Boba Tales: Tea Quality, New York is Horrible + Evolving Taste Buds

I’ll admit it: I consider myself a boba snob. I’ve been drinking the stuff for as long as I can remember. I even remember my first drink: a simple, homemade version of boba milk tea from Happy Garden (台中港) in Alhambra back in the 90s.

I hated the drink growing up. There were rumors of people choking on the black tapioca balls and I disliked how they interfered with the sweetness of the milk tea. I suppose the disdain was understandable. All I wanted was sugar and milk.

But taste buds evolve and I slowly became addicted. I moved to the SGV in 2004 and was within driving distance to at least five boba shops (that number has grown dramatically since then). As with most boba rookies, I was perfectly satisfied with the likes of Tapioca Express and Quickly — mediocre joints at best. The tea is overstepped, the sugar levels are insane. The milk tea is too heavy and the boba has absolutely no intricacy.

Then I was introduced to AU79, a higher caliber of bubble tea. My orders turned from “almond milk tea with pudding and boba” to “green tea, less sugar, with boba.” Tea quality was now a vital criteria. Truth be told, I could never really pinpoint why I was so partial to AU. Ten Ren, Half&Half and Honey Boba could never compare.

Thank god for journalism. I interviewed the owner of AU79 the other week (formal article to be published shortly) and she told me the difference lies in the tea leaves. AU79, unlike Ten Ren and other mainstream boba shops, do not crush their leaves. They brew the tea leaves whole along with the baby leaves. Not a cost-effective solution, but it’s the reason why their tea is so distinctive.

(With crushed tea leaves, you can brew a larger amount of tea with less tea leaves. The crushed leaves give off more flavor but the true tone of the tea does not shine through.)

Half&Half and Honey Boba appeal to a more Americanized palette. Their specialty lies in the gut-busting milky + frothy + caramel + pudding + boba concoctions. Is there even tea in those drinks?

And then I moved to New York. Now I love the city and all its culinary offerings — but good god the authentic (地道) Taiwanese food there is disgusting. That’s another story in itself. Yes I’ve tried Flushing and no I was not impressed.

All the bubble tea (note the change in terminology) joints there can barely measure up. Even the chains shops like Quickly had worse drinks than the Quicklys in Los Angeles. CoCo and Kung Fu Tea have been the saving grace in the bubble tea scene — but even then I never find myself going out of my way to grab a cup of nai cai (奶菜). 

So what makes a good boba drink? Three factors: tea quality, boba texture, and the quality of the additives.

My favorites so far: Factory Tea Bar (LA) and AU79 (LA)
I’ll settle for: Half&Half (LA), Ten Ren (LA), CoCo (NY), Kung Fu Tea (NY)
Only if I’m desperate: Saint’s Alp Teahouse (NY)
Not if you paid me: TKettle (NY), Quickly (LA & NY), Tapioca Express (LA & NY), boba drinks from restaurants that aren’t distinctly boba shops.