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This Oakland-Raised Tea Lover Baked 150 Basque Cheesecakes To Find the Right One

Justin Phanksom brings Madagascar vanilla Basque cheesecake and masala chai to the Bay with his pop-up Tea Bella Cafe

A man ladling tea from a pot.
Justin Phanksom doles out chai and cheesecakes through his pop-up Bella Tea Cafe.
Paolo Bicchieri
Paolo Bicchieri is a reporter at Eater SF writing about Bay Area restaurant and bar trends, coffee and cafes, and pop-ups.

Justin Phanksom knew there was a texture he had to achieve for his Basque cheesecake: as soft as biting into clouds. In pursuit of that goal, he subjected friends and family to about 150 trial cakes. After a stint at defunct tea chain Samovar (now Joyride Pizza), Phanksom started his cheesecake and chai pop-up Tea Bella Cafe, and is looking for a new spot to host his business. The pop-up name is a major shout out to his golden retriever Bella who can often be found lying patient as can be by Phanksom’s side as he serves up dessert and ladles chai by the cup-full. “I loved getting the tea knowledge, and I’m so sad that it shut down,” Phanksom says. “I miss all my customers and the connection with them.”

He’s recreating that experience as best he can with his chai and cheesecake pop-up so far. On a busy Sunday morning, outside of the Crawstation and around the corner from the Inner Sunset Farmers Market, Phanksom seemed to be doing numbers. It’s not hard to tell why: 16 ounces of his chai (which goes for $6) is a strong, spicy, and vegan delight, incorporating both oat milk and coconut milk. His brew hits like the perfect hot chocolate by a campfire, or dad’s mulled wine at Christmas. That’s probably due to Phanksom hand-grinding the spices he uses (a secret blend, obviously) and keeping the tea at a set temperature all the while he serves. This is the street food San Francisco wishes it had — and, in this case, sometimes actually has.

The cheesecake connection is just a love of the game. The dessert is having a moment all through London, and San Francisco has caught on as well. In three years, Phanksom has nourished a love of the heavenly treat. “The color, the consistency, and the experience you get of taking a bite,” Phanksom says. “It’s a small feeling, but it’s really overwhelmingly tasty.”

A photo of cheesecake.
Basque cheesecakes are having a moment, and Phanksom is doing his part.
Justin Phanksom
Two pots of chai.
Phanksom ladles his brew out of two enormous steel pots.
Paolo Bicchieri

But Phanksom’s tenure at Crawstation came to a close. The restaurant needs to evaluate whether or not even it will stay in its current location, as the building is about to be sold, Phanksom says. He only got the opportunity through a friend’s godmother who owns the restaurant. Outside of one day this month and a few pop-ups in October and November at Oaktown Spice, he’s fresh out of gigs. He’s open for pre-orders of the cheesecake in the meantime.

Where Phanksom ends up serving his chai and cheesecake for good is anyone’s guess — but as he dishes up my cup of his thick and flavorful concoction, a would-be customer calls out his name from down the block. “I’m sorry I didn’t have the money yesterday — I left my purse at home! I still owe you,” she calls out. Phanksom smiles and dips his long ladle into the pot of lightly bubbling tea to get her a cup for free. “I know you’re good for it,” he says softly.