Founded by four high-achieving Vietnamese-American brothers nine years ago in Orange County, California’s Little Saigon, 7 Leaves Cafe is now up to 29 locations in three states. There are now four in Texas — two in suburban DFW, one in Fort Bend County, and this one in Sterling Plaza (or “Golden Square,” under its Chinese name).
With its emphasis on caffeinated drinks, rapid-fire growth, and humanitarian vibe — cups bear words like “Be the change you wish to see in the world” — one might conclude that the founding Nguyen brothers aim to create a Vietnamese American Starbucks. One would not be wrong in that supposition: “Is Starbucks an influence? Absolutely,” co-founder Sonny Nguyen, a banker in his prior life, told the LA Times last year. “We ask ourselves, ‘What would Starbucks do? And will Starbucks do this or that?’ It’s our compass.”
One thing 7 Leaves –which takes its name from the seven herbs in its house tea — has over Starbucks in spades is ease of ordering. There are only 16 drinks on the menu: four coffee-based and the remainder based on tea or juices, with three caffeine-free options. As for food, they do one thing: macarons, in a variety of flavors.
Decor is homey — lots of exposed brick and beams and warm lighting. Not only is there free WiFi but also access to a printer whose services are available on the honor system: stuff a buck or two in the basket for a few pages of hard copy.
On our visit we sample one each from the three main categories of drinks and a selection of macarons.
Overall the drinks menu takes a Pan-Asian approach. There’s Assam and Oolong teas with roots in India; taro from the Pacific Islands, and others with origins in Japan and, of course, Vietnam, whose cà phê sữa đá forms the basis of 7 Leaves’ house coffee. Their version is a bit streamlined, very smooth and sweet. It reminds me of melted coffee ice cream and lacks the rough, bold flavors you might get from the brew at your favorite banh mi spot. Which is not a bad thing, because melted coffee ice cream always reminds me of my late grandfather.
I’m a sucker for hibiscus and that is just one of the elements in the sweet, tangy and sunshiney Strawberry Hibiscus Tea, which also includes juice from golden apples, a touch of sweet rose hips, and essence of passion fruit. This is one of three caffeine-free options along with an herbal tea and Sunset Passion — golden hand-squeezed passion fruit on ice.
My favorite of the trio was the Mung bean milk tea, jasmine tea with Mung and pandan leaves — a versatile ingredient sometimes called the “vanilla of Asia.” Overall, this tea put me in mind of a warmer, sweeter pistachio flavor, but that could be for one or two different reasons. One, pistachio also reminds me of my grandfather — who loved pistachio ice cream — and secondly because I had just eaten one of 7 Leaves pistachio macarons. (Or maybe this tea just really does taste like pistachio. I don’t know, but I do know I liked it very much.)
Oh those macarons. I sampled green tea, pistachio and rosewater, leaving other such light and chewy almond-tasting and ganache-filled flavors as chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, Earl Grey, and sea salted caramel for subsequent visits. If you’ve ever wanted to eat a rose with no thorns, try the rose water, and the pistachio kicked in that nostalgia for me some more. With their bulky appearance belied by their lightness, their chewiness a surprise given their bulkiness, macarons are magic cookies, and these are first-rate examples of the form.
7 Leaves is a house of good vibes. When you read the backstory of the founding Nguyen brothers, you read the American Dream achieved once and then a second time for these men — first they fulfilled their parents’ dreams by clawing their way out of poverty and into Corporate America, and now they are fulfilling their own by sharing their culture through tasty and generally healthy teas, coffee and cookies.