesome community space in Seattle. What’s not to like?

Reach Engagement Editor Hailey Robinson at arts@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @haileyarobin

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