- Bubble tea has exploded in popularity in recent years, with homegrown chains like Boba Guys and Kung Fu Tea expanding across the country and Taiwanese chains like Tiger Sugar setting down roots in the US.
- It’s also a drink that East Asians and others are passionate about around the world, and is one of the favourite conversation topics of the 1.5 million-member Facebook group “Subtle Asian Traits.”
- Despite my lactose intolerance – a common digestive state for most East Asians – I went on a journey to seven of the most famous bubble tea chains with stores in New York.
- I was surprised that most of the bubble tea I drank ranged from very good to mind-blowing. But the two standouts of this taste test were Tiger Sugar and Gong Cha, which had the freshest ingredients and most perfectly balanced flavours.
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East Asians famously have a love-hate relationship with dairy, especially when it comes to one of our favourite drinks: bubble tea.
Bubble tea, a Taiwanese milk tea drink with chewy tapioca pearls, has recently exploded in popularity around the world. Facebook group “Subtle Asian Traits,” whose 1.5 million members are largely East Asian diaspora kids, is rife with posts obsessing over the virtues of drinking bubble tea and lamenting over lactose.
As a lactose-intolerant lover of bubble tea, the memes speak to me. So I went to the seven of the most popular bubble tea chains with New York locations to court them all, even if I might live to regret it.
I went to CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice, Gong Cha, ViVi Bubble Tea, Boba Guys, Kung Fu Tea, Tiger Sugar, and Yi Fang Taiwan Fruit Tea. I ordered each store’s flagship tea, which usually was a black milk tea with tapioca pearls.
My first stop was a CoCo Fresh tea & Juice in Manhattan’s Financial District. It was a long and narrow space with peppy colours and plenty of high-table seating. CoCo Fresh has 3,000 global locations.
CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice website
MEDIUM BUBBLE MILK TEA, $US4.13 — My drink came out suspiciously quickly. I’d barely tucked my card back in my wallet when my name was called out. Of course, the shop was almost empty.
The drink tasted very milky, although the sweetness wasn’t as overwhelming as I expected. The tea was very fragrant but didn’t exactly taste fresh.
The tapioca was a dead giveaway that this tea wasn’t freshly made.
The pearls stuck together and were hard to chase down with the thick straw. They were also definitely a little on the tough side to chew.
Although I liked the taste of the tea, I wasn’t impressed by the drink’s overall quality. The lacklustre tapioca really sealed the deal: CoCo was not my favourite.
Next, I went to a Gong Cha kiosk in the nearby Fulton Centre New York City Subway. This Taiwanese chain has over 1500 locations in over 15 countries, and one of them is in this subway station-turned-food court.
Gong Cha website
One thing I noticed about Gong Cha was its use of Chinese mobile payment systems like WePay and AliPay. These signalled to me that a large portion of its clientele was likely mainland Chinese.
MEDIUM PEARL MILK TEA, $US4.25 — Gong Cha has gotten a lot of buzz lately for adding a cheese topping to its menu. However, I got a good old fashioned milk tea with tapioca pearls.
I was told that 70% sweetness is standard, so I ordered 70% sweetness. However, Gong Cha’s 70% was much sweeter than CoCo’s 100% sweetness.
Everything about this drink had a lovely, delicate flavour. The milk tasted fresh, and the tea was slightly smoky.
The tapioca pearls were soft and chewy with a hint of sweetness. They tasted like they had been soaked or cooked in brown sugar.
Gong Cha’s tea was so much better than CoCo’s. I wasn’t sure how it could be beaten, but I still had five more chains to visit.
Third on my list was ViVi Bubble Tea in Chinatown. It was a cute, pink space that was somehow both messy and homey. According to the ViVi website, there are 70 branches across the US.
ViVi Bubble Tea website
MEDIUM BLACK MILK TEA WITH PEARLS, $US4.08 —I can only theorise as to why there were eight cents tacked on to the price tag.
The number eight is a lucky number in Chinese, because the Mandarin word for eight, “ba”, sounds like the word for prosper, “fa”.
This tea also came out really quickly, so based on my earlier experience at CoCo, I was sceptical.
But the tea was very, very fragrant. It tasted like English Breakfast tea. It wasn’t too milky, and although it was very sweet, the sweetness level went with the tapioca pearls.
Although the tapioca pearls weren’t very sweet, they were the perfect texture: soft, chewy, and easily slurped up a straw. They also tasted slightly fruity.
I was surprised by how much I liked ViVi. The tea was unpretentious, but good in all the ways that matter.
The next shop on my list was Boba Guys, a bubble tea company founded by two Silicon Valley ping pong buddies. Boba Guys is the smallest chain on this list, with locations only in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but it has a dedicated following. Its menu also shows some Bay Area influence, with chocochata flavored tea and lavender chia seed toppings.
CLASSIC BLACK MILK TEA WITH TAPIOCA, $US4.75 — This was the only place that served my drink in a cup with a hard plastic cap instead of a classic pop-top. It took a little longer to come out, but it also came with the hope of higher quality.
Still, with all the hype attached, my first sip didn’t convince me this was better than ViVi or Gong Cha. Full sweetness was very, very, very sweet.
The boba were the highlight of this drink. They were chewy, fresh, and sweet, like little pieces of candy. Clearly, attention was paid to quality.
There was also less milk in this drink than at the other bubble tea places. The result was a drink that didn’t taste quite like traditional bubble tea, but that also tasted lighter and more refreshing.
The sweetness was heavy and bitter, like that of brown sugar. There was also a strong hint of honey, which I wasn’t sure about.
Although I liked this drink, I wasn’t sure it was worth the higher price. Despite the higher quality ingredients, the taste just didn’t quite hit the spot.
Fifth on my list was Kung Fu Tea, an American chain with locations all around the world in Australia, Canada, and Vietnam. It was founded by four friends who couldn’t find a decent bubble tea in the US and decided to take matters into their own hands.
Kung Fu Tea website
KUNG FU MILK TEA WITH TAPIOCA PEARLS, $US4.50 — I must confess, Kung Fu Tea and I have a history, and not a pretty one. When I was in college, a Kung Fu Tea opened up near campus. It was one of the only places to get bubble tea in town, but I remember the tea from that shop always being so poorly made I stopped going.
I’m glad to report that this experience was different. I found the tea to be really fragrant and flowery, and the boba, while not as fresh as some of its bubbly brethren, soft and chewy.
Sure, it still tasted like it was made from powder, but it tasted pretty good.
All in all, Kung Fu Tea was much better than I remembered. I’d definitely be willing to go back, but perhaps not to choose it over Gong Cha or ViVi.
When Taiwanese chain Tiger Sugar opened its first New York location, there was a line around the block for days. Tiger Sugar is famous for its brown sugar syrup, which forms tiger-like stripes down the side of the cup. It actually doesn’t have tea in it, just milk. I found this out after I tried it.
Tiger Sugar has its own cult, as well as a specific way to enjoy the drink. Step 1: take pics. Step 2: shake.
BLACK SUGAR BOBA MILK WITH CREAM MOUSSE, $US5.50 — Tiger Sugar was also more expensive than its counterparts. Although the shop offers several “series” of drinks, everyone got the same thing.
Disclaimer: this drink doesn’t have tea in it. Can it really be classified as bubble tea? It’s clearly modelled after bubble tea, as it’s a milky drink with tapioca pearls.
Tiger Sugar cooks its tapioca pearls in brown sugar syrup, so they’re densely sweet.
I shook my drink as instructed, but …
It exploded! What a disappointment. After all, if there are two steps to enjoying your drink, one of the two steps shouldn’t result in profuse milk splatter.
But Tiger Sugar quickly redeemed itself with the luscious taste of its drink.
The boba was the softest and chewiest of the bunch. Although they tasted of rich brown sugar, they were surprisingly light.
Overall, the drink tasted dark and slightly bitter, as the caramelised brown sugar gave it most of the taste. Since it was topped with mousse, it was also remarkably creamy.
Although I wasn’t a fan of the overall Tiger Sugar experience, my drink was undeniably of a much higher quality than any of the other drinks I had tried. I had to admit that it was worth the hype.
Finally, I headed to Yi Fang Taiwan Fruit Tea, a Taiwanese chain specializing in fruit teas. The shop in Chinatown was the cutest of the bunch, sparsely but gracefully decorated with a mix of traditional and modern decor.
BROWN SUGAR MILK TEA, $US5.99 —My tea at Yi Fang was the priciest one yet. It came in beautifully minimalist packaging, although it was iced, unlike the brown sugar milk at Tiger Sugar.
The owner told me to “shake well” before drinking.
After it was shaken, my brown sugar milk tea looked just like any old bubble tea.
The tea was way less milky and sweet than most of the teas I’d had, and the flavour was pleasantly light.
However, these were the softest pearls I’d had yet. They were wonderfully sweet, but they were so soft they weren’t even chewy, which was a big minus for me.
Yi Fang’s drink wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as complex or well-textured as some of its competitors. And its higher prices didn’t work in its favour. Next time I go there, I’ll try the fruit tea it’s famous for.
The drink that stood out to me the most was Tiger Sugar’s. Its boba were absolutely perfect in every way, and the brown sugar milk was delightfully rich. However, if you don’t agree that Tiger Sugar is bubble tea …
Gong Cha is the best of the traditional bubble teas. With delicate flavours and textures, Gong Cha’s milk tea is inviting and drinkable. Everything tastes fresh and flavorful, and a little something extra.
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