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.

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