The Best Part of Boba Shops Isn’t Even the Tea
Taiwanese fried chicken, pork chop rice, and egg waffles often outshine milk tea and boba.
Boba shops are my church. I grew up in the town where the alleged first boba shop in America opened and have been visiting these tea parlors all my life. The colorful brewed tea with dozens of toppings to choose from—from spongy tapioca pearls soaked in brown sugar syrup to slippery egg pudding—has always been a beloved part of the boba shop experience. But my favorite thing about boba cafes is the food.
Stewed minced pork rice with soy sauce-infused tea eggs, crackly Taiwanese fried chicken dusted in orange chili powder and paired with crispy fried basil leaves, and cubes of brick toast with generous smears of peanut butter and condensed milk drizzles have always called to me. The beverages are just a bonus.
For Jace Wang, the founder of Tea Addicts in Seattle, this rings true. Growing up in Fujian, China, at the beginning of the boba boom, Wang would stop in at a convenience store next to school to pick up bubble tea, pairing the milky drink with Taiwanese sausage and popcorn chicken that was also stocked in the hot foods section. “I was stunned by how well the combinations went together,” he explains. “That was the very experience that made me decide to have Taiwanese street food on our menu.”
The menu at Tea Addicts is pretty traditional to boba cafe culture. There’s, of course, Taiwanese popcorn chicken, as well as fried tofu and french fries—both regular and sweet potato. Tea Addicts currently only has a single location, but just signed a lease for a new spot where Wang hopes to expand the menu. “We are currently looking at Taiwanese sausages, fried mushroom, tempura, and popcorn shrimp,” Wang relays. “You can expect a lot of things that you can find in Taiwanese night markets.”
Down the coast is Mr. Green Bubble, a collection of boba shops that dot the Bay Area—from San Francisco to Oakland to Menlo Park. “When we were developing our menu, we knew that it was more than just a drink—our identity [is] incorporated,” says Mr. Green Bubble manager Kimberly Dao. “We wanted to bring authentic Taiwanese street food snacks to [our customers] without the need to travel.”
Unlike Wang, Dao’s menu is more expansive and includes bento box meals, rice bowls, and dessert. There’s an ube and pandan mochi waffle, wheel cakes stuffed with taro, as well as Hong Kong-style egg puffs—although Taiwanese popcorn chicken is still the best seller.
To Dao, boba shops are more than just a place to grab a refreshing drink—as she has witnessed firsthand. “Many people spend their family days at a milk tea shop, catching up and spending quality time with each other,” she explains. “It’s no surprise that [we have] an after-school rush where you will see groups of students enjoying time together as their hang out spot, but [it’s still] comfortable enough for people to stick around and study.” Now that school is back in session, Dao notes an uptick of students visiting to play games and do homework—although many customers also visit on lunch breaks from their corporate jobs.
“We didn’t want to just serve teas because we want you to get the full experience of what you would get in Taiwan if you were to go to a milk tea shop,” Dao says.
“You can expect a lot of things that you can find in Taiwanese night markets.”
At Bopomofo Cafe in San Gabriel, California—a Los Angeles neighborhood that is inundated with boba shops—the food is less traditional, standing out among the sea of other tea cafes. “Boba places are a dime a dozen, there's so many,” explains Philip Wang, one of the cofounders of Bopomofo. “We do have food and it’s not just your typical stuff.” On the menu, you’ll find a honey walnut shrimp burger and tater tots drowned in spicy mapo tofu. (Though a more traditional family recipe for lu rou fan, or braised pork rice, does make the cut.)
“There was never any part of me that was like, ‘I'm going to make better beef noodle soup than the [auntie] down the street,” Wang laughs. “So, our approach was [that] we had to do something that literally you can’t find anywhere else.”
He was inspired by his own American-Chinese upbringing, describing Bopomofo’s food as ABC, or American-born Chinese. The mapo tofu reminds him of the home-cooked meals he’d have, while the tater tots are reminiscent of American cafeteria lunches. “For me, personally, as an ABC, I grew up appreciating both palates.”
Before living his dream of opening up a boba parlor, Wang, alongside his two college friends Wesley Chan and Ted Fu, began the well-loved filmmaking group, Wong Fu Productions (their YouTube channel boasts over 3 million subscribers). “When Wong Fu was becoming more of a thing, I remember going to boba shops to get work done, write scripts, meet with people,” says Wang even shooting videos at different boba shops around the San Gabriel Valley. “I only liked to go to cafes that had snacks—so from the very beginning of wanting to do a cafe, I was like, ‘Okay, for sure we’ll have food.’ And there was a part of me that was like, ‘I want to open up my own spot so I don’t have to ask for permission.’”
The irony is that Bopomofo is so busy now—with fans of Wong Fu waiting to catch a glimpse of Wang while picking up their orders—that closing shop for production is a huge inconvenience. And despite starting his own production company and shooting, directing, and creating hundreds of videos, he says that opening Bopomofo is the hardest thing he’s ever done in his life—in part due to the food.
“With boba, you can train anyone to do it. Whether they are good or not, there’s the variable. But the kitchen, it’s a full difference—people go to school for that.”
Despite the challenges, Philip views Bopomofo as a dream realized—and the snacks inspired by his American-Chinese upbringing play a huge role. “Through the videos and the films, we were able to nourish people emotionally,” Philip says. “I feel like this is us able to nourish them physically with actual food.”
The next time you find yourself at a boba shop itching for a milk tea, don’t forget to inquire about the food—it might just overshadow your drink.