"Chai is about diversity and healing and keeping people healthy," she says. "Mostly my life has been a constant experience of overcoming obstacles, of having to be strong. I like the idea that I'm helping other people stay healthy and balanced with this tea."
She's got big starey eyes and a big, very unbusinesslike grin. When she talks about her employees, and about how being an employer has forced her to become a more communicative person, she gets teary-eyed. Likewise, one of her employees, Piper Waite, gets emotional when discussing her boss. "If you work for her, you become like family. It's really unusual. She can't even fire anyone. She embraces their oddities."
Friends say that this is pure Jessica. But it was work that helped get her business off the ground; Neisius has long been obsessed with concocting the perfect chai recipe. When she was a kid, she says, her mother took her to a faux Middle Eastern cafe with belly dancers, where she was enchanted and transported by the music, warm atmosphere, and the taste of chai. Four years ago, the former Tenzing Momo employee started experimenting with medicinal herbs in her basement, and from there began brewing Morning Glory, a subtly peppery chai recipe based on the East Indian drink. Now, Neisius, her employees, and a part-time "chai witch" (named Sabrina) brew the chai in big steel vats at the rear of Mr. Spot's' kitchen, using astragalus, galangal, cardamom, black pepper, ginger, and other ingredients that, as Neisius says, give the drink its immune-enhancing properties along with its "sexual undercurrent." She currently supplies Morning Glory Chai to 70 area cafes.
Morning Glory is noticeably cleaner-tasting than other formulations like Oregon Chai and Tazo, which by comparison are mere sugar water. Neisius doesn't use sweeteners, and her Morning Glory Chai's pepper-bite clings to your throat for a while. She opened a bag to show me the dried assortment of loamy, weedy, wormy-looking herbs that make her recipe different from other chai makers'. "The buzz you get from chai is really different from coffee's effects," she says. "Instead of a nervous system buzz, like from coffee, chai affects the muscular system. The ginger and gingko increase circulation, and you get a kind of all-body high."
The cafe menu here is small but sturdy; as Waite reveals, the recipes for homemade items like hummus, soup de jour, and lasagna vary widely from week to week, depending on who cooks, and in what mood the cook is in. The week I was there, the Vegetarian Lasagna ($4.50) was very tame, although the inclusion of cooked celery slices was interesting. The Black Bean Soup ($3) was curiously sweet; Waite admitted that there was probably coconut milk in it. Another barista confessed, sotto voce, that the cooks often add chai to soup! This bit of creative cooking calls to mind the culinary methods of certain Andes tribes that brew magical potions of herbs and cow's blood to mix into their coffee and stew -- all for the purpose of health and warding off the bad stuff of the universe.
The Hummus Plate ($3.50) is a Mr. Spot's standout, really tasty with ample cayenne, and served with ripe-tasting Bulgarian feta. As for the homemade pastries, they are popular; the pumpkin bread is dark and earthy, and the homemade brownies, made with melted chocolate chips, are thick, substantial, and excitingly misshapen.
Amid all this inspired brewing and cooking, the life of the cafe buzzes forward, sort of dazed and charming. One recent evening, a boy and girl sat together with a funny way of holding hands. The girl, her elbows on the table, clasped toward her face so she could scratch her nose with one finger. The boy's hands held onto this assembly, so that all four of their hands rested directly in front of the girl's face. They looked away from one another. Perhaps they were "in love" -- that perplexing configuration that happens when people like each another, then realize with fright and excitement that the other person is a wholly separate, almost unknowable entity. Reasonably, the girl's expression kept going inside her eyes, far away. After a minute, she smiled into her cup of chai.