A Pop-Up in a BBQ Joint Is Changing the Way Philly Drinks Tea
At Void, Ken Averbukh and Emily Lambrow source rare teas from China and Taiwan, and offer a tea omakase so you can try them all.
On Monday and Tuesday afternoons, the occasional confused soul will wander into a bunker-like storefront on the corner of York and Martha streets to gaze at natural wines or satisfy primal cravings for smoked meat. Those who proceed toward the counter find something else entirely: a menu of rare loose-leaf teas sourced from farmers in China and Taiwan.
“Do you want to be comforted, or do you want to go to Mars?” Ken Averbukh, 31, asks a local high-school teacher who drifted into Zig Zag BBQ on a recent evening. This brisket-seeker found himself leaving with two cups of tea, including a zippy, savory brew of some of the season’s first green tea buds, harvested just a month earlier in the Sichuan province of China — the Mars option.
The unsuspecting educator had stumbled into Void, a pop-up teahouse from Averbukh and his partner, Emily Lambrow, that takes over the East Kensington BBQ joint two days a week between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. For about a year now, the pair have been using this unlikely venue to show people that tea can be more varied, delicious, multi-dimensional — and powerful — than they might believe.
“I think that people have this notion that tea comes from England? Question mark?” Averbukh says. “It’s often overlooked, and I felt like every time we went to a coffee shop or cafe or whatever, there’s always, like, really bad tea blends and, like, Earl Grey.”
You won’t find Earl Grey on the menu at Void, which sells teas by the 12-ounce cup at prices ranging from $5 to $11. These brews are listed under playful aliases — Honey Butter, Squishy, Sticky Rice — evoking the flavor of each cup. For the tea-curious, Void also offers an omakase, a tasting menu that allows you to try a range of styles and, should you so desire, drink excessive amounts of tea.
Being among the tea-curious, I opt to try Void’s omakase experience. I’m already three teas deep when Averbukh brings over a steaming pitcher of translucent chartreuse liquid. This 2023 meng ding gan lu (yes, teas have vintages) is the first green tea Void has put on the menu this year. Raising the glass to my lips, I think, “This smells like Thanksgiving.” It tastes like green bean casserole: creamy, savory, vegetal, and totally unexpected.
There are two options for the omakase. Level I ($25) comes with at least three teas, and Level II ($40) comes with at least five, with an emphasis on at least. If you have the interest and the appetite, the tea is likely to keep flowing. Averbukh says he likes to “DJ a tea experience,” often taking detours from the planned menu to tailor his selections to individual tastes. Throughout the tasting, he explains the variables that make each tea unique, from terroir to production techniques to the age of the tree from which it was plucked.
Averbukh’s mission to introduce more Philadelphians to the nuances of fine tea grew out of his experience at Movement Labs, the kombucha brewery he runs with Lambrow. “I was buying butt-tons of tea,” he says, and found that higher-quality tea made for better-tasting kombucha. He went out of his way to source materials directly from tea farmers in China. But as his interest blossomed, he started to crave an outlet where he could appreciate tea in its unadorned state. “There was nowhere else to necessarily drink tea in Philadelphia that was going to take it seriously and focus on education,” Averbukh says.
The chef at Zig Zag, Matt Lang, offered to rent Averbukh the space on the restaurant’s days off, and in April of last year, Void was born. Averbukh considers it a fun side project — he frequently describes it as a “performance art piece” — that he doesn’t necessarily expect to grow. “Paying rent with a tea shop is silly,” he says. “There are hardly enough tea drinkers to justify that.” Still, Void is getting noticed in the local cafe scene and has started to supply tea for a couple of Philly coffee shops: Fishtown’s Persimmon Coffee, and Thank You Thank You at 7th and Sansom streets.
As I savor the green-bean-casserole tea, Averbukh shows me a cup containing the tiny buds that were used to brew it, each a fingernail-size fleur-de-lis in shades of jade and spring green. “This is the first tip of growth,” Averbukh says. The green tea Void serves is a seasonal product with a short shelf life, and they’re just getting the first shipments from Sichuan via specialty purveyors Rivers and Lakes Tea. To protect the tender buds of spring, he explains, the plant produces high concentrations of caffeine and other flavorful compounds that act as insecticides: “So the bud is shielded by things that we believe taste good and give us a good experience at the same time.”
In other words, this tea is strong. Sichuanese greens are “the heaviest hitters we have on our menu at any given time,” Averbukh says. The belief that green tea is always mildly caffeinated — and, more generally, that caffeine content is a function of the tea’s color — is just one misconception I’ve had dispelled on my trips to Void.
Another fact I learn: “White tea” isn’t always colorless, light or delicate. Void’s omakase menu is anchored by a trio of whites, which range in color from the whiskey-caramel of an aged, leafy shou mei to the straw mu dan wang. The shou mei’s syrupy texture contrasts with the crispness of the mu dan wang. Mouthfeel, Averbukh says, is an important dimension of white tea, but one that American tea drinkers tend to overlook.
While Void is demonstrating that tea can be every bit as engaging and complex as wine or coffee, Averbukh also wants to make the drink easy for anyone to enjoy. Hence the fun, catchy names on the menu. “I really want people to be comforted and not be bombarded with information, and just to find something that sounds cute to them,” he says. But he’s also happy to geek out with anyone who’s interested. “If people want more information, I will give them way too much information.”
The omakase menu is packed with paragraph-long descriptions that veer between the academic and the whimsical, a genre Averbukh calls “Craigslist serial-killer literature.” It opens with a list of pointers in fine print, including warnings of potential sleep loss and overwhelming emotions.
This gets to another dimension of tea that’s front-and-center at Void: “cha qi,” a Chinese term that translates to “tea energy” and an enigmatic concept that denotes the effect certain teas have on one’s state of mind. In scientific terms, Averbukh says, it’s “a relationship between L-theanine and caffeine and people that’s special and not related to the caffeine buzz that you’re looking at with coffee.” There’s some evidence that L-theanine, an amino acid found mainly in tea, elevates serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain and boosts mood, relaxation and mental focus. In non-scientific terms, cha qi can range from a feeling of calm groundedness to one of being energized and “punched to space,” as Averbukh puts it. He talks about tea in terms of feelings as much as flavor and is fond of employing an extraterrestrial metaphor. You’d be forgiven for thinking he’s talking about a psychedelic drug.
“Tea can open up some feelings that you didn’t necessarily know you were gonna feel that day or that moment,” Averbukh says. Cryptically, he adds, “Tea has hands.”
For Averbukh, pu’er is the most emotion-stirring of all teas. Native to the Yunnan Province in southern China and made from fermented leaves, these teas were among the most captivating I tried during my omakase experience — and the most diverse. There was the 2021 Stone Village, a golden-hued “raw” pu’er with notes of tropical fruit, and the molasses-y “ripe” pu’er from 2019, with a powerful sticky-rice aroma and a lingering sweetness that stuck in my throat. I can’t say I detected any unexpected surges of emotion while drinking them, though, other than the delight of discovering flavors I didn’t know it was possible to get from tea.
Three hours and at least five trips to the bathroom later, my omakase experience came to a close. Be advised: The warning about overstimulation isn’t to be taken lightly. All of Void’s teas are caffeinated, so know your limits, or your post-omakase evening may not be a pleasant one.
There was one other bit of advice that I discounted in my zeal to absorb every last drop of knowledge about the teas I drank. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds when it comes to understanding this ancient beverage. But at a certain point, the effort to understand interferes with simple enjoyment — and maybe those feelings Averbukh hypes. Next time, I’ll heed the final pointer on the omakase menu: “Do not think, just drink.”