J.R. Tolkien

"Not all those who wander are lost." - J.R. Tolkien

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Boba Tea: The Drink with Big Balls and Fatter Straws

*Updated 12/2018

If you like soft chewy balls and “boobs” in your drink, you’re in for a treat!  Boba tea is a delicious Asian tea-based drink that comes with big chewy tapioca* balls/pearls and fat straws to help you suck every last piece out (hard to get your mind of the gutter with that one!) Called by many names, boba tea, bubble tea, tapioca milk tea, pearl milk tea etc., this popular drink had its start in Taichung, Taiwan in the 1980s, and quickly spread throughout Asia and Asian communities abroad.  

We go boba tea crazy every time we're in Houston
Boba tea and bubble tea are used interchangeably to describe the same drink.  Some called it "bubble" tea for the froth/foam gathered at the top when the freshly brewed tea is shaken/mixed with various flavors and/or milk.  Others called it "boba" tea (also a Taiwanese slang term for "big boobs") for the chewy tapioca balls/pearls that are often added to the drink.  In addition to boba, shops now offer a wide range of creative toppings, such as juice balls (popping boba), flavor jellies, mini mochi, jams, etc.  You can get it with ice or in a slushy form like a smoothie.  Boba tea comes in a variety of flavors, from tropical favorites like lychee, longan, taro to the more familiar strawberry, mango and honeydew.

Here's the anatomy of a boba tea: 

photo source

So what the heck is in boba tea?  Here's a quick visual explanation: 

photo source
Come to California or any other Asian populated cities (Houston, Chicago, New York, Atlanta etc.) and you can't walk a block without seeing one or two boba tea shops.  Here in Louisville, most boba tea drinks exist in an obscure section of a larger Asian food menu.  The variety is limited and the smooth natural blend of flavors is often replaced by an artificial and powdery taste; the tapioca pearls balls are sometimes hard instead of soft and chewy.  But if you know where to look, you can find some decent offerings in our city to satisfy your curiosity or craving. 

My favorite places

Kung Fu Tea
5000 Shelbyville Road
Louisville, Kentucky
As of December 2018, Louisville has a legit boba tea place! This well-known chain offers the largest selection of teas (slush, fruit tea, milk tea, yogurt, etc.) and all types of toppings (boba, popping bobas, jellies, beans, etc). Kung Fu is by far the best tasting boba tea in the city, though still lacking compared to big city standards. Still, it's now my go to place for boba teas in Louisville. They are new and learning, so be patient. Your order might be messed up, some items will run out while others are still not available. But give them time and they'll get there soon. They are located by the food court in St. Matthews Mall, directly in front of Kay Jewelers (near Starbucks).

A sample of the boba teas from Kung Fu Tea Louisville

Da Lat's Gateaux and Cafe
6915 Southside Dr
Louisville, KY 40214
(502) 368-9280
Located in South Louisville, Da Lat’s boba tea is more authentic and has a lot of tropical flavors for you to choose from. While there, peruse the French baked goods, the banh mi sandwiches, and other Vietnamese snacks (perhaps try the snail sausage I mentioned in my bizarre food entry).  Grab an onion and bacon bun, it’s my favorite.

Simply Thai
323 Wallace Ave
Louisville, KY 40207
(502) 899-9670
I’m cheating a bit here since Simply Thai doesn’t offer boba tea but they have my favorite Thai tea (same components as bubble tea: milk, tea and sugar).  There’s no tapioca added but the tea is creamy and delicious.

Tea Station Chinese Bistro
9422 Norton Commons Blvd
Prospect, KY 40059
(502) 423-1202
The owners are Taiwanese after all so you know you’re getting authentic boba teas.  Choose from 13 flavors, either milk tea or slush; expect to pay $.50 extra for the tapioca pearls.

Thai tea at Mt. Fuji
Mt. Fuji
309 Cardinal Blvd
Louisville, KY 40208
(502) 637-5887
The boba tea here is mediocre but worth a mention because of the large selection of boba teas, slushies and smoothies at decent prices.  My husband loves that the Thai tea here is large and not completely filled with ice.

Other boba teas around town: 

1908 Eastern Pkwy
Louisville, KY 40204
(502) 709-4282
Owners of the now defunct Cefiore reinvented this into a Korean eatery offering familiar Korean dishes, snacks, and ramen.  Also on the menu are 7 types of boba tea.  A friend raved about the milk tea but my past experience with this has been just okay (I’m willing to go back for another try).  

Vietnam Kitchen
5339 Mitscher Ave
Louisville, KY 40214
(502) 363-7535
This south end favorite does not offer boba tea except for the Thai tea.  Instead you’ll find mango, avocado, and strawberry smoothies with tapioca pearls as an added option.  The avocado smoothie is good (made with avocado, condensed milk, sugar and ice), but drink the tapioca pearls fast, it gets hard quickly.

Heart and Soy
1216 Bardstown Rd
Louisville, KY 40220
(502) 452-6678
This vegetarian mecca has some okay boba teas on its menu but I personally prefer the soy milk over the bubble teas.

Nam Nam
318 Wallace Ave
Louisville, KY 40207
(502) 891-8859
Check out the taro, Thai tea, honey dew and green tea boba teas at this tiny east end Vietnamese restaurant and let me know what you think.  I’ve never been.

Big mug of boba tea from Onion.  Source
Onion Restaurant and Tea House
4211 Charlestown Rd
New Albany, IN 47150
(812) 981-0188
Whenever you find yourself across the river in Indiana, stop by this restaurant for the biggest mug of boba tea in the region.  The tea and flavor is a bit weak but you’re getting a great value for your money.

Boba teas from Peking City Express
Peking City Express
4000 Dutchmans Ln
Louisville, KY 40207
(502) 891-0388
This fast food joint is a treasure troves of cheap and authentic Chinese and Taiwanese eats.  They also have a small selection of boba tea for around $4.  My favorite is the taro.

Mango boba tea from JW Cafe and Bakery
JW Cafe and Bakery
2301 Terra Crossing Blvd, Ste 105
Louisville, KY 40245
(502) 907-5248
This brand new Korean bakery offers delicious French inspired sweets and treats.  On the drink menu is three flavors of boba tea for $4.75, mango, peach and strawberry.  Read full review here.

If you never had any boba tea, give it a try.  Some like the uniqueness boba added to their drink, others cannot get over the chewy texture of the tapioca pearls.  But as my husband would like to contribute, “If you don't have balls in your mouth, you're doing it wrong!”

*Tapioca is the starch extract from the cassava or yucca roots.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

My $86 Burmese Tea Leaf Salad

This is the epic story of how I spent three years obsessing over a salad made with tea leaves and how I ended up paying $86 for that damn salad.

Three years ago....

I had my first taste of laphet thote (picked tea leaf salad) on a work trip to San Francisco at Burma Superstar.  As usual, it was packed.  Somehow we got lucky and were seated in 45 minutes instead of the estimated 2 hour wait.  Perhaps it was the long wait, the hype, the hunger or the excitement of trying new food, but one bite and I was hooked.   The dish looked deceptively simple, it was a crunchy and tangy blend of fermented tea leaves, nuts, lettuce, lemon juice, and fried garlic.  I don’t remember all the subtleties of the dish but just remember how different it tasted and how much I enjoyed it.  It became my obsession.

Tea leaf salad from Burma Superstar. Photo source.
For those first few months, I looked at all corners of the web to find these illusive tea leaves to recreate the dish at home.  Despite its popularity in Myanmar, these leaves were so hard to find in the U.S.  Most claimed that the only way to get it is to smuggle it out of the country.  I temporary gave up.  But for the next three years I continued to tell my friends tall tales about how amazing this salad was.

One year ago...

We took a girl's trip to Europe.

It involved a lot of selfies
It was easy to convinced my girlfriends to brave the streets of London to search for the tea leaf salad after years of hearing my tall tales.  The salad at Mandalay Burmese Restaurant was so disappointing, I didn't even try to take a good picture.  But I kept on looking.

Half eaten tea leaf salad in the background

One week ago...

Imagine my excitement when I found a Facebook post with a link to a local San Fran grocery store where I can order a tea leaf salad kit.  Score! They do not deliver to Kentucky? No problem!  I had it delivered to a friend's work place in San Fran, who then shipped it to me.  Two orders and shipping fees set me back $63.  The husband thought I was a bit insane, I agreed.

Tea leaf salad kit from Burma Superstar + shipping = $63
Burma Superstar Tea Leaf Salad Recipe
Serves 2 - 4
  • 2 to 4 Tbsp fermented tea leaves
  • 2 cups packed shredded romaine lettuce (washed and dried)
  • 1/4 cup diced tomato
  • 1/4 cup blend split yellow peas, toasted sunflower seeds, garlic, sesame seeds, roasted peanuts and sea salt (comes with the package)
  • 1 to 2 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 to 2 tsp fish sauce
Mixed all ingredients thoroughly in a large bowl.  Taste, adjust if needed.

And voila, this is what I got.

Tea leaf salad, pre-mixed
So after three years, I finally made that salad.  It was good, but after so long I realized I forgot what the original salad tasted like.  I enjoyed it but definitely not as magical as that first bite three years ago.

2 days ago...

I was determined to make it better.  I know that the Burma Superstar version is Americanized (authentic Asian cooking does not include romaine lettuce or lemon).  I did more research online and came across this more authentic version on youtube and a travel video.  I took a trip to Kroger to gather the ingredients, which set me back $3.31.

Tea Leaf Salad Recipe v.2
  • fermented tea leaves___2 oz
  • fried broad beans___1 oz
  • fried peanuts___1 oz
  • fried garlic___0.5 oz
  • dried shrimp___ 0.5 oz
  • lime juice___ 1/4 cup
  • roasted sesame seeds___0.5 oz
  • fried chana dal (split chick peas)___0.5 oz
  • sliced cabbage___1 1/2 cups
  • diced tomatoes___1 cup
  • peanut oil___1/4 cup
  • fish sauce___3 tbsp (use sparingly, very salty)
Mix all ingredients together and enjoy.  I didn't find all the ingredients so I substituted different nuts found at the organic aisle at Kroger.  I don't like dried shrimps so skipped that part.

I enjoy this version much better.  The cabbage is crunchier and blends with the nuts more naturally.  I also sprinkled a pinch of Knorr chicken seasoning for added flavors and some chili pepper for a kick.

4 a.m. last night... 

Still determined to find all the authentic ingredients listed in the previous recipe.  I found Ralhla Asian Market (6916 Southside Dr, 40214) online, a Burmese grocery store in south Louisville.  Really starting to doubt that $63 purchase.


Stopped by Ralhla to look for the tea leaves, half hoping not to find those tea leaves so I wouldn't look so dumb.

Found rows of tea leaves and assorted nuts.  Yup, I looked really dumb.

There were at least 4 different brands, ALL UNDER $10.  Looked beyond really DUMB.

I bought a new tea leaf salad kit and nuts, spent another $20.  The nice owner wrote down this recipe for me after a lot of questions.  He said that a few years back it was very hard to find and did cost up to $20. I felt slightly validated.

Tea Leaf Salad v.3 

  • 1 package of tea leaf snack (comes with fermented tea leaves & assorted nuts)
  • 1 small roma tomato
  • 3 shredded cabbage leaves (or any amount you desired)
  • 1 or 2 Tbsp of assorted deep fried beans (optional, buy separately)

I used half a bag of the fermented tea leaves, mixed it with 1/2 Tbsp of oil.  Combined tea leaves with all the ingredients.  Add a little bit of salt or fish sauce to taste. Squeeze a little lime and it's ready to eat.

This is by far the best version.  The tea leaves have so much flavor compare to the more tame pesto-like version from Burma Superstar.  It's spicy, salty, and a barely noticeable trace of bitterness.  Combined with the freshness of the cabbage, crunchiness of the nuts, and tanginess of the lime and this salad is a winner.  I can't wait to share this at the next party.

*Note: those not used to spicy or strong flavors, stick with version 1 and 2*    

My story did not end there, a few hours ago....

I stopped by my brother's grocery store to drop off my sister and he showed me this little thing he's been selling for the last few years:

Tea leaf leaf kit at my brother's
$86 poorer and 3 years later, I reached a whole new level of dumb.  But it was a delicious ending, so this slightly insane girl is okay with that!

*updated 8/25/2016 

The story continues....
I'm happy to report that my story ends on a very satisfying note.  While on a work trip to Bowling Green, KY I accidentally came across Yangon Bistro near WKU campus and got to try a truly authentic version of the Tea Leaf Salad (the owners are Burmese).  It was a beautiful dish of flavor, crunch and tanginess.  A great price at only $3.99.  My version 3 above came pretty close!


If you want to give it a try, learn from my overly eager expensive mistake.  Here's what you do:

1) Order tea leaves online
2) Or stop by these grocery stores to pick it up.
  • Ralhla Asian Market
    2919 Southside Drive
    Louisville, KY 40214
  • A-Chau Grocery Store
    5107 S. Third Street
    Louisville, KY 40214
3) Stop by these restaurants if you're in Indiana: Kimu Restaurant & Mandalay Restaurant.  If you are ever in the San Fran area, here are 8 places to find this salad.  If you're in Boston, check out Yoma.

At this moment

I remember how much I liked the rainbow salad, which has 22 ingredients....onward to another food adventure!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Discover Flavor of Flavor in Lively Shively

*Updated 1/17/18 - CLOSED*

For this Louisville off track foodie, there’s no better way to start out the year than with a delicious off the beaten path discovery.  If you like Asian food for cheap, Flavor of Flavor in the heart of Lively Shively is a place worth checking out.  You don’t even have to decide which Asian you like best! You can find delicious Chinese, Japanese and Thai food all in one place.

Flavor of Flavor is located inside a former neighborhood fixture, Happy Buddha Fast Food (3927 Dixie Highway), right across from the Burger King.  The outside looks like any typical Chinese restaurant but it’s a sit down restaurant with cozy booths, Japanese style sushi bar and attentive service.

Outside the restaurant
The menu offers a large selection of appetizers, soups, salads, rolls, noodles, and fried rice.  Prices range from $1.50 (sushi/sashimi) to $13.95 (combination dishes).  The best deal is from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Monday to Friday where you find a large selection of  Chinese lunch ($6.95), Sushi lunch (two rolls $6.95, 3 rolls $8.95, and Thai lunch $6.95, and Japanese lunch box ($7.95).  The portions are huge and they come with a changing soup menu and delicious green salad with ginger sauce.

For an extra deal, mention the a 20% off discount on dine-in dinner, free meal for dine-in over $30, or free 8 pieces mini roll for any purchase over $30.

For fans of fresh sweet and sour flavors, try the Thai Beef Salad, a refreshing blend of mixed greens, cucumbers, tomato, carrots, saute beef and sweet and sour tamarind sauce.

Nam Tak (Beef Salad), $5.95
The sushi itself is a step up from Kroger sushi (but I do enjoy my Kroger sushi) and an amazing bargain at only $8.95 for 3 rolls.  Which comes with a soup and salad. The kani shrimp (middle) roll is my favorite.

3 Sushi Rolls for $8.95
Soup and salad with lunch specials
The pad thai lunch portion is also large, savory and delicious.  They do not cheap out either, their shrimps were large.  It also comes with 2 sides, your choice of rice, salad, or soup.  At $6.95, it's definitely a delicious bargain.

Thai lunch special $6.95
This place is keeper for me because it offers delicious sit-down qualify food at fast food prices.  Most restaurants that offer a wide selection of Asian foods tend to slant their flavors towards one ethnicity over the other.  Here, however, the food are distinctive enough to have an enjoyable experience for whatever Asian food you crave at the moment. The menu is so large, you can keep coming back for a new experience each time.  The owners are Chinese (judging from the music and overheard conversation), so I'm anxious to come back to try the Chinese dishes.  Happy eating!

Flavor of Flavor
Chinese, Japanese, Thai
3927 Dixie Hwy
Louisville, KY 40216
My rating: 7/10 stars (extra points for great bargain!)
Monday - Friday, Sunday: 11 p.m. - 10 p.m.
Saturday: Closed
Plenty of parking on site