Bubble tea, boba tea, or tapioca pearl tea: whatever you like to call it, I am sure you’ve heard of the Taiwanese tea-based drink to which chewy tapioca balls (bobas) or fruit jellies are added.
Despite the drink’s Asian origin, it has become a serious trend in the United States, with shops popping up all over Northern California.
These boba-specific shops are disappointingly sparse in the area near SCDS. But there’s hope! Many Asian restaurants just a short distance from campus offer the tea on their menus.
These “secret” boba stops are perfect for an after-school snack.
My quest to find the best secret boba shops began with five criteria: location, customer service, speed of service, price and, of course, taste.
Through Internet searches, I narrowed my taste tests to three restaurants and compared them to one boba-specific shop in Midtown.
I started at Pho Bac Hoa Viet, a small Vietnamese restaurant, about 15 minutes away from school (5060 Madison Ave.) I was surprised to find they did not offer the traditional milk tea with boba in house; however, they had milkshakes to which tapioca pearls could be added.
I ordered my favorite taro-root milk tea with tapioca balls at every place. Thankfully, Pho Bac Hao Viet offered taro root as a shake flavor for $4.
The drink was delivered to me in five minutes with whipped cream, a cherry and, of course, the signature thick straw, large enough to suck up the boba, which is about a half an inch in diameter.
The shake tasted almost exactly like a regular milk tea, although it was much colder, creamier and sweeter. And the service was fast and friendly. I can imagine it being a great, refreshing alternative to a milkshake or ice cream on a hot summer day and plan to return.
My second stop was Pho Saigon Bay, another Vietnamese restaurant, just an eight-minute commute from school (1537 Howe Ave.)
Finding a waiter to order my to-go boba was difficult, perhaps because of the dinner rush around 7 p.m. When I finally spoke to a waiter, she informed me that they didn’t have the usual flavors of milk tea but only Thai tea with bobas.
To clarify, milk tea is either green or black tea with milk added, while Thai tea is strongly brewed Ceylon tea sweetened with condensed milk.
So I ordered Thai tea, and they made it right in front of me! A bowl of homemade tapioca balls was sitting on the bar, and, sure enough, the waitress scooped some out of the clump of balls, and put them in my drink.
Although the tea had a wonderful taste and a low price ($3), this was my least favorite beverage. The boba-to-drink ratio was too low for my taste (I enjoy a lot of pearls); I would have preferred more options in tea flavors; and the bobas were very small and had a unique texture different from every other boba I’ve ever had, much less thick and chewy.
However, if you are a fan of Thai tea, this is a cheap, close place to get your fix!
The last “secret” place I visited was definitely my favorite. Boiling Avenue is a new Asian-fusion/Taiwanese restaurant only five minutes from school (943 Howe Ave.)
Even though the restaurant was very crowded, I was immediately greeted by a host and directed towards the bar, where to-go drinks are ordered. It seemed as though they were accustomed to customers coming in just to order drinks, which was nice.
The menu offered many flavors of tea and multiple options to customize drinks: the percentage of sweetness, type of jellies and tapioca pearls to add to the tea.
I ordered the 60-percent sweetness taro milk tea at $3.75, and my mom, who loves boba tea, ordered matcha green tea with tapioca pearls at 30-percent sweetness.
From the first sip, I knew this was the best bubble tea I’d ever had. It was wonderfully creamy and sweet, the temperature of the liquid was just right, and it had a perfect number of bobas. The customer service was also impeccable.
When the waiter made a mistake and forgot to put the added bobas I ordered on my receipt, they gladly gave both my mom and me bobas in our drinks free of charge.
To see how these drinks stacked up against a boba-specific shop, I tried Quickly (2100 16th St.), a store in Midtown with 76 other locations in Northern California alone. Quickly is known for its extensive beverage menu and boba tea flavors.
Surprisingly, my $3 taro milk tea with bobas didn’t live up to my newfound expectations. It was not as creamy or sweet as the teas at Boiling Avenue and Pho Bac Hoa Viet, and even though Quickly didn’t have any orders ahead of me or dinner to serve, the wait was 12 minutes.
Thus these secret places are actually a much better option to get your boba fix. Don’t make the drive out to a mainstream place like Quickly. Try one of the secret shops closer to school.
If a Latina/Caucasian girl without an exotic culinary palate enjoys this treat, you will too.
—By Alexa Mathisen