“You should be excited,” my sister told me when I’d first made the decision to commit to UC Berkeley. “There’s a massive boba culture here!”
“Huh.” I had been fairly indifferent to that tidbit of information.
Maybe I should explain that indifference: There is an extreme level to how much I was able to take boba for granted in Taiwan. Boba had been a phenomenon since I was in elementary school, and nearly a decade after that initial explosion, it had faded into the background as something to take for granted. It simply did not occur to me that there would be a place without any boba to drink.
Let’s contextualize that. There is an intersection near where I live with no fewer than eight drink stores. This is all on one stretch of road, along which you can walk from one end to the other in less than a minute. That’s to say, the employees of one store can quite literally stare across the road to see the workers of another.
Of these stores, only two are relatively new, and they both replaced previous boba stores. Somehow, eight stores selling more or less the exact same thing, along the exact same stretch of road, is economically viable.
For perspective, imagine six more boba places down Telegraph Avenue between Sheng Kee Bakery and TeaOne.
Also, just to upset the average Berkeley boba addict, imagine that only at the fanciest of places does boba cost more than $3.
While I wasn’t able to go to all eight places (which would be a lot even for me), here are the five most popular ones, all major chain stores that can also be found all around Taiwan.
One of the two largest drink store brands in Taiwan, Coco generally has the cheapest selection of drinks, with the classic milk tea with boba going for just more than a dollar (35 NT). There’s no downplaying how prevalent Coco is: along with 50 嵐, Coco is the boba store you will repeatedly see all over Taiwan. Coco also has some of the most iconic drinks, such the Tropical Special (百香雙響炮), which is a local (and personal) favorite.
I’ve also found Coco to have some of the most friendly and cheerful staff, and its staff is probably the best-equipped to deal with tourists, as it is the store that most commonly has English menus. While it doesn’t have the best drinks by any means, Coco has the basic boba experience that everyone should have at one point or another.
And the clincher? There’s almost nothing on the menu that’s more than two dollars (60 NT).
Milk Shop (迷客夏)
Another store that has appeared throughout Taiwan in the past few years, Milk Shop is a step apart from all the other boba places. The name says it all: Milk Shop is unique in having milk-based drinks, having a much milkier flavor in its tea than is found at most other stores. This makes its drinks as a whole much less sweet, though that doesn’t detract from the overall experience. It also has some of the best boba, which has a special mix of chewy and sweet that is a perfect combination with the somewhat blander taste of milk in the drink. Their black tea latte with boba (珍珠紅茶拿鐵) is a must try. While a bit more on the pricey side, Milk Shop has a very unique subset of boba that I haven’t’ been able to find any equivalent to in Berkeley.
A curious, relatively new store that I only discovered in recent years, DaYung’s specializes in fruity variants of boba drinks. Its fruity vinegar drinks are a particular favorite. While I have some friends who love the cranberry vinegar, I personally prefer the apple vinegar variation, especially with boba. It sounds a little bit weird, especially as the original drink already comes with fruit jelly, but it’s a surprisingly good combination. It’s just that the store employees might look at you weird. DaYung’s has the slight negative of having some of the priciest drinks, actually approaching Berkeley prices, but the uniqueness of its menu makes it worth it for some special times to treat yourself!
One of the increasingly widespread chain stores that still hasn’t quite reached the status of being a household name, Presotea is still a fairly common sight in the streets of Taiwan. It’s a interesting store, one of the few stores that now provide “marbles” as a topping. The “marble” topping is a bit difficult to explain: It’s essentially just smaller boba balls, which give a peculiar texture distinct from usual tapioca balls. Presotea’s signature Panda Boba Milk Tea (熊貓珍珠奶茶) is a curious mix of both big and small boba, making for a particularly unique brand of drink.
Kung Fu Tea (手作功夫茶)
The only legitimately Taiwanese store I’ve seen in the States (apparently there are Coco stores in Los Angeles; also, no one there has ever heard of Sharetea), Kung Fu Tea has some of the best tea. The boba itself (the tapioca balls) is usually the biggest factor of drinking boba for me, and having good toppings can often cover for the drink itself not being so great. Kung Fu Tea doesn’t have that issue, with its tea reaching some perfect point without the two extremes of overly bland or disgustingly sweet and overflavored. It’s one of my favorite boba places to go to, as it is regularly able to make drinks that I never get tired of, with the only downside of there not being that many stores in existence.
Should you ever find yourself in Taiwan, be on the lookout for these iconic boba stores! While they might not all be stacked together along one block like this, each individual store still has its unique traits that make them all worth checking out!
Contact Jonathan Lai at [email protected] .