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Food

Newsletter: On a busy Inglewood corner, this cafe feels like a secret tea oasis

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A lemon extravaganza at Mingles Tea Bar in Inglewood. The tea bar carries Pào Tea’s Lemon Ball Tea and homemade lemon cake.
(Patricia Escárcega / Los Angeles)

Recently I spent some time with Lara McAuley of Mingles Tea Bar, a tea and coffee shop that opened about two years ago near the intersection of Crenshaw and Manchester in Inglewood. I stumbled onto Mingles after Googling some combination of “free WiFi” and “tea.” The algorithm turned up a place that online reviewers effused about. “A little honeycomb of a hideaway,” one Yelper called it.

There are probably a million drinking rituals in Los Angeles, but the one I found at Mingles is turning out to be my favorite.

Obscured by a 99-cents store and a traffic median, with little outward signage to distinguish it from surrounding apartment buildings, Mingles is the living embodiment of that stock food cliché: a hidden gem.

To find it, you follow the swell of chatter emanating from a brightly painted, unmarked foyer, which McAuley calls “the orange room.” She holds court in the orange room most of the afternoon with her regulars, who often include her mother, who bakes the cafe’s exquisite peach cobbler and lemon cake (the cobbler tends to sell out early).

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The Lemon Tea Ball from Pào Tea is a hulled, sun-dried California-grown lemon filled with full-leaf black tea (an oolong version is also available).
(Patricia Escárcega / Los Angeles Times)

McAuley dispenses a range of loose-leaf teas: plum oolong flavored with hibiscus; a black tea Chai blend heavy on cardamom and cinnamon; and a straight English Breakfast black tea, among others. Most of her teas are sourced from Art of Tea, the Monterey Park tea importer and wholesaler.

My favorite drink on her menu comes from a smaller L.A. tea outfit called Pào Tea. It’s called the Lemon Tea Ball, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: a hulled, sun-dried California-grown lemon, padded on the inside with full-leaf black tea (an oolong version is also available).

McAuley takes pleasure in the simple ritual of preparing the drink for customers. She places the tea-stuffed lemon into your cup and steeps it in hot water; she hands you a tea timer so you can adjust the steep time to your preference. If you hang around Mingles long enough, she’ll make her way back to your table every half hour or so to refresh your cup with hot water. The tea ball is so potent, it can be steeped up to five times without losing its essence.

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At Mingles Tea Bar in Inglewood, tea timers help take the guesswork out of tea steeping.
(Patricia Escárcega / Los Angeles Times)

“I do it this way because I want people to not have to think or worry when they come here,” McAuley tells me.

The Lemon Tea Ball drink is fragrant and sharp; the first slow, meditative sip burns away foggy thoughts and snaps your senses into focus. Drinking it in the quiet back room at Mingles, with McAuley checking in on you like a long-lost mother, you forget about the thrum of traffic on Manchester, or whatever madness might be happening on the 405 at that moment. In here, it is serene as a chapel.

It can be difficult for some people to reckon with Los Angeles’ sprawling, car-centric geography; Dorothy Parker is said to have described it as “72 suburbs in search of a city.” But this may well be one of the city’s greatest virtues: Its patchwork of neighborhoods are like incubators of culture. They continually yield up new treasures. I must have driven past Mingles Tea Bar a hundred times before I found it. I’m glad I finally did.

Let me know about your favorite “hidden gem” neighborhood spot in greater Los Angeles (or beyond) by emailing me at patricia.escarcega@latimes.com.

Many thanks to everyone who wrote in recently to share your favorite summer food memories. You told me about the bowl of green chile you ate in northern New Mexico, the pizza you inhaled in southern Italy and the home cooking experiments involving Trader Joe’s brand peanut butter, fresh ginger and chiles. I enjoyed reading your emails very much.

ASK THE CRITICS

Why don’t you cover more Orange County restaurants?

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— Patricia D., email

This question resonates with me because I grew up not very far from Orange County in neighboring Riverside (greetings to all my fellow Inland Empire natives out there). One of my most vivid early restaurant memories involves a grand combo platter at La Chiquita in Logan Barrio in Santa Ana.

The short answer is that Southern California is an embarrassment of culinary riches. Greater Los Angeles and Orange County are both sprawling, restaurant-dense regions; with so much ground to cover, it’s painfully easy to overlook restaurants. But we can do better. I’ve been making an effort to visit more restaurants in Orange County and the Inland Empire, and I would like to keep widening our coverage.

Please tell me where to eat in Orange County by emailing me at patricia.escarcega@latimes.com. I’ll see you on the 91!

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