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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Alley Lu Jiao Xiang in Shinjuku

鹿角巷

The Alley ("It's Time for Tea") is a tea cafe that opened in Taiwan just four years ago, in 2013, and with a presence now in seven other countries, including Japan, where there are five branches, all in Tokyo.


The Alley Lu Jiao Xiang tea cafe in Lumine 1, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan.
The Alley Lu Jiao Xiang in Lumine 1, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan.

We visited the Alley cafe in the Lumine 1 building in Shinjuku on Saturday evening. In Japan, the chain is known as The Alley Lu Jiao Xiang, the Chinese characters for Lu Jiao Xiang meaning something like "Deerhorn Street." The store logo therefore features a deer with prominent antlers.

We had seen The Alley Lu Jiao Xiang before - both here and on Omotesando (where there is another famous Taiwanese cafe: Ice Monster). We were drawn by the idea of it being a tea cafe, as neither of us are big coffee drinkers, and by its New Age cred, in that everything, from the sugar cane syrup, to the tapioca that features in many brews, to the naturally roasted tea leaves, is supposedly "handmade," or at least prepared in-house or according to the store's stipulations.

Having tapioca in tea is another draw, for the novelty of it.

There was a modest queue at the little stand-up cafe that the Lumine Shinjuku branch is, and we only had to wait a minute before we were served.

A tea-and-cocoa at The Alley Lu Jiao Xiang in Lumine 1, Shinjuku, Tokyo.
 Tea-and-cocoa at The Alley Lu Jiao Xiang in Lumine 1, Shinjuku (complete with little chocolate bear!)

The Alley Lu Jiao Xiang in Lumine must be doing good business, because there were no less than five people lined along the very small space behind the counter, working non-stop at preparing drinks, with one at the end taking orders.

The menu was fun to choose from, divided into Tapioca Series, Milk Tea Series, Fresh Tea and THE ALLEY Specialties, and sporting brews with grand names like Royal No.9 Tapioca Milk Tea, exotic names like Jasmine Green Milk Tea, and romantic names like In Love With Lemonway.

My partner went for the THE ALLEY Assam Tapioca Milk Tea and I for what was a special of the day, a tea-and-cocoa mix. (It's deep winter in Japan - I wanted it hot! It was nice to know, though, that "mild-hot" is also available for those with a "cat's tongue" as the phrase goes in Japanese.)

Conveniently, there was a little store selling Japanese confectionery just across the aisle, so we bought a couple of daifuku (a kind of o-mochi, or pounded rice, sweet with azuki bean paste inside) while waiting for our drinks to arrive. For a daifuku connoiseur I was impressed. They were knock-out delicious.

Our drinks arrived: generously sized L's for about 600 yen each, which makes The Alley Lu Jiao Xiang pretty good value for money compared with other hip cafes. My drink was good. It smelt and tasted exactly like what it was: tea mixed with cocoa. My partner's drink had the novelty of tapioca, a first for both of us. I had a few sips and very much enjoyed the silky sensation of the chewy globules of tapioca in my mouth, and the tea it was part of tasted fine.

Our only reservations were that the flavors were somewhat two-dimensional. A drink tasting just like its description is well and good - for around 600 yen it certainly should. But for 600 yen, it should have a litte extra: at least a hint of a "secret recipe" going on, something that not only has you going "Mmm," but raising a pleasantly surprised eyebrow wondering what that "hidden" element, that intangible gustatory stimulus, might be.

Half melted chocolate bear that accompanied my tea-and-cocoa at  tea-and-cocoa at The Alley Lu Jiao Xiang in Lumine 1, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan.
The little chocolate bear that came with my tea-and-cocoa - after I'd finished with him!
In taste-obsessed Japan, an overseas chain that has managed to get five chains in Tokyo running at full speed must be doing something right. But delivering what you kind of expected - and not a whiff more - is not a business model I thought would cut it.

The Lumine Shinjuku branch of The Alley Lu Jiao Xiang is on the B2 floor of Lumine 1 (Nishi-Shinjuku 1-1-5), along from the South Exit of Shinjuku Station (across from Busta Shinjuku) and is open from 8am to 10pm 365 days a year.

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