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In Search of the International Sweet Tea Line

(Posted by guest blogger Steve Hendrix) This week's Random Friday Query is a burning question Marc and I have discussed in person but never presented for public debate. At what point as you travel down the Eastern Seaboard do you cross the International Sweet Tea Line? When do you enter sweet-tea territory, where genuine sugar-added-during-steeping tea is available at every restaurant?

This is not just a culinary question, but a social one. The ISTL is the frontier line of the South, and presumably it's receding, a regional glacier shrinking as cultural homogeneity spreads in the form of franchise restaurants and cookie-cutter development.

I think the ISTL is probably still somewhere in Virginia. I know I've been asked the "Sweet or Unsweet" question by waitresses and cafeteria slingers in Richmond, and also in Norfolk. But not always. And I've been forced to resort to table sugar as far south as Roanoke and was once stunned to be handed a packet of Splenda at a diner near Danville.

Is it possible that the true ISTL has retreated to North Carolina, leaving the Old Dominion essentially an Unsweet State? The Obama people want to know.

(Related, and not-so-Random Friday Query): Readers, please post your suggestions for soul-food cafeterias and meat-and-three places in the Washington area. I've been frustrated for decades by the lack of good outlets for collard greens, fried chicken, field peas, overcooked cabbage, turkey and dressing (not stuffing), macaroni-and-cheese and, most especially, that ambrosia of my youth, banana pudding. Even since the Metropolitan AME church stopped their Thursday lunch I've only got the Saint's Paradise Cafeteria on M Street when I need to get my collard levels up. Where are the others?

Thanks for the blogging, folks. I've enjoyed every minute of it. Marc is back Monday.

By Steve Hendrix |  August 15, 2008; 9:35 AM ET
Previous: Chinese 'Truth' - Take Two | Next: Is There Also An Iced Coffee Line--In Virginia?

Comments

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Flavors on Columbia Pike in Arlington is fantastic. I've only been for lunch, but they never disappoint!

Posted by: Anonymous | August 15, 2008 10:16 AM

I don't like tea in general. So, the question is: Why would ANYONE pick unsweetened over sweetened? Only diabetics, as far as I can tell. Otherwise, sweetened is simply far better and should be the standard. It's sad that it's receding.

Posted by: Ryan | August 15, 2008 10:16 AM

Here is one methodology for finding the line:

http://eightoverfive.com/SweetTea.swf

Posted by: Tucker | August 15, 2008 10:18 AM

Tucker: I'm stunned and amazed. Bravo. Folks, don't miss his link. Science is on the case!

Posted by: Steve Hendrix | August 15, 2008 10:25 AM

Steve, your list of culinary favorites reads like a Southern Culture on the Skids playlist.

Try Levi's Port Cafe on 8th Street in Southeast (between L and M) - good stuff. As already mentioned by another poster, Flavors off of Columbia Pike is good too.

Posted by: frenchyb | August 15, 2008 10:27 AM

"I don't like tea in general. So, the question is: Why would ANYONE pick unsweetened over sweetened?"

What makes you think your taste is the norm? Billions of people around the world like tea, and don't see the need to mask it's flavor with sweeteners.

Posted by: mark | August 15, 2008 10:32 AM

Oddly, I think the DC area is a weird black hole of sweet tea availablity. I found it pretty often in Baltimore area restaurants, but here in DC it's pretty spotty but picks up again as you get past NoVA. Obviously, your chances increase when you visit a non-national chain restaurant. A pox on those chains that only stock the Nestea and Lipton garbage from a soda distributor.

Posted by: dgc | August 15, 2008 10:40 AM

I've been on a constant quest for sweet tea since I moved to Northern VA from Atlanta four years ago. I believe all McDonald's locations in Northern VA and DC now offer sweet tea, which means the data in the link Tucker posted is somewhat outdated. Chick-Fil-A, which is based in Atlanta but has several stores in Northern VA, offers sweet tea at all of their locations. I can think of a handful of restaurants in this area that offer it, because I always ask, but I am hopeful that the ubiquity of McDonald's will lead to wider availability in other restaurants. I'd put the line somewhere in Virginia, a little above Richmond but not too far.

Posted by: Gary | August 15, 2008 10:43 AM

I think the question at hand is a good and important one, but I don't see how there is anything "international" about this tea line. Seems to me it's probably irrelevant once you leave the southeast US, let alone actually going to a different country.

I normally drink my tea with no sugar, but it's an enjoyable treat to get it sweetened when I'm down south. On the other hand, I hate it when I'm in Boston and forget to specify that I want my coffee with no milk...

Posted by: International? Really? | August 15, 2008 11:01 AM

Another reason to travel north.

Tea is great with a little lemon, sugar belongs in soda.

If you don't like tea, drink something else, masking the flavor seems silly.

For the same reason, I like my coffee black. Mmmm.

Posted by: Tim from Silver Spring | August 15, 2008 11:06 AM

in my experience, the sweet tea line hovers somewhere around fredericksburg. north of there, it's pretty spotty. south of there, you can *usually* get sweet tea at restaurants (nothing's ever 100%). in dc, you can find sweet tea at ben's and oohhs and aahhs (also a good source for those collard greens!).

Posted by: gk | August 15, 2008 11:08 AM

Kenny's for soul food.

Posted by: kenny's | August 15, 2008 11:17 AM

There is a little BBQ place as far North as Bowie, MD that sells a fantastic Sweet Tea.

Also, don't forget the Starbucks factor. My summer drink of choice is a Venti, Extra Sweet (8 pump classic) black iced-tea.

Posted by: Nay | August 15, 2008 11:23 AM

Cracker Barrel offers sweat tea at, I believe, all its locations. Chik-fil-A sweat tea beats McD's hands down.

Posted by: Sweat Tea 4 Ever | August 15, 2008 11:27 AM

that was sweet tea, not "sweat tea"

Posted by: oops | August 15, 2008 11:27 AM

Willard's BBQ in Chantilly has very good sweet tea (and BBQ).

Posted by: Spectator2 | August 15, 2008 11:37 AM

I'd say it starts somewhere in VA, except there's a sweet tea everywhere in PG County. Not the case in Calver Co where I grew up. I'm not a fan, so I have to make sure I specify when I order now.

Posted by: umm, no thanks | August 15, 2008 11:43 AM

:)

I moved out to Wisconsin from DC a few years ago. While a NoVa native born to NYC-natives, I grew up here among some southern families, and learned to drink Sweet Tea. But out here in the Midwest you have to beg to even receive a sugar/sweetener packet container for your table, and they look at you funny when you do.

I now throw a Kentucky Derby Party (trying to teach the heathens that there's more to sporting event parties than tailgating for the Pack). One of my neighbors - a recent transplant from Richmond but actually a Florida native - was excited, but I didn't realize why until he and his wife arrived at the party.

He found me immediately, looked me straight in the eye and said: "Okay, give it up, you're from Virginia - I KNOW you have Sweet Tea."

I laughed, told him I couldn't do it because everyone here would have been horrified - put pointed him towards the minted simple syrup we were using for Mint Juleps. He did a double-fisted drink for the first part of the party - he nursed his Julep and guzzled a few doctored sweet teas.

Yes, some tea is flavorful enough without sugar. Over the years, I've learned to use just enough that it helps enhance the tea flavor. But every once in a while - man, gotta have a glass of Sweet Tea. It's just a cultural thing.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | August 15, 2008 11:45 AM

"Tea is great with a little lemon, sugar belongs in soda. "

Obviously a Yankee and/or Democrat, telling us how to drink our tea (just kidding...somewhat).

The line exists just south of Fredericksburg and extends West to just outside of Charlottesville, where it essentially heads due South to exclude the Roanoke/Blacksburg areas before curving slightly to the West again to encompass South Boston and Martinsville. When it crosses into Kentucky, it gets a little vague, as some parts of the state are sweet tea-rich, while others have a poor offering.

Posted by: Chris | August 15, 2008 11:47 AM

Ryan, you asked: "Why would ANYONE pick unsweetened over sweetened? Only diabetics, as far as I can tell. Otherwise, sweetened is simply far better and should be the standard."

I think you're wrong and that you're (unintentionally, I'm sure) denying the world's diversity and trying to impose your tastes on everyone whether they agree with you or not.

I agree with Mark, who wrote: "Billions of people around the world like tea, and don't see the need to mask it's flavor with sweeteners."

I also prefer unsweetened tea. I always have, despite growing up in South Carolina, the heartland of sweet tea drinking.

In fact, I would add two letters to what you wrote and say that I pick unsweetened tea because... "UNsweetened is simply far better and should be the standard." You folks who prefer sweetened tea can always add sugar or artifical sweetener -- a much easier process than taking it out of the tea after it's made, I think you'd agree.

In other words, as they say on the Internet, YMMV or "Your Mileage May Vary".

Posted by: tea and beer drinker | August 15, 2008 11:47 AM

Flavors, right off Columbia Pike is great. Very close to the intersection with Route 7 in Bailey's Crossroads. Wonderful place for lunch or dinner.

Their fried chicken and fried catfish are good. but, i cannot get enough of their collards, their mac n cheese and their other tasty sides.

After writing this, I am planning on going this afternoon.

Posted by: cmurphy | August 15, 2008 11:52 AM

Oh by the way - for the person who talks about how people the world over drink their tea without sugar?

Now, perhaps China drinks its green tea straight, but black tea? Sugar of some form (whether it be honey or a more natural sugar) is not unheard of.

The Indians like their black tea straight so much, they created Chai.

The Brits routinely put milk and sugar in their black tea.

And if you are a tea drinker, you know that badly prepared/overly steeped black tea becomes bitter - sometimes some milk and sugar is the only way to correct that if it's the only cup you have at hand.

Not dissing straight tea, but adding sweetener to tea (or anything else for that matter - a mountain climbing friend of mine learned to like buttered tea during a Himalaya trip) is not a tradition that started in the US Deep South.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | August 15, 2008 12:10 PM

Once you start seeing Cracker Barrel restaurants at evey exit you know you're arrived.

Posted by: Cleveland Brown | August 15, 2008 12:10 PM

Did I really read that right that someone who said he's from South Carolina actually wrote this:


"You folks who prefer sweetened tea can always add sugar or artifical sweetener -- a much easier process than taking it out of the tea after it's made, I think you'd agree."

The only way anyone from the Palmetto State ever believes that comment is if you were born in Myrtle Beach and never left.

Anyone who has ever had sweet tea, whether you like it or not, can easily testify that the taste is completely unique from adding a few packets of sweet & low into already brewed tea.

Posted by: Swamp Fox | August 15, 2008 12:22 PM

What I don't understand is why there aren't little bottles of simple syrup on every diner/restaurant/cafe that chooses to only serve unsweetened tea. Also, why hasn't anybody invented individual packets of simple syrup? Sugar just does not dissolve in cold tea. I have resorted to requesting a small amount of hot water and making my own simple syrup (Boy...talk about an eye opener on just how much sugar I drink in my tea!). I now carry a small capped bottle of it in my purse. It's nice because it is made with an infusion of fresh mint and citrus.

Posted by: Cindy M | August 15, 2008 12:40 PM

sweet tea is a country thing, and the cities of the proper south do not pre-sweeten their tea.

I cannot speak to the cities of the eastern South.

Alton Brown was astonished to find sweet tea unavailable in restaurants in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Natchez, Vicksburg and Greenville (Jackson, too). Only Cracker Barrel has sweet tea.

Posted by: dynagirl | August 15, 2008 12:43 PM

I like the sweet tea served at Tom's Diner in Manassas.

Posted by: native | August 15, 2008 12:55 PM

Dynagirl, we drank a LOT of sweet tea while living in Biloxi!

Posted by: native | August 15, 2008 12:57 PM

Uh, hello!! Adding sugar does NOT "mask" the flavor. What a stupid thing to say.

Posted by: Ryan | August 15, 2008 12:58 PM

regarding Biloxi, that was the first place I'd seen where folks put French Dressing on their pizza...

Posted by: native | August 15, 2008 12:58 PM

Swamp Fox, you read that correctly; I am a sandlapper. Born, bred and raised in the Holy City of Charleston to be precise -- and I'm not just a Charlestonian but an SoB. Which to those of you not familiar with the city's geography, means I hail from South of Broad St.

And I still like my tea unsweetened.

Posted by: tea and beer drinker | August 15, 2008 12:59 PM

Reading further, I think dynagirl may have made a germane observation: "sweet tea is a country thing, and the cities of the proper south do not pre-sweeten their tea."

Of course, we all know that Charleston is a very proper city. Some might even call it the 'Boston of the South' -- except that Charlestonians know that the proper way to phrase that is by calling Boston the 'Charleston of the North'.

Posted by: tea and beer drinker | August 15, 2008 1:02 PM

Tea and Beer Drinker, my father is an SoB from Charleston, too, and he doesn't drink sweet tea. Everyone else in his family, however, loves the stuff. It was a staple of our visits there.

You can get sweet tea at Hard Times.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 15, 2008 1:13 PM


There is a difference in sweet teas also, at about the Louisiana/Texas border, the tea becomes a little less sweet. Evidently Texans like their sweet tea a little less sweet. Oh, and sweet tead stops somewhere in western texas and central oklahoma.

And people, post more about collard greens! I like Kenny's on Capitol hill, but there have got to be some more places.

Posted by: Eric | August 15, 2008 1:16 PM

Also remember that not everyone in the south prefers sweet tea -- that's why they ask "sweet or unsweet?" I am from 6+ generations in Alabama, and we are a strictly unsweet family. At church gatherings, faimly reunions, picnics, etc. there are ALWAYS both kinds of tea available! My sister-in-law from Detroit was helping serve drinks at my parents' 50th anniversary in Birmingham a couple months ago -- and she learned to ask "sweet or unsweet" really fast!

And whenever I go home? My mom always makes a separate pitcher of sweet tea (because no, it's not the same to mix in sugar later!) for my husband -- who's from PG County!

Posted by: klstg | August 15, 2008 1:31 PM

Wow, who knew a debate about sweet tea could get so heated and political? Chris, remember that many of us good ol' Southerners are Democrats as well, so let's not confuse the issue. With that said, I don't consider myself confidently below the sweet tea line until I hit a Bojangles. Adding sugar to already-made tea is like adding sauce to BBQ after it is served. Thanks to everyone for the southern food recommendations!

Posted by: CG | August 15, 2008 1:31 PM

I can remember when the sweet tea line was pretty much the Mason-Dixon line. I grew up in Baltimore in the 60s, and we almost always had sweet tea at people's homes. (Restaurants were a little more unpredictable.) You can't go home again, though--it gives me a headache to drink sweet tea now. BTW, there's a new place to eat on Bladensburg Rd. in Prince George's County. I haven't tried it yet, but I plan to stop in soon. I think it's called Mike's Southern Cafe.

Posted by: colmar manor, md | August 15, 2008 1:45 PM

Sorry, I have to admit I don't like sweet tea. That said, my quest is to determine where to get properly brewed iced tea. I hate the stuff made with beverage distributor syrup (it doesn't taste even remotely like tea), and I've taken to asking if the iced tea is brewed at restaurants before I'll order it. Problem is, many of them seem to lie. Is real iced tea going the way of the dodo?

Posted by: Northern Girl | August 15, 2008 2:07 PM

Well, this will probably throw everyone for a loop, but there is at least one restaurant in HAWAII that serves sweet tea. For a NC-born girl sent to Hawaii (courtesy of the Navy) for five years, Dixie Grill was a home-away-from-home. Not only did they have sweet tea (in 32oz glasses!), they also had pulled pork and Eastern NC-style BBQ sauce. It wasn't perfect, but it was pretty darn close!

By the way, any good pulled pork places in the Chantilly area? I'll have to try Willard's as suggested above, but we just moved here and we're still getting a feel for the place...

Posted by: Shauna | August 15, 2008 2:08 PM

Tea is great either way. Personally, I usually prefer my fresh brew to be unsweetened, but that is just me. When I come down with a cold/flu/whatever makes me feel like losing my lunch, I like a little honey and lemon in the tea.

It's just tea folks. Drink it how you like it.

Steve: You did a great job filling in. You will be missed.

One downside tho: I was really enjoying my Friday till you reminded me that Marc will be back on Monday. Think I'll go home early and have some tea - with honey and lemon, of course.

Posted by: DC Voter | August 15, 2008 2:11 PM

I think a lot of folks commenting here are northerners who are lucky enough that they don't realize what sweet tea is. We're not talking about regular tea with sugar in it (I suppose that would be called "sweetened" tea). Sweet tea is a southern abomination made by melting down sugar and adding a little tea. I would rather drink maple syrup straight from the bottle.

Posted by: flipperman75 | August 15, 2008 2:23 PM

I like a nice Arnold Palmer with unsweetened tea. The lemonade gives it a nice amount of sweetness without going overboard like some sweet teas.

Posted by: Joran | August 15, 2008 2:24 PM

Let's face it, the purple state of Virginia became part of deep Southern New England a long time ago.

Posted by: Peter Roach | August 15, 2008 2:39 PM

Shauna -- I'll second Willard's as a great place for BBQ. They've got pulled pork with a variety of sauces. Naked with slaw is good and their sweetea is pretty good (although I like Chik-Fil-A's better -- across the parking lot from Willard's). Go away from the traditional and get the Cuban pork loin sandwich. It's the bomb.

Famous Dave's (near Costco in Chantilly, as well as other locations) is okay, but I wouldn't write home about it. It's also on the expensive side for what they give you.

As I'm typing this I'm sipping a hot chai w/ four creamers and four sugars. Can you guess which side of the sweet vs. unsweet line I fall on?

Posted by: Sam F. | August 15, 2008 2:40 PM

I'm a sweet-a-holic when it comes to the flavor of my beverages. Sweet tea for me is a rare treat, and I savor it like liquid crack (I usually drink Diet Coke) so I'm always happy to find it wherever. Last night I found a decent sweet tea @ Acadiana.

Posted by: Tracey | August 15, 2008 3:13 PM

Golden Corral in Manassas has every one of the soul foods you listed, Steve as well as sweetened or unsweetened tea. Even the banana pudding. It's an all you can eat, cafeteria style chain. Now, they don't always serve the friend okra as the GC in Williamsburg does, but the cooked greens are wonderful.

About sweet tea. My MIL & FIL (Richmond, VA area) had six children, and sweet tea was always served for lunch and dinner b/c my FIL's nerves could not stand the sound of six spoons in six glasses as the children dumped sugar in their tea and stirred and stirred and stirred. :-)

Posted by: Vintage Lady | August 15, 2008 3:46 PM

SCC: fried okra

Posted by: Vintage Lady | August 15, 2008 3:48 PM

Wow. Why is it required that everyone choose between two very tasty varieties of refreshing iced tea? I am a New Englander who was raised on "sun tea," so I find the unsweetened version to be the more thirst-quenching one. But I also think sweet tea is delicious. Maybe I don't drink it too often 'cause I don't want to go into a diabetic coma (OK, I'm not actually a diabetic, but you know), but it is a wonderful treat.

Posted by: gmg | August 15, 2008 4:24 PM

I love the sweet tea swf. that's awesome.

Posted by: andrew | August 15, 2008 4:58 PM

Dynagirl, I'm from Natchez and I would be hard pressed to find a restaurant that does not have sweet tea....odds are they were just out and brewing another fresh pot...

Southside in Alexandria on Washington Parkway has sweet tea and some of the best meat and three food in NOVA.

Posted by: Ryan S. | August 15, 2008 5:33 PM

For those looking for good BBQ, try Bubba's in Falls Church, just up Lee Highway from Gallows Road toward Falls Church City. WONDERFUL BBQ -- pulled chicken, pork or beef and you can get it in several sizes of sandwiches. They also have great additional sauces. And, you cannot beat the decor -- more pigs than you'll ever see anywhere (plus some other appropriate animals). I like it much better than Red, Hot & Blue (just up the road in Falls Church also). Moved away to near Harrisonburg, VA, a couple of years ago and miss Bubba's BIG time. NOT open on Sunday's and closes fairly early (9pm, I think) most evenings. Definitely worth the trip. Here's a link to their website, and the menu is there:

http://www.bubbasbarbq.com/

Posted by: LBinVA | August 15, 2008 8:38 PM

For those real Sweet Tea lovers, the next time you are in Charleston, be sure to try the Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka - from a distillery on Wadmalaw Island and only available in a few states now. See http://www.fireflyvodka.com/.

Posted by: Barbara - SC Native in VA | August 15, 2008 9:05 PM

Well I just went to a game at Nationals stadium in DC, bought some chili at the Hard Times Cafe, asked for Honest Tea, believe I was misunderstood, and was given a very large plastic cup of what I believe was sweet tea. And it was excellent!

Posted by: Roxy | August 15, 2008 9:33 PM

Market Lunch at Eastern Market on Capital Hill has GREAT sweet tea. I grew up in South Carolina and half my family is in North Carolina and Market Lunch has awesome NC BBQ to go along with the Tea. The line gets long on the weekends but it is very much worth the wait!

Posted by: Whit | August 15, 2008 11:53 PM

We were in Staunton, VA at a very nice restaurant (Zenandoah) last week and were shocked when I ordered iced tea and was told they didn't serve it!! Did Staunton secede from Virginia?

Posted by: bre | August 16, 2008 10:41 PM

Need a sweet tea fix locally? Go to almost any convenience store and get a bottle of Lipton "Extra Sweet" Tea. I love it!

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | August 17, 2008 12:44 PM

Steve,

I think this topic, and the resulting debate in the replies, shows you should have your OWN blog.

For the record, from western Maryland, long time Arlington resident, and prefer my tea and coffee unadulterated. To each his/her own.

Can the next discussion be about ketchup on scrambled eggs? Or if it's ketchup or catsup?

Posted by: Arlington Gay | August 17, 2008 12:47 PM

Try Saint's Paradise Cafeteria at United House of Prayer (601 M St. NW). I sneak over there from work once in a while when I get a taste for real cornbread or oven-baked chicken; they have good greens.

Also, as for the sweet tea: there is no geographic line. My 90-year-old great aunt has lived in Philadelphia for the last 60 years and she (and everyone else she knows) still serves sweet tea. It's a matter of taste.

Posted by: Alice | August 17, 2008 2:04 PM

The Sweet-tea South is indeed shrinking, from the west as well. In many parts of Texas, asking for sweet tea is like asking for salted lemonade. You get a blank stare for a moment, and then the waitress lays some packets by your glass with an expression of confusion upon her face. I blame the influx of northerners for this, and the presence of vegan restaurants in Houston.

And don't even get me started on boiled peanuts!

Posted by: Steve | August 17, 2008 3:20 PM

I forgot to add, it is indeed an international line. Despite sharing a common federal gov't (yes yes, I know we fought that too), there can be little doubt that the South shares a broad culture that purveys our language, social customs, religion, and politics that simply sets us apart from the rest of America, too such a degree that it is not wrong to refer to a Southern nation. It may be shrinking now, but fluctuations along borders are natural and expected.

And in our nation, sweet-tea is the standard!

Posted by: Steve | August 17, 2008 3:28 PM

I was asked "Sweet or un-?" at Mrs. Rowe's in Staunton on my way back from South Carolina this weekend.

Posted by: Andrea | August 19, 2008 1:01 PM

man gotta love growing up in the north, the child of southerners and spent time in DC!!!

love my tea in all forms... love my coffee in all flavors and i love my wings suicide and blue cheese on my pizza!!!!

the best soul food restaurant is without a doubt the florida ave grill...if it's still open. flavors is good but it's still new...only about 7 -10 years old i believe.

Posted by: NALL92 | August 19, 2008 1:20 PM

I may be late to the discussion. But I have been to the Mecca of sweet tea before, and there is no substitute.

Sweet tea at Milo's hamburgers in Birmingham, Alabama.

It is so super-saturated with sugar that dentists across the nation would quake in their boots upon hearing it's name. Of course, the tea has sold better than the hamburgers, so you can buy Milo's in grocery stores across the South. But nothing compares with the experience in situ.

Posted by: Leesburger | August 19, 2008 3:32 PM

While you can find sweet tea in NoVA barbecue joints and Hard Times Cafe, I think they're just outposts of Southern Culture in the "Occupied Territory" (AKA anything inside the ring of Union Civil War forts that pepper NoVA like Fort Ward in Alexandria).

A born and bred elderly woman from Fredericksburg once told me several years ago what another post has already said...the International Sweet Tea Line is somewhere just south of Fredericksburg.

Posted by: Todd Post | August 22, 2008 5:51 PM

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