Seattle's Child

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Bubble tea bests

Puffy Pandy taro bubble tea. Photo by JiaYing Grygiel

Bubble tea bests: Our family favorites

April celebrates these tea hot spots and the new Bubble Tea Trail

Despite growing up in Taiwanthe country where bubble tea was inventedCaroline Lee was initially not a bubble tea drinker. The creamer was too sweet; the high fructose syrup upset her stomach, and the milk tea didn’t even taste like tea.

Her teenage sons, on the other hand, loved the bubble tea shop right by their school in Issaquah. “I always warned them, ‘No, you don’t drink things like that; it’s not healthy,’” Lee remembers.

Lee didn’t want nonsense made from powders with a chemical aftertaste for her kids. So in 2015, she started her own bubble tea shop, Young Tea, focusing on quality ingredients.

“It’s a trendy drink. All the kids love it. Maybe I should step up and do something differently,” she remembers thinking. “I can make it yummy and healthy.”

Bubble tea began as a creative experiment in Taiwan in the ’80s and has exploded in popularity. Every year, more bubble tea chains from Taiwan pop up alongside local artisanal shops like Lee’s. There are over 5,500 bubble tea shops in the U.S. Washington has the fifth highest concentration.

Bubble tea bests

Meet Fresh milk tea with boba. Photo by JiaYing Grygiel

Bubble Tea Day Celebrations

Mark National Bubble Tea Day on April 30 with a bubble tea from one of the many terrific shops in the Seattle area. The University District, home to the city’s highest concentration of bubble tea cafes and restaurants, celebrates BobaFest on April 27.

According to Jeff Powell, spokesperson for Explore Seattle Southside, the city’s southernmost neighborhoods are home to 10% of the state’s bubble tea shops, That’s why the organization run by the Seattle Southside Regional Tourism Authority (RTA) recently launched the Bubble Tea Trail spotlighting nearly two dozen local businesses within three miles of Sea-Tac airport.

Participating in the Bubble Tea Trail is a three-step process:

  1. On your phone, go to the  Explore Seattle Southside webpage for the trail and sign up for a mobile “passport.”
  2. Your passport will be sent to you via text and email. No app is needed. Save it to your phone.
  3. When you visit a bubble tea spot on the trail, check in to receive points to win Explore Seattle Southside Bubble Tea swag—a T-shirt after four stops and a one-of-a-kind Bubble Tea Cup once you’ve hit all 22.

What exactly is bubble tea?

“Whatever drink you can put the bubbles in, you can call it bubble tea,” Lee says. “It’s a very wide-ranging description.”

The bubbles, called boba, are little black tapioca pearls at the bottom of the cup. They’re made from starch extracted from cassava root. It’s chewy, like gummy bears. The drink comes with an extra-wide straw so you can suck up the boba.

A traditional bubble tea is black tea mixed with milk and boba. But bubble tea also includes smoothies, fruit teas, or even milk without any tea at all. There’s something for everyone.

Bubble tea generation

Kaye Fan was a little girl in China, probably 5, the first time she tried bubble tea.

“I thought the chewy balls were a little weird, but they tasted good,” she remembers thinking.

She introduced her boyfriend, Athan Freitas, to bubble tea after the couple started dating. “He didn’t like it at first,” Fan says. “He was weirded out about the black balls.”

Spoiler: He’s since come around. Today, Freitas and Fan are co-owners of Dreamy Drinks, a mobile bubble tea truck covering King and Snohomish counties.

The toppings go far beyond brown sugar boba. Popping boba, grass jelly, QQ noodles, red beans, lychee jelly, coconut jelly, pudding… The combinations are endless, all with customizable sugar and ice levels.

Start with the classic

If you’re a newbie, a good starter order is the classic milk tea made with black tea, milk and boba, at 100 percent sugar and regular ice.

How much sugar is in a cup of bubble tea? Drinks vary between 20 to 30 milliliters of sugar, Fan says. A 22-ounce classic milk tea contains 30 milliliters of sugar. (In comparison, a 20-ounce Coke contains 76.5 milliliters of sugar.) If you don’t want your kids bouncing off the walls, you can always specify 50 or 75 percent sugar. You can also order a caffeine-free option, like a smoothie made with real fruit.

Our family’s favorites

In our family, we consider bubble tea a treat, meaning we get 100 percent sugar, but we don’t drink it every day. Here are my kid-tested, Taiwanese mom-approved favorite shops:

TP Tea

University District, Chinatown-International District

TP Tea, short for Taiwan Professional Tea, is our go-to for a bubble tea fix. In a neighborhood with multiple bubble tea shops within a few blocks, you can quickly pick out which one is best by the length of the line. The line at TP Tea is always out the door, and it is absolutely worth the wait.

Meet Fresh

Southcenter, Bellevue, Chinatown-International District

Like TP Tea, Meet Fresh is another chain from Taiwan. The bubble tea is delicious, and even better are the desserts that taste authentically Taiwanese. Meet Fresh is the only place we go for Taiwanese-style shaved ice, grass jelly with taro balls, and cold tofu pudding with peanuts.

Bobae

Kirkland, Woodinville, coming soon to Issasquah

The hottest item at this boba and coffee shop isn’t a drink, it’s a boba-filled donut that sells out if you don’t hustle. Husband-and-wife team Joey and Karma Lee make a point of using real, local ingredients, and the menu changes monthly.

Puffy Pandy

White Center

The giant panda looming over the storefront a dead giveaway Puffy Pandy is devoted to a certain fluffy black and white bear. This adorable dessert cafe serves bubble tea in addition to cream puffs, macarons and ice cream in Asian-inspired flavors. (Like White Rabbit!) Tons of panda merch available too, naturally.

Young Tea

Wallingford; Bellevue location opening this summer

Young Tea is a family-owned shop, not a chain. The milk tea here is exceptionally fragrant. Owner Caroline Lee prides herself on the quality of her tea leaves and not taking any shortcuts. The store’s most popular menu item is the signature milk tea with boba, but don’t sleep on the iron Buddha milk tea and red oolong milk tea with grass jelly.

Dreamy Drinks

Various locations in King and Snohomish counties

Dreamy Drinks, launched in 2019, is Seattle’s first bubble tea truck. The drinks are Insta-beautiful, and no wonder: co-founder Kaye Fan’s background is in industrial and graphic design. The pink truck is just coming off its winter break (January to mid-March); check online for its location schedule. Must tries: the strawberry matcha latte and taro smoothie.

Psst, a brick-and-mortar store in Marysville is in the works, likely opening in April.

Xing Fu Tang

Downtown Seattle

There is no fresher boba in Seattle. At Xing Fu Tang, the boba is cooked in a giant pot right in front of you, and the warm boba paired with an icy milk tea makes for a sensory delight. Drinks here are a bit pricey for the portion size. Just for fun, pull one of the Chinese fortune sticks at the entrance.

Oasis Tea Zone

Chinatown-International District, University District, Edmonds, Renton

Oasis is the OG bubble tea shop in Seattle. The first Oasis opened in 2001 across the street from the Chinatown-International District Uwajimaya, long before all the Taiwanese chains popped up. The vibe here is a hangout zone, with TVs, board games, and arcade machines.

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About the Author

JiaYing Grygiel

JiaYing Grygiel is a photographer and writer in Seattle. Find her on Instagram @photoj.seattle and at photoj.net.